“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
After providing us with an extensive list of faithful individuals in the previous chapter, the author of Hebrews will now follow with some important conclusions here in chapter twelve…
“Chapter 12 contains three resources that encourage and enable us to run the Christian race with endurance. They are: the example of Jesus (vv. 1- 4), the assurance of the Father’s love (vv. 5-13), and the enablement of God’s grace (help; vv. 14-29).” (1)
So this chapter opens with a reference to those “heroes of the faith” who comprise this gathering of witnesses. In this context, the word “cloud” conveys the image of a great multitude. The “witnesses” are those who provide testimony regarding the things they’ve seen or experienced. This word-picture thus portrays a large contingent of faithful individuals who serve to inspire and motivate God’s people today.
One question that often arises from this passage is this: “Can this cloud of witnesses view events on earth today much like a group of spectators in a stadium?” Two sources address that question from opposing perspectives…
“The fact that Hebrews 12:1 says, ‘We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,’ just after an entire chapter spent on the discussion of the faith of Old Testament saints who had died (Heb. 11) and the fact that the author encourages us to run the race of life with perseverance because we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses both suggest that those who have died and gone before have some awareness of what is going on in the earth. Scripture says very little about this, probably because it does not want us to pray to those who have died or to contact them in any way (note Saul’s great sin in 1 Sam. 28 :7-25). Nonetheless, Hebrews 12:1-2 does give us this slight hint, probably as an encouragement to us to continue also to be faithful to God as were those who have died and gone to heaven before us.” (2)
“The deceased people of chap. 11 give witness to the value and blessing of living by faith. …The great crowd is not comprised of spectators but rather is comprised of ones whose past life of faith encourages others to live that way (cf. 11:2, 4, 5, 33, 39).” (3)
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD, Notes on Hebrews 2023 Edition “3. The consequences of apostasy 12:25-29” [12:28-29] https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/hebrews/hebrews.htm
(2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, Ml: Zondervan Academic, 2020)
(3) John F. MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), Heb 12:1
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).
On one level, we might associate this passage with the image of a stadium that is filled with heroes of the faith who cheer us on as we run “…the race that God has planned for us” (NLV). However, we should also consider the possibility that these examples are given to us for a different purpose.
For example, if a reckless, alpha-male (Samson), a frightened, reluctant warrior (Gideon), a prostitute (Rahab), a son of a prostitute (Jephthah), and two men who were guilty of pre-meditated murder (Moses and David) can be counted among these members of the “faith hall of fame,” then we can as well. As one source observes, “It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them- for encouragement. They have borne witness to the faithfulness of God…” (1)
In light of this, we are encouraged to “…throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles… [and] run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (NIV). This illustration was just as familiar to ancient audiences as it should be to modern-day readers of this epistle. Just as today’s professional athletes train with weighed equipment, runners of the first century also trained with weighted attachments that were removed prior to competition.
This athletic imagery should prompt us to consider those spiritual weights that may restrict our growth in Christ today. While such hindrances might take the obvious form of sinful behavior, there may be other possibilities as well. For instance, something that is ordinarily good might easily devolve into something bad if it prevents us from moving forward on God’s agenda for our lives. Jesus provided us with a few such examples in His parable of the sower…
“…they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).
Therefore. “‘The Christian runner must rid himself even of innocent things which might retard him. And all that does not help, hinders. It is by running he learns what these things are. So long as he stands he does not feel that they are burdensome and hampering.’” (a) Thus, the word ‘weight’ has the idea of ‘encumbrance.’” (2)
(1) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 346]
(2) (a) Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. “Commentary on Hebrews 12”. The Expositor’s Greek Testament [Hebrews 12:1]. Quoted in, Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 11:1) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [Hebrews 12:1]
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us” (Hebrews 12:1 NET).
Our look at Hebrews 12:1 continues with an analysis of the weights or encumbrances mentioned in this verse…
“The weight (Gr ogkos—used only here) refers to that which impedes or burdens by weighing one down. For a runner it could either refer to clothing or his own excessive body weight (Hughes, pp. 519–520). Obviously, for the Christian it would involve not wicked but weighty things. It would include anything that could hinder his effectiveness for service.
These are not things which are inherently wrong, but for the diligent runner or the faithful Christian they are an impediment that must be removed. The Christian is not allowed to be selective regarding these weights; he will remove them. He must put off every weight. Whatever does not aid in the race is a weight and must be cast aside.” (1)
Another source adds, “It may well be that what is a hindrance to one entrant in this spiritual contest is not a hindrance to another; each must learn for himself what in his case is a weight or impediment.” (2)
This brings us to the reference to “sin” within this passage. It’s probably safe to say that most people associate the word “sin” with something bad or wrong. However, the Biblical definition of sin also conveys the image of “missing the target,” much like an archer who fails to hit a designated mark. As mentioned earlier in our look at Hebrews chapter nine, sin involves a failure to live up to the perfect standard that God established when He created humanity.
Hebrews 12:12 reminds us that sin is capable of “easily entangling” those who engage in it. We can illustrate this idea with the image of a bola, a weapon used by the indigenous peoples of North and South America. A bola served as a hunter’s weapon and comprised two or more lengths of cord that were tied together. Each cord was then secured with a weight on the other end. A hunter used a bola by throwing it to entangle the legs of his prey and immobilize it.
In one sense, sin is like a bola, for it serves to entangle and incapacitate its victim. Thus, we are encouraged to “…strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, and especially those sins that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up” (TLB).
Image Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
(1) Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, eds., KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 2575.
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 349]
“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us” (Hebrews 12:1 HCSB).
While our natural, God-given talents and abilities are good and beneficial, we should always be alert to the potential influence of sin in those areas. Just as a cross-country runner must be attentive to the obstacles that lay ahead, we should humbly acknowledge our personal strengths and prayerfully assess the vulnerabilities they may present.
Those who come to Christ later in life should also be alert to the presence of detrimental thoughts, attitudes, memories, and/or behavior patterns that may have developed earlier. Since Hebrews 12:1 associates the Christian life with a race (as opposed to a sprint), this passage reminds us that an attitude of patient endurance may be required to overcome such things in Christ.
Finally, we should recognize our potential faults and weaknesses and their potential to allow sinful behaviors to gain a foothold in our lives. Just as a tenacious weed may exploit a fissure in the surface of a rocky cliff to germinate and grow, sin may also exploit those faults that may exist within our character. Israel’s king David touched upon this concern in Psalm 139…
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
These prayerful self-evaluations may be challenging, for they often compel us to face difficult and unpleasant truths about ourselves. However, we should note that professional athletes, business executives, and those from other walks of life must also engage in various types of self-assessments in order to grow and improve. Therefore, we would do well to take the initiative in following David’s example in this passage from Psalm 139.
This approach also finds Biblical support in the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians…
“But if we evaluated and judged ourselves honestly [recognizing our shortcomings and correcting our behavior], we would not be judged. But when we [fall short and] are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined [by undergoing His correction] so that we will not be condemned [to eternal punishment] along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31-32 AMP).
Hebrews 12:1 thus prepares us to approach the subject of God’s discipline that occurs later in this chapter. Therefore, we would be well-advised to consider the following admonition…
“Each of us has habitual ‘besetting sins’ we find it hard to imagine living without. Such sins are idols. We shall strive against such sins throughout life on earth, but they are the individual sin-challenges that God puts before each of us. Working on your besetting sin is the particular project God has given you.” (1)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (1994). Before the face of God: Book 4: A daily guide for living from Ephesians, Hebrews, and James (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House; Ligonier Ministries.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV).
As we close our look at Hebrews 12:1, we will take a moment to consider this reference to “…the race marked out for us.“ This terminology implies that every individual Christian follows a personalized spiritual course that is specifically designed for him or her. While there may be similarities in our individual courses, every race is held on a different track, so to speak.
We can gain further insight into this concept with a brief survey of Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. That parable relates the account of a landowner who went out very early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He then hired additional laborers at 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. When evening came, the landowner instructed his manager to pay the laborers for their work. He then provided a day’s wage to each worker, even those who were hired late in the day.
The workers who were hired first then began complain about their compensation. However, the landowner was ready with his response…
“…’Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13-15 NET).
For application purposes, we might say that our personal vineyard is comprised of the life and work that God has given us. The tools of our trade include the talents, skills, abilities, and/or opportunities that God has provided. Just as every human being is different, so is the type and volume of work that God has given us in our individual vineyards.
Because of this, we may be tempted to look at others’ vineyards to offer suggestions, criticisms, ideas, or opinions regarding what they ought to do. To be fair, this may be appropriate if God has placed us in a supervisory capacity, or if we encounter a teaching or behavior that is clearly misaligned with God’s Word. Nevertheless, it is usually best to focus upon our own “vineyard” and the work that God has given us. (1)
It is often difficult to produce quality work for Christ when we are focused on the work of others. Since God has marked out an individual plan for every man and woman of God (as implied here in Hebrews 12:1). we would do well to concentrate upon those areas of responsibility He has assigned to us.
(1) Also see Paul the Apostle’s comment to the Corinthian church in 2 Corinthians 10:13
“looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
The Biblical “heroes of the faith” mentioned earlier in Hebrews chapter eleven serve to challenge, inspire, and motivate us to follow God’s path for our lives. Undoubtedly, there are some who choose to approach the challenges they encounter along that path with a determination to simply “do better” in those areas where they may be falling short. But much like a New Year’s resolution that falls by the wayside, that approach is destined to fail.
The solution is to look unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith, as we’re told here in Hebrews 12:2. Just as the ancient Magi fixed their gaze upon the Star of Bethlehem to guide them to their destination, we can stay the course of God’s direction for our lives if we continually focus upon Christ.
While the faithful men and women of Hebrews chapter eleven encourage us to live a life of faith, Jesus enables us to live a life of faith. Since Jesus is one upon whom “…our faith depends from beginning to end” (GNB), we are empowered to live faithfully as we look to Him. The Apostle Peter once discovered the importance of this truth in a dramatic fashion.
After feeding thousands of people with two fish and five loaves of bread, Jesus sent His disciples across the Sea of Galilee on the way to their next destination while He dismissed the crowds. It was later that night when Jesus walked across the surface of the water and approached the disciples as they struggled to navigate against a boisterous wind. The disciples were understandably terrified at this sight, but Jesus moved quickly to reassure them: “Don’t worry! It’s me! Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 14:27 ERV).
That led Peter to make a request: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Jesus granted Peter’s request, but shortly after Peter left the boat, he began to sink beneath the waves as he grew fearful of the tumultuous winds. It was then that “…Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
Peter’s experience thus serves as an object lesson that should encourage us to “…focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith” (GW).
“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 KJV).
One Biblical scholar draws our attention to the significance of the word “author” in this passage…
“The word ‘author’ is the translation of archegon… The word is made up of ago ‘to lead,’ and arche, ‘the first.’ The compound word means ‘the chief leader, one that takes the lead in anything and thus furnishes the example.’” (1)
Thus, we can say that Jesus stands at the starting line as we begin the course of faith that God has set before us and awaits us as we reach the finish line. As a merciful and faithful high priest who has been made like His brothers and sisters in every way, we can look to Him for strength and encouragement as we traverse the curves, obstacles, and hazards we encounter over the course of our lives.
This passage also offers insight into Jesus’ mindset during the period of His earthly ministry: “He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him…” (CEB). So Jesus viewed His crucifixion as more than just a sacrificial offering; instead, He endured the shame of the cross with an eye towards the joy that awaited Him.
However, that joy was not for Jesus’ benefit alone…
“It is not difficult to trace an affinity between the joy of which our author speaks here and the joy to which Jesus Himself makes repeated reference in the upper room discourses of the Fourth Gospel. He tells His disciples there of His desire that His joy may be in them, so that their joy may be complete (John 15: 11; cf. 16:20, 21, 22, 24); and in His high-priestly prayer He asks the Father ‘that they may have my joy made full in themselves’ (John 17: 13).
So here, ‘the joy that was set before him’ is not something for Himself alone, but something to be shared with those for whom He died as sacrifice and lives as high priest.” (2)
So “the author and finisher of our faith” endured the cross for the joy of others, as well as Himself. Finally, Jesus emphasized the practical aspect of His work on the cross in some of His last words to His disciples…
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 12:2) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(2) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 353]
“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV).
Although crosses are often sold as various forms of jewelry in many areas of the world, some who display crosses in this manner may be unfamiliar with the shame that accompanied the act of crucifixion. In Jesus’ case, the humiliation inflicted upon Him began long before He reached the site of His crucifixion…
“Then the soldiers led Him away into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison. And they clothed Him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on His head, and began to salute Him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Then they struck Him on the head with a reed and spat on Him; and bowing the knee, they worshiped Him” (Mark 15:16-19).
The Praetorium served as the place of residence for the Roman troops in that area. It was there that the soldiers in charge of Jesus mocked His kingship by spitting upon Him and dressing Him in purple, the color of royalty. These men created a crown made from thorns in a caricature of sovereign authority and gave Him a cane to serve as a kind of “royal scepter.” An entire garrison of soldiers witnessed this humiliating scene.
“They took Jesus therefore, and He went out bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha” (John 19:17 RSV).
Regarding the act of crucifixion, one source makes the following observation: “Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering. It was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution and usually was reserved only for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the vilest of criminals.” (1)
Yet now we’re told, Jesus “…is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne” (NLT). One source explains this imagery behind this reference…
“…the idea being that He, after His work of providing a salvation was finished, sat down, and remains seated. He need never arise and repeat His work on the Cross for sinners. It is a finished work. He is not only seated, but He occupies the position of preeminence, at the right hand of God.” (2)
(1) “Christ Died Quickly On The Cross” William D. Edwards, quoted in “The Book Of Jesus” edited by Calvin Miller pg 388
(2) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 12:2) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3).
Like any good leader, Jesus is someone who leads by example. For instance, we would do well to consider the various acts of hostility that were inflicted upon Jesus whenever we face conflict with others. Those examples run like a thread throughout the New Testament gospel of John…
“Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
“After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him” (John 7:1).
“[Jesus said] I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you” (john 8:37).
“Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (John 8:59).
“Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, ‘Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?’ The Jews answered Him, saying, ‘For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God’” (John 10:31-33).
“The Jews answered [Pontius Pilate], ‘We have a law, and according to our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God’” (John 19:7).
Some of our conflicts may grow out of relationships with disagreeable spouses, antagonistic co-workers, unreasonable employers. disruptive neighbors, or contentious family members. Others must deal with the hostilities imposed by government entities, business organizations, religious movements, or groups that are averse to Christianity.
When such things occur, we would be wise to “Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up” (CEB). We might also consider Jesus’ cautionary message from John 15:20: “Do you remember what I said to you, ‘The servant is not greater than his master’? If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you as well, but if they have followed my teaching, they will also follow yours” (Phillips).
Thus, as one source concludes, “…if we would look to Christ’s example instead of looking at our own afflictions, we would not become so weary or fainthearted. Are you unhappy over your sacrifice? Take a new look at His!” (1)
(1) Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, eds., KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 2576.
“For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3 HCSB).
No matter how difficult life becomes, we can be secure in knowing that Jesus is familiar with the problems and issues we face. For instance, what if we were to compare the pressures of our lives to Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane? Remember that it was there where His perspiration became like drops of blood as he prayed and contemplated the immediate future that awaited Him. Thus, it seems unlikely that our challenges exceed the struggles Jesus faced in respect to His approaching crucifixion.
A few minutes spent with a work such as Foxe’s Book Of Martyrs may also bring a fresh perspective to our view of the stresses we experience in life. This is important when we consider the natural human tendency to magnify the intensity of our personal struggles. The standard we use to measure their severity influences the accuracy of our perception.
This is not to say that our challenges are insignificant, or illusionary. Nor does it mean that we should ignore the problems we experience in life, or pretend they don’t exist. Instead, we can ensure that we accurately assess such things when we measure them against the example Jesus set for us.
The New Testament epistle of 1 Peter approaches this idea from a different perspective…
“For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21 NET).
Much like a weary athlete who continues to press on towards the finish line, the knowledge that Jesus has set an example for us helps provide us with the proper mindset. The Apostle Paul also touched upon this idea in his letter to the Galatian church: “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9).
Paul echoed a similar theme in his letters to the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica as well…
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
“But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
Therefore, we can find strength in the counsel given to us here in Hebrews 12:3 whenever we grow weary of the trials and oppositions we encounter.
“You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4).
The members of the original audience for the Biblical book of Hebrews had undoubtedly suffered for their decision to follow Christ. Yet none had “…resisted to the point of bloodshed” (NET). The implication carried over from the previous verse is clear: “If you are becoming weary and discouraged, consider what Jesus endured. You have not yet suffered bloodshed, as He suffered on our behalf.”
So, the author of Hebrews encouraged the members of his original audience (and modern-day readers by extension) to expand their perspective beyond their personal hardships and discouragements. In the words of one Biblical scholar, “The readers have known persecution, but nothing as serious as what Jesus suffered, or indeed, what has been cataloged in 11:35–38. It is not time for them to think of giving up.” (1)
The following excerpt from the New Testament Gospel of Mark details a portion of Jesus’ experience that can help us put our afflictions in the proper perspective…
“Pilate wanted to please the crowd, so he set Barabbas free. Then he ordered his soldiers to beat Jesus with a whip and nail him to a cross” (Mark 15:15 CEV).
With Pilate’s authorization, the Roman military personnel in charge of Jesus whipped Him repeatedly in advance of His crucifixion. Roman soldiers generally administered this beating (variously referred to as a scourging, or flogging depending on the translation), as part of a criminal sentence.
A “scourge” was a type of whip that was comprised of a wooden handle with multiple lashes or strips of leather. Sharp-edged pieces of bone, metal, and/or lead were commonly attached to these lashes. During this process, the condemned prisoner was first stripped of his clothes. His hands were then tied above his head to a support column. Two soldiers (called lichtors) then positioned themselves on either side of the prisoner and took alternate turns whipping the victim. In doing so, the embedded objects within the scourge slowly tore into the prisoner’s body, removing small bits of flesh with every strike.
The act of scourging a convicted criminal was primarily designed to eliminate his ability to resist the act of crucifixion. This horrific form of punishment continued until the prisoner was close to death. While the Jewish people were limited to thirty-nine lashes in scourging a prisoner, (2) the only condition placed upon a Roman lichtor was that the prisoner had to be kept alive to carry his cross to his place of execution.
(1) R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 2218.
(2) See the historical reference in 2 Corinthians 11:24
“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4 ESV).
Hebrews 12:4 draws a comparison between the sufferings inflicted upon the members of the original audience for this epistle and those that were inflicted upon Jesus. The Gospel of Mark offers an account of the suffering Jesus endured before He reached the cross…
“They put a purple cloak on him and after braiding a crown of thorns, they put it on him. They began to salute him: ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Then they knelt down and paid homage to him” (Mark 15:17-19 NET).
In a grotesque parody of a golden crown worn by a king, the soldiers guarding Jesus placed a crown made from the branches of a sharp thorny plant upon His head prior to His crucifixion. Mark’s Gospel also tells us that the Roman soldiers struck Jesus repeatedly on the head during this time. This act was certain to produce severe bleeding as the crown of thorns was driven into His scalp.
Although the Gospels do not provide us with an extensive physical description of Jesus’ condition during this time, that may be due to the fact that this information was detailed prophetically in advance…
“I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
“…His visage was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men” (Isaiah 52:14).
But these things were just a prelude to Jesus’ actual crucifixion…
“And when they crucified Him, they divided His garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take” (Mark 15:24).
A condemned prisoner was typically stripped of his clothing upon arrival at the site of his crucifixion. He was then bound with ropes or nailed to the crossbar (or “patibulum”) he carried to his execution. Those who were nailed to their crosses (as Jesus was), were typically secured with large spikes that were approximately seven inches (18 cm) long, and 1/3 inch (.75 cm) wide at the head. These spikes were likely driven into the wrist area at the base of the hand. After this, the crossbar was fastened onto a vertical pole (or “stipe”). Finally, the victim’s feet were nailed into the vertical portion of his cross.
While these descriptions are painful to read, the author of Hebrews encourages us to bring these facts to our remembrance to help in maintaining the right perspective on the sufferings we endure.
“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4).
In context, this reference to “shedding your blood” refers to the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. We can find an echo of that awful form of death in the modern-day word “excruciating.” This word is used to describe an exceedingly painful condition and finds its origin in a word that means “of the cross.” (1)
Despite our natural reluctance to engage this difficult topic, a comparative look at Jesus’ death can help us measure the true severity of our own life experiences. For instance, consider the fact that a crucified prisoner had to push himself up against the nail that held his feet in order to breathe as he hung upon his cross. If he failed to do so, death by suffocation would result. Crucified victims also experienced severe thirst and muscular cramping. Blood loss was extensive, and the nails used in securing the victim generated severe pain from severed or irritated nerve endings.
One medical commentator makes some additional observations regarding the act of crucifixion…
“When the cross was erected upright, there was tremendous strain put on the wrists, arms and shoulders, resulting in a dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints… The arms, being held up and outward, held the rib cage in a fixed end inspiratory position which made it extremely difficult to exhale, and impossible to take a full breath.
The victim would only be able to take very shallow breaths (This may explain why Jesus made very short statements while on the cross). As time passed, the muscles, from the loss of blood, last of oxygen and the fixed position of the body, would undergo severe cramps and spasmodic contractions.” (2)
This is how the crucified spent their final hours of life. As another commentator bluntly observed, “Romans were grimly efficient about executions. Victims did not escape with their lives.” (3)
However, the Gospel of John adds an additional detail related to Jesus’ crucifixion: “…one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:32). One source alerts us to the significance of this detail…
“Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death.” (4)
(1) See “Excruciating.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/excruciating. Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
(2) Terasaka, David M.D. Medical Aspects of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ http://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/terasaka_david/misc/crucify.cfm Accessed 12 Apr. 2023.
(3) Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church [pg. 195]
(4) Edwards, William & Gabel, W & Hosmer, F. (1986). On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association. 255. 1455-63. 10.1001/jama.1986.03370110077025. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/19648788_On_the_Physical_Death_of_Jesus_Christ Accessed 11 Apr. 2023.
“And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son’” (Hebrews 12:5-6 NIV).
If this passage from Hebrews 12:5-6 seems familiar, it may be due to the fact that a similar concept appears in the Biblical books of Job and Proverbs…
“Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17).
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor detest His correction; For whom the Lord loves He corrects, Just as a father the son in whom he delights” Proverbs 3:11-12).
These references serve to prepare us for the next point of emphasis in the book of Hebrews…
“In the next section (5-24) the writer explains the meaning of suffering and hardship as the discipline (not ‘chastisement’ or ‘punishment’) of a loving Father (cf. 6), whose purpose in it is to educate (Gk. paideuein) his child. Thus in the case of the Christian, suffering is God’s educational process by which he is fitted to share God’s holiness (10).
It is a necessary element in the Father-child relationship as the writer establishes from his book of proofs- the OT (Prov. 3: 11 f.), and from the analogy of human parenthood (8-9). If you are not being educated you are not a legitimate son (8).” (1)
With these things in mind, this portion of Scripture encourages us to exercise discernment in respect to the difficult events that enter our lives. For instance, God may permit such experiences as a means of identifying an attitude or behavior that requires attention. Or perhaps He may allow the circumstances we encounter to assist us in developing character and perseverance. He might also use those developments to prepare us for the future.
Thus, it is important to recognize that every Christian is (or should be) enrolled as an apprentice in the “School of Christ.” Each grade level in this academic institution features a curriculum that is tailored to every individual student. While Jesus used this student-teacher analogy in addressing His followers on several occasions, there is a strong familial element that is present here in our passage from Hebrews. We’ll explore that aspect of our relationship with the Lord in greater detail next.
(1) New International Bible Commentary general editor G. C. D. Howley, consulting editors F. F. Bruce, H. L. Ellison. Copyright© 1979 by Pickering & Inglis Ltd [pg. 1529].
“Have you forgotten the encouraging words which God speaks to you as his children? ‘My child, pay attention when the Lord corrects you, and do not be discouraged when he rebukes you. Because the Lord corrects everyone he loves, and punishes everyone he accepts as a child’” (Hebrews 12:5-6 GNB).
One source defines this reference to discipline (CSB), or chastening (GNV) with a look at the original language of this passage…
“The latter word is paideia, which was used of the whole training and education of children. It speaks also of whatever in adults cultivates the soul, especially by correcting mistakes and curbing the passions. It speaks also of instruction which aims at the increase of virtue. The word does not have in it the idea of punishment, but of corrective measures which will eliminate evil in the life and encourage the good.” (1)
Unlike some who ascribe the negative events of life to the unpredictable elements of “luck,” “fate,” “chance,” or “karma,” there is no need for despair amid those circumstances. Instead, we can gain insight from these conditions by asking some important questions such as…
- What may God be seeking to teach me through this circumstance?
- What does my response to this situation tell me about myself?
- How can I apply this experience in the future?
However, there is another aspect of this passage that warrants our attention. You see, it is appropriate to consider any role we may have played in eliciting God’s correction in our lives. In other words, we should consider the possibility that our behaviors have prompted God to engage in an act of loving discipline. The Scriptures offer several admonitions in this regard…
“Some of the redeemed had been sitting in darkness and deep gloom; they were prisoners suffering in chains because they had disobeyed God’s instructions and rejected the Most High’s plans. So God humbled them with hard work. They stumbled, and there was no one to help them… Some of the redeemed were fools because of their sinful ways. They suffered because of their wickedness” (Psalm 107:10-12, 17 CEB).
“An evil man is held captive by his own sins; they are ropes that catch and hold him” (Proverbs 5:22 NLT).
“Have you not brought this on yourselves by forsaking the Lord your God when he led you in the way?… Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you” (Jeremiah 2:17, 19 NIV).
So while the Lord chastens and corrects us, we should prayerfully seek to ensure that we have not deliberately prompted those corrective measures. As 1 Corinthians 11:32 reminds us, “…when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.”
(1) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 12:5-6) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
“And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as His children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the LORD’s discipline, and don’t give up when He corrects you. For the LORD disciplines those He loves, and He punishes each one He accepts as His child” (Hebrews 12:5-6 NLT).
While the concept of “God’s discipline” may evoke any number of inferences, it’s important to consider the purpose behind the type of discipline mentioned in the passage quoted above. For instance, these disciplinary measures are designed to be corrective, not punitive. They are not motivated by a sense of retribution, but a sense of love and concern for the best interests of God’s children.
As mentioned in our previous study, these actions serve a specific purpose: “…we are judged and punished by the Lord, so that we shall not be condemned together with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). We should also note that Jesus made use of a related concept in John 15:1-5…
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you.
No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (NIV).
A good horticulturist knows that various trees or flowering plants must be pruned occasionally to ensure they remain strong and healthy. This process helps protect such plants from overgrowth and minimizes the potential for damage caused by insects or diseases. It also enables the plant to product higher quality fruit or flowers in greater abundance.
A familiar passage from the Biblical book of Galatians serves to identify the type of fruit God seeks to develop through this approach…
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV).
Therefore, we can find comfort, and encouragement whenever we experience God’s discipline in our lives. As Jesus reminded the New Testament-era church of Laodicea, “I am the one who corrects and disciplines everyone I love…” (Revelation 3:19 NLT).
“And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives’” (Hebrews 12:5-6 ESV).
As the author of Hebrews continues his exposition of Proverbs 3:11-12, we should note an important point of emphasis within this passage. Unlike a servant who lacks the familial bond that unites the other members of a household, this portion of Scripture employs the word “son” to identify those who are subject to the Lord’s discipline.
Jesus identified those members of God’s family in the Gospel of Luke…
“And it was told Him by some, who said, ‘Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it’” (Luke 8:20-21).
This brings us to something that warrants careful consideration: a person who can engage in sinful behaviors without any apparent repercussion is someone who should be greatly concerned. For instance, a father does not typically discipline a child who belongs to someone else. Therefore, anyone who can engage in Biblically inappropriate behaviors without apparent consequence might question his or her status as a legitimate son or daughter of God.
On the other hand, God may choose to discipline His sons and daughters to help facilitate their growth. We’ll discuss this topic at greater length in an upcoming study, but for now, let’s consider the circumstances that God might use for this purpose and how those circumstances may deepen our fellowship with Him.
For example, we may have experience with others who have been unfaithful to us in various ways. God has been through that experience as well. Perhaps we have graciously provided for those who were unappreciative of our efforts. God knows that feeling, too. Maybe we’ve been hurt by individuals who abandoned us when they had no further need for us. God is also familiar with that response.
Perhaps we know the weariness of interacting with those who will not do what they should unless they are given a specific set of rules to follow along with consequences for breaking those rules. God had to take that approach with His people as well. Finally, we may know the pain of a betrayal committed by someone who was once close to us. Jesus is all too familiar with that experience.
Deep camaraderie between individuals can only develop among those who have lived through shared experiences. Thus, we should recognize that God may have this objective in mind whenever we encounter His disciplinary efforts within our lives.
“If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons” (Hebrews 12:7-8).
It is often difficult to receive discipline and correction, and even more difficult to endure the circumstances that accompany them. As our author will observe later in this chapter, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful….” (Hebrews 12:11 CSB). But rather than view the subject of God’s discipline through the horizontal lens of our experience, what if we were to consider this matter from God’s perspective?
For example, the book of the Old Testament prophet Hosea directs our attention to the emotional component of God’s relationship with His people. Unlike those who view God as an impersonal authority figure, the following passage of Scripture characterizes Him as a gracious parent whose children were less than appreciative of His provision for their needs…
“The Lord says, ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him and called him out of Egypt as my son. But the more I called to him, the more he turned away from me. My people sacrificed to Baal; they burned incense to idols.
Yet I was the one who taught Israel to walk. I took my people up in my arms, but they did not acknowledge that I took care of them. I drew them to me with affection and love. I picked them up and held them to my cheek; I bent down to them and fed them’” (Hosea 11:1-4 GNT).
This passage reminds us that our view of God’s discipline should be tempered by our recognition of His love as a Father to His children. Those who seek to avoid the pain associated with the corrective circumstances that God allows to enter our lives may fail to acknowledge the loving motivation behind them. If we attempt to circumvent those lessons now, we may find that God will later enroll us in a far more rigorous course of study in the School of Christ.
These actions also reflect God’s investment in His children. While everyone is subject to the common trials that are typical of the human experience, some are open to the lessons that God seeks to communicate through such things while others reject them. With this in mind, we can say that a legitimate son or daughter of God looks for evidence of God’s tutelage in the circumstances of life as he or she seeks to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.
“Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?” (Hebrews 12:9).
This common-sense observation from Hebrew 12:9 is hardly new. In fact, the importance of loving discipline in the life of a child is a topic that stretches back to the Old Testament book of Proverbs…
“Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24 NLT).
“Discipline your children while they are young enough to learn. If you don’t, you are helping them destroy themselves” (Proverbs 19:18 GNT).
“To discipline a child produces wisdom, but a mother is disgraced by an undisciplined child” (Proverbs 29:15 NLT).
“If you correct your children, they will bring you peace and happiness” (Proverbs 29:17 CEV).
So if God’s Word promotes loving parental discipline in the life of a child, it should not surprise us when God adopts this approach in the lives of His people as well. For instance, an undisciplined child often reflects poorly upon his or her parents. Just as we respect a parent who properly administers loving discipline in the life of a son or daughter, so we should also respect the God who does so in the lives of His children.
That leads us to this reference to “…the Father of spirits” from this passage. This phrase appears here in Hebrews 12:9 but nowhere else within the New Testament Scriptures. As mentioned previously, the word “spirit” finds its origin in the word “pneuma” in the original language of this passage. A remnant of this word exists today in regard to a pneumatic tire, air tool, or gas. In a larger sense, this word is used to express the idea of a breeze, a gust of wind, an air current, or the act of breathing.
Much like the movement of air through various places, the spirit is also invisible and immaterial. Therefore, the word “spirit” is used to represent the intangible part of every human being that continues following the death of his or her physical body. Once that physical separation takes place, the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “…your spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7-8 NCV).
This passage thus serves to contrast our biological parents (who have disciplined and corrected us on a limited basis), with our heavenly father who always disciplines us with our best interests in mind. The following verse will explore that aspect of God’s discipline in greater detail.
“For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).
A child who has enjoyed the privilege of growing up in a home with a loving father often looks back fondly at that experience. Yet even the most loving human father is an imperfect father.
You see, a good parent rarely has all the information necessary to provide perfect guidance for a child. For example, there may be extenuating circumstances, or other factors that are beyond a parent’s knowledge. In fact, a child may sometimes exploit that lack of information to his or her advantage.
Parents are also limited by time. As children grow and mature, a good parent must constantly adapt to the changing needs of the child. He or she must account for the child’s growing knowledge (or lack of it), the child’s experience (or lack of it), his or her emotional characteristics, and any potential vulnerabilities the child may possess. As the child grows towards adulthood, a parent must then assume less of a supervisory role and more of a mentorship position in the child’s life.
Finally, a parent is also limited by his or her own fallibility. For example, a parent may find it difficult to separate his or her emotional involvement in a disciplinary situation. A good parent might also suffer from fatigue, various forms of stress, or other variables that may affect his or her capacity to discipline a child properly. These limitations help explain why the New Testament book of Galatians offers the following word of encouragement…
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord” (Galatians 6:4 NLT).
We can contrast these limitations with the infinite wisdom of our spiritual Father. Unlike an imperfect human being, God’s discipline is always perfect. It is never more or less than we need, and is perfectly tailored to the situation at hand. And while an earthly parent may have something less than a child’s best disciplinary interest in mind, God always “…disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (ESV).
Thus, we can distill this passage into one summary observation…
“Our earthly fathers may sometimes have been mistaken in their estimate of the discipline that we needed; our heavenly Father, in the perfection of His wisdom and love, can be relied upon never to impose any discipline on us that is not for our good. The supreme good that He has in view for His children is this, that they should share His holiness.” (1)
(1) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 359]
“Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
A good athlete, student, or musician knows that proficiency and achievement in those areas isn’t always easy. A person who seeks to excel in those areas must be willing to accept the challenges associated with instruction, study, practice, and correction. At best, a person who rejects those disciplines may fail to perform during a game, test, or concert. At worst, they may embarrass themselves (and others) when their lack of discipline is revealed.
The point is that a good athlete, student, or performer understands the importance of discipline and correction. The same holds true for our spiritual lives as well. However, there is another perspective to consider regarding this subject.
Imagine if you had a coach or a teacher who never trained, instructed, or corrected you. Think about the prospects for a student, athlete, or musician under the leadership of a coach or teacher who didn’t care enough to discipline those individuals to be their best. With this in mind, we can reasonably conclude that coaches and teachers who fail to instruct, train, and discipline the people who are entrusted to their care will not remain in their positions for very long.
A good teacher or coach will work to motivate, correct, and discipline a student or athlete to be the best he or she can be. The passage quoted above tells us that God does much the same in our spiritual lives as well. But just as an athlete or musician does not look forward to the prospect of a grueling practice session, the process of spiritual correction and discipline is rarely easy. Nevertheless, we can often see the positive changes God produces in us when He has completed that work.
We can turn to the Old Testament book of Proverbs once again to find support for this New Testament idea…
“To learn, you must love discipline; it is stupid to hate correction” (Proverbs 12:1 NLT).
“If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding” (Proverbs 15:32 NLT).
“Whoever stubbornly refuses to accept criticism will suddenly be destroyed beyond recovery” (Proverbs 29:1 NLT).
As our author reminded us earlier in Hebrews 10:38. “…the just shall live by faith.” Therefore, we should faithfully trust that God has a purpose behind those periods of spiritual discipline we experience and will ultimately bring something beneficial from them.
“Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12-13).
In keeping with the author’s practice throughout his letter to the Hebrews, this portion of Scripture contains an allusion to an important Old Testament idea. For instance, the call to action given to us in the passage quoted above draws upon an image that would have been familiar to the original audience for this epistle…
“Surely you have instructed many, And you have strengthened weak hands. Your words have upheld him who was stumbling, And you have strengthened the feeble knees” (Job 4:3-4).
“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:3-4 ESV).
Thus, the author of Hebrews made use of this imagery for the benefit of his readers, both ancient and modern: “Strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees refers to the readers’ need for renewed resolve and fresh strength in their struggles (cf. Heb 10:36-39; Heb 12:1-3).” (1)
So, much like an athlete who battles fatigue as he or she nears the end of a long-distance race, this passage encourages us to renew our commitment to finish the course that God has set for us. We can finish that course by continually looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, as mentioned earlier in Hebrews 12:1-2. There, we will find the inspirational motivation that we need to address the challenges associated with a life of faith and make a straight path for others to follow.
We’ll explore the significance of this imagery in greater detail in our next study. But for now, we can say that those who follow this counsel, “…understand that the circumstances of their lives are dictated by God who directs their destinies through His unfailing omniscience, and whose all-loving nature actively promotes their highest welfare” (2) We can also draw fresh encouragement from Paul the Apostle’s common-sense guidance to the members of the ancient church at Philippi…
“…I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us” (Philippians 3:13-14 TLB).
(1) NET Bible notes on Hebrews 12:12 https://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Heb&chapter=12&mode=print
(2) New International Bible Commentary general editor G. C. D. Howley, consulting editors F. F. Bruce, H. L. Ellison. Copyright© 1979 by Pickering & Inglis Ltd [pg. 1529]
“Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong” (Hebrews 12:13 NLT).
Much like a mineworker who extracts valuable ore from a productive mine, the author of Hebrews has consistently returned to the Old Testament (and the book of Proverbs in particular) to unearth important spiritual truths for his audience. In this instance, Proverbs 4:26 provides the underlying imagery for the “straight path” referenced here in Hebrews 12:13: “Carefully walk a straight path, and all your ways will be secure” (GW).
In a spiritual sense, we can “mark out a straight path” by prayerfully removing those obstacles that might cause us to deviate from God’s course for our lives. Those who do so receive a dual benefit. First, this approach minimizes the possibility that we might stumble as we travel the road that God has prepared for us. Next, it serves to protect the weaker or more vulnerable areas of our lives from injury (as represented by the word “lame” in the passage quoted above).
While “making a straight path” is relatively straightforward in theory, it is likely to be much more difficult in practice. For instance, this might require us to re-evaluate the relationships, activities, entertainment choices, or other pursuits that restrict our ability to follow God’s path.
In a larger sense, there are three primary obstacles that often inhibit our ability to follow this counsel. The first obstacle involves the pressures that are exerted upon us by a modern-day world that functions as if God did not exist.
We find the second obstacle in our own natural tendency to think and act in ways that are misaligned with God’s intent for us. The third obstacle lies in the form of a powerful, unseen spiritual enemy who seeks to overthrow the Creator and subjugate His creation. Taken together, these three obstacles are commonly known as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
The difficulties we encounter as a result of these common obstacles are often little more than variations in the time, place, and method of obstruction. Whenever we face such challenges, we would do well to remember the future that God has prepared for those who love Him. We should also remember Jesus’ own message of encouragement from John 16:33…
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 NIV).
While this verse implies that it may be impossible to live in peace with everyone, that should not prevent us from attempting to do so. For example, “living in peace with everyone” may sometimes require us to overlook faults, ignore slights (intentional or unintentional), and pardon others, even in those circumstances where they are clearly wrong.
You see, a God-honoring person who has been wronged must weigh their options in choosing how to respond. For instance, we may choose to retaliate against those who are responsible for our injuries. Or we can accept the fact that we have been wronged and prayerfully move forward. In other words, we can choose to forgive, or we can choose to pursue a different course. We can choose to reflect God’s mercy towards us in Christ, or we can seek to enforce our rights without regard for the way that choice might reflect upon Christ.
It has been said that it takes two to keep the peace, but a man or woman of God must not be the one who is responsible for breaking it. In certain situations, we might be well advised to simply “…put up with injustice” (HCSB) as we’re told in 1 Corinthians 6:7. Sometimes, it may be preferable to simply accept the loss (whether real or perceived) and move on.
The book of Romans offers another perspective to consider…
“Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19 NIV).
If we have been treated unfairly, this passage tells us that God will come to our defense if we permit Him do so in His own time and way. Of course, the challenge involved in taking this approach is that it often requires us to exercise (or develop) the qualities of patience, humility, and perseverance. This may explain why God sometimes chooses to allow such circumstances to enter our lives.
As one commentator concludes, “Thus in the case of the Christian, suffering is God’s educational process by which he is fitted to share God’s holiness.” (1) As Jesus also reminded us in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, “Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
(1) New International Bible Commentary general editor G. C. D. Howley, consulting editors F. F. Bruce, H. L. Ellison. Copyright© 1979 by Pickering & Inglis Ltd [pg. 1529]
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
As we continue our look at the subject of peace from Hebrews 12:14, we can turn once again to the Biblical book of Proverbs for guidance. The book of Proverbs contains a wealth of practical counsel that can help us manage conflict in a way that honors God. In fact, a look through this Old Testament book of wisdom reveals a surprising amount of content that is devoted to this subject.
For instance, consider the following passages and the insight they offer as we seek to “Pursue peace with all people“…
“A patient person shows great understanding, but a quick-tempered one promotes foolishness” (Proverbs 14:29 HCSB).
“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1 NLT).
“Hot tempers cause arguments, but patience brings peace” (Proverbs 15:18 GNT).
“When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7 ESV).
“Better to be slow to anger than to be a mighty warrior, and one who controls his temper is better than one who captures a city” (Proverbs 16:32 NET).
“Starting a quarrel is like opening a floodgate, so stop before the argument gets out of control” (Proverbs 17:14 GW).
“Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs” (Proverbs 19:11 NLT).
“Honor belongs to the person who ends a dispute, but any fool can get himself into a quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3 CSB).
“Patience and gentle talk can convince a ruler and overcome any problem” (Proverbs 25:15 CEV).
In addition, the New Testament book of James adds some additional insight: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:17-18). Thus, we are reminded of an important reality: if our vertical relationship with God is right, our horizontal relationships with others will benefit as well.
This does not mean that we are obligated to avoid conflict at all costs, or seek “peace at any price.” Nevertheless, we will be well on our way to a proper application of this verse if we consider what will make for peace in our relationships with others. While there may be any number of things that provoke irritation, annoyance, or hostility towards others, such feelings must defer to the counsel given to us in Colossians 3:15: “Let the peace that Christ gives control your thinking” (ERV).
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV).
The author of Hebrews has already issued several cautionary messages over the course of this letter. Now, as we approach the end of this great Biblical epistle, he issues one final warning: “…without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Unfortunately, the word “holy” is one that people often seem to use without concern for its meaning.
For instance, some use the word “holy” as part of an exclamation or expression of surprise. Nevertheless, those who use this phrase in a careless or disrespectful manner might be more hesitant to do so if they were aware of its true meaning.
You see, the word “holy” expresses the qualities of moral purity and ethical perfection, especially in relation to God. It also describes a person or thing that has been consecrated or set apart in a spiritual sense. When used appropriately, the word “holiness” conveys God’s moral perfection and complete separation from anything that is wrong, corrupt, immoral, or impure.
In light of this, a person who uses the word “holy” in a way that dishonors God’s sacred character is someone who should carefully weigh this admonition. However, this idea also encompasses other aspects of our spiritual lives as well…
“…we should remind ourselves that holiness is used of believers in at least three different ways in the NT. First of all, the believer becomes positionally holy at the time of his conversion he is set apart to God from the world (1Co 1:2 1Co 6:11). By virtue of his union with Christ, he is sanctified forever…
Then there is a practical sanctification (1Th 4:3 1Th 5:23). This is what we should be day by day. We should separate ourselves from every form of evil. This holiness should be progressive, that is, we should be growing more and more like the Lord Jesus all the time.
Finally, there is complete or perfect sanctification. This takes place when a believer goes to heaven. Then he is forever free from sin. His old nature is removed, and his state perfectly corresponds to his standing.
Now which holiness are we to pursue? Obviously it is practical sanctification that is in view. We do not strive after positional sanctification it is ours automatically when we are born again. And we do not strive after the perfect sanctification that will be ours when we see His face. But practical or progressive sanctification is something that involves our obedience and cooperation we must cultivate this holiness continually. The fact that we must follow it is proof that we do not fully attain it in this life.” (1)
(1) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary Edited by Arthur Farstad, Thomas Nelson Publishers [pg. 2286]
“Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 NET).
We have already seen a form of the word “holiness” earlier in Hebrews 10:10 where a related word was translated “sanctification.” In fact, there are several Biblical versions of Hebrews 12:14 that use the word “sanctification” in their translations of this passage. This provides us with an opportunity to revisit this important spiritual concept.
You see, the word “sanctification” conveys the idea of separation from sin and dedication to God. This is reflected in the following definition of this word: “the act or process by which people or things are cleansed and dedicated to God…” (1) Thus, the word “sanctification” and the related word “holiness” each serve to emphasize the qualities of devotion and consecration unto God.
These concepts are more important than they may appear at first glance. For instance, Romans 6:19 draws our attention to the real-life implications of these ideas: “…Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness” (NIV). So much like a stone tossed into a lake, these characteristics should produce a ripple effect that influences other areas of our lives.
As we examine our financial transactions, leisure activities, personal interactions, entertainment choices, online activities, and other endeavors of daily life, we might consider how closely those preferences are governed by these teachings from Hebrews 12:14 and Romans 6:19. Ideally, our internal separation and dedication to God in Christ should guide our external choices as we live in the midst of a fallen world.
Jesus also emphasized this internal-external relationship in a teaching from the Gospel of Luke…
“The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 NIV).
However, Jesus also reserved some of His strongest criticisms for those whose “holiness” was merely outward…
“Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28 NET).
So Hebrews 12:14 offers an important (and practical) reminder that will benefit us today and in the future, for “…without holiness no one will see the Lord” (NIV).
(1) New Dictionary of Theology, (Leicester/ Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1988) pg. 613
“looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
As we saw earlier in our look at Hebrews chapter four, “grace” involves God’s unmerited favor towards undeserving members of the human family. It represents God’s favor towards us without regard to our talents, skills, capabilities, possessions, and/or social standing. Since grace involves God’s unmerited favor, we cannot earn it by performing good deeds or adhering to a set of external rules or regulations.
In one sense, Hebrews 12:15 restates our author’s earlier concern regarding those who might draw back from a life of faith in Christ (see Hebrews 10:38). Paul the Apostle voiced a similar concern in the Biblical book of 2 Corinthians when he wrote, “We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
One commentator draws our attention to the sobering nature of these verses with some additional background information regarding this reference to “falling short”: “…[this implies] ‘a falling away from something previously possessed’ (cf. Heb. 6:4-6 10:23,38-39 12:25). Apostasy was a real possibility in this cultural situation… The warnings are serious, challenging, and real.” (1)
Since we cannot earn our way to a right standing with God through our efforts, God’s grace towards us in Christ enables us to enter a genuine, personal relationship with Him. However, we may fall short of that grace if we presume upon it to condone or dismiss Biblically inappropriate behaviors. In other words, God’s grace does not bestow us with a license to sin without impunity.
Paul addressed this subject in the Biblical book of Romans by way of a rhetorical question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1). His response to that question was direct and to the point: “That’s unthinkable! As far as sin is concerned, we have died. So how can we still live under sin’s influence?” (Romans 6:2 GW).
If we seek to continue in sin so that grace might increase, then “grace” becomes little more than an exploitation of God’s unmerited favor. Those who desire to test God in that manner might benefit from the following reminder: “Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows” (Galatians 6:7 NET). Therefore, we must see that we respond appropriately to the grace that God extends to us in Christ to ensure that we do not fall short of it.
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, Free Bible Commentary Hebrews 12 [12:15] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL10/VOL10_12.html
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15 ESV).
While the original language of the New Testament contains many nuanced words that may benefit from a closer analysis, the word translated “bitterness” in the passage quoted above is not one of them. Instead, this word is defined exactly as we might expect: “acridity (especially poison), literally or figuratively” (1) In addition to what we read here in Hebrews 12:15, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy made use of this idea as well…
“Make sure that no man, woman, family, or tribe standing here today turns from the Lord our God to worship the gods of other nations. This would be like a root that grows to be a bitter and poisonous plant” (Deuteronomy 29:18 GNT).
These passages illustrate an important principle: cultivating an intimate knowledge of God through His Word serves to align our thoughts and behaviors. As we draw closer to God through the Biblical Scriptures, we will surely find it to be “…alive 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” (NIV) as we read earlier in Hebrews 4:12.
In this instance, the penetrating nature of the Scriptures can help us identify some common roots of bitterness before we sow them. Some examples might include…
- Excessive negativity towards others.
- A sense of disapproval when others are blessed or successful.
- Holding grudges against others.
- Viewing the circumstances of life through a prism of the things we feel we deserve, but haven’t received.
- An overly defensive attitude.
- Recruiting others to sympathize, justify, and reinforce our bitter feelings.
- A desire to hold on to our sense of resentment instead of making changes that might help resolve the issues involved.
When faced with these rooted behaviors in our lives, we may prefer to rationalize or justify them. However, the corrective nature of the Scriptures will not permit us to take that course of action, for Hebrews 12:15 reminds us that such attitudes “…cause trouble and defile many” (NIV). If we do not wish to become a source of defilement for others, we will work to identify these behaviors (and others like them) as we prayerfully seek God’s help in addressing them.
As one source reminds us, “Bitterness is a characteristic of the ungodly (Ro 3:14) but should never characterize Christians (Ep 4:31-32 Jam 3:14-15).” (2)
(1) G4088 pikria Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g4088/kjv/tr/0-1/
(2) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes Hebrews 12:15 https://www.icr.org/bible/Hebrews/12/15/
“Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and by it, defiling many” (Hebrews 12:15 HCSB).
Have you ever tried to eliminate a weed by attempting to mow it down? While it may seem as if we have destroyed a weed through the act of mowing, most weeds are likely to reappear again after doing so. This annoying characteristic reminds us that we must destroy the roots of a weed in order to eliminate the weed itself.
Hebrews 12:15 uses the term “bitter root” to describe those weed-like attitudes that are sinful, unhealthy, and/or destructive. Just as bitter roots produce bitter fruit, such attitudes produce sinful, unhealthy, and destructive behaviors if left unchecked. For example, Ephesians 4:26-27 identifies one particular type of bitter root and the trouble that springs from it…
“If you are angry, don’t sin by nursing your grudge. Don’t let the sun go down with you still angry– get over it quickly for when you are angry, you give a mighty foothold to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27 TLB).
So anger represents a seed that might grow into a bitter root if we fail to deal with it properly. For instance, a God-honoring person knows that anger is an appropriate response if we are confronted with injustices that have been perpetrated against others. As we are told in another Biblical passage on the subject of anger, “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4).
Nevertheless, righteous anger can grow into sin unless we take the steps that are necessary to manage it properly. Our passage from Ephesians tells us that the right way to handle anger is to deal with it quickly before it has an opportunity to grow into an outburst of uncontrolled aggression. We can start that process by seeking God in prayer regarding the individuals or circumstances that anger us.
In doing so, we can approach God with complete honesty, secure in knowing that He is fully aware of our situation and the way we feel about it. God sees our circumstances with complete clarity, and He can help us deal with those circumstances constructively. But if we fail to take those steps, anger may produce a bitter root “…which is not only bad in itself but can also poison the lives of many others” (Phillips).
We should also recognize that bitter roots come in several varieties. The author of Hebrews will illustrate some of those varieties by re-introducing a Biblical personality from earlier within this epistle next.
“lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:16).
Hebrews 12:16 presents us with two behavioral characteristics that are unsuitable for those who claim to follow God in Christ. The first reference involves “fornication,” a word that largely seems to have fallen out of use among contemporary audiences.
The word “fornicator” is translated from the word pornos in the original language of this passage. As you might suspect, pornos is a form of the word from which we derive our modern-day word “pornography.” In a general sense, this word refers to sexual activity that takes place outside a Biblical marriage covenant. Here in Hebrews 12:16, it specifically addresses two unmarried persons who are engaged in a physical relationship with one another.
With this in mind, it may be difficult to see how this characteristic exemplified Esau, a man who appeared to be legally married (Genesis 26:34). To address that question, we should note that Esau’s wives were members of a people group known as the Hittites. As mentioned earlier, the Hittites were a tribal society that worshiped several different pagan gods during the Old Testament era.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that Esau had any interest in the moral character or spiritual beliefs held by these women before he married them. In light of this, it should not surprise us to learn that Esau’s wives made life miserable for his parents (Genesis 26:35). So while Esau may not have been guilty of physical immorality, we might say that he displayed a type of spiritual immorality. Unlike the positive example set by his grandfather Abraham, Esau demonstrated his spiritual indifference through his choice of marriage partners.
Esau also neglected the spiritual inheritance he possessed as the eldest son, for he sold his birthright for a morsel of food. Nevertheless, Esau’s irreligious attitude did not stop him from pursuing the material blessings that God made available through that inheritance. When Esau finally realized what he had lost in treating that heritage so carelessly, he expressed remorse, but did not acknowledge his need to repent.
In this respect, Esau fits the profile of someone who practices fornication. Much like those who seek the advantage of a sexual relationship without the encumbrance of a marriage commitment, Esau wanted the blessings God could offer without the commitment of a relationship with Him. Since “morality” describes what we ought to do, Esau’s spiritual immorality provides us with an example to avoid.
“Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright” (Hebrews 12:16 KJV).
In addition to this reference to Esau as a fornicator, Hebrews 12:17 also describes him as a “profane” individual. This word describes an irreligious person who holds little concern for his or her Creator and is disinterested in the things of God. While “profanity” is typically associated with inappropriate language, the word “profane” identifies someone like Esau, a man who conducted his life as if God did not exist.
The Amplified Bible uses the words “godless” and “sacrilegious” to add context to this description. The following commentary provides us with some additional insight into this passage…
“Beware of the profane person. This profanity (Gr bebelos) involves far more than one’s speech. It is a quality of one’s life. The author sees that quality exemplified within Esau, even though Esau was not a vile man. In fact, he was less of a crook than his brother Jacob. The author accurately focuses upon the one area that revealed Esau as profane—the selling of his birthright.
To profane is to regard something as unhallowed, to make something sacred to be common. Esau took that which God considered sacred and made it common. Being so totally concerned with his temporary and material needs, he gave them priority over his rights as the first-born son and his responsibilities as heir to the blessing of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 25:29–34).
Every Christian must beware lest he count as unimportant what God considers sacred. The result in Esau’s life was that afterward, when he wanted that blessing, he was rejected. He repented with tears, but the situation was irrevocable.” (1)
In light of these things, we should remember Jesus’ counsel from Matthew 6:33 as we prioritize the choices and decisions of life: “…seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” Judging from his decision to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew, we can say that Esau’s thought process was likely driven by questions like these…
- Does this seem right to me at this moment?
- How does this align with what I want?
- Does this meet my immediate need?
If we follow a similar decision-making process, we will surely imitate Esau’s poor example. As another commentator observes, “Esau is the biblical example of a profane person who forfeited the grace and blessing of God, an attitude common to hedonistic humanity even today (see Ge 25:29-34).” (2)
(1) Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, eds., KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 2578.
(2) Walters, John. “VII. Sixth Point: “Do Not Lose Heart” (12:3-13:19)” In Asbury Bible Commentary. 1166. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1992.
“For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:17 ESV).
We often think we know what’s good or best for us in life. But let’s consider those concepts for a moment. Things like “good” or “best” are only as reliable as the information they are based on. If more information becomes available later, then our idea of what is “good” or “best” may radically change. This explains why people are often heard to say, “If I only knew then what I know now…” after they’ve made a poor decision.
Esau likely expressed that sentiment as he endured the consequences that arose from the sale of his birthright. However, Esau was not the only person who was affected by that decision. The late author and apologist Norman Geisler alerts us to several important considerations regarding this verse and its reference to repentance…
“There are two important things to observe about this passage. First, the statement ‘no place for repentance’ may refer to his father’s inability to change his mind about giving the inheritance to Jacob, and not to Esau’s change of mind. At any rate, the circumstances did not afford Esau the opportunity to reverse the situation and get the blessing.
Second, tears are not a sure sign that a person has genuinely repented. One can also have tears of regret and remorse that fall short of true repentance or change of mind (cf. Judas, Matt. 27:3). Finally, this text is not talking about spiritual blessing (salvation), but earthly blessing (inheritance). God always honors the sincere repentance of sinners and grants them salvation (Acts 10:35; Heb. 11:6).” (1)
Much like an unrepentant thief who laments the fact that he or she got caught, Esau was deeply saddened by the loss of his inheritance. However, Esau’s sorrow did not prompt him to change his mind or behavior. Indeed, we’re later told that Esau comforted himself with the thought of killing his brother for what he had done. So even though Esau could not reverse the sale of his birthright, he never sought to learn from that decision by committing to honor God in his future choices.
We can thus conclude that Esau did not demonstrate the type of genuine repentance that is characterized by a change in mind that leads to a corresponding change in behavior. Another source ties these ideas together with an important application: “The author uses this as a warning to the recipients of the letter. He wants them to make a decision for Christ now while there is time and then to persevere in that new relationship with Christ because there is no second chance (cf. Heb. 6:6; 10:26).” (2)
(1) When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties [Hebrews 12:17] (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe.
(2) Dr. Bob Utley, Hebrews 12 [12:17] Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL10/VOL10_12.html
“For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears” (Hebrews 12:17).
Esau was the type of person who made decisions based on what seemed right at the moment. However, Esau’s example reminds us that what seems right may not be right. If our decisions are not informed by a God-honoring conscience, it may be difficult to distinguish between something that appears to be right, but is really something else.
For instance, Esau took advantage of the opportunity to exchange his birthright for a bowl of stew. But let’s look at the account of another Biblical personality who was given an opportunity that seemed even better. That incident occurred during a period when Israel’s King Saul was pursuing Israel’s future King David through the countryside in an attempt to end David’s life…
“At the place where the road passes some sheepfolds, Saul went into a cave to relieve himself. But as it happened, David and his men were hiding farther back in that very cave! ‘Now’s your opportunity!’ David’s men whispered to him. ‘Today the Lord is telling you, ‘I will certainly put your enemy into your power, to do with as you wish.’’
So David crept forward and cut off a piece of the hem of Saul’s robe. But then David’s conscience began bothering him because he had cut Saul’s robe. He said to his men, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do this to my lord the king. I shouldn’t attack the Lord’s anointed one, for the Lord himself has chosen him.’ So David restrained his men and did not let them kill Saul…” (1 Samuel 24:3-7 NLT).
David could have easily taken advantage of the opportunity to eliminate the man who was seeking to kill him. In fact, there were many who encouraged David to take that very course of action. But unlike Esau, David did not make his decision based on what seemed best at the moment. Instead, his God-honoring conscience prevented him from taking Saul’s life when he had the chance to do so.
Therefore, we would do well to remember the following counsel from the Biblical book of Proverbs: “There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death” (Proverbs 14:12 NLT). If we prayerfully seek to honor God and His Word as we consider our options, we can avoid choices that seem right at the moment, but later give us cause for regret.
“For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them” (Hebrews 12:18-19 ESV).
Just as we have seen throughout the Biblical book of Hebrews, our passage from Hebrews 12:18-19 carries a great deal of Old Testament symbolism. In this instance, our text from this passage chronicles God’s engagement with the people of Israel as He presented them with the Old Testament Law at Mount Sinai…
“On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently” (Exodus 19:16-18 NLT).
This imagery was undoubtedly familiar to the members of our author’s first-century audience. It also forms the basis for a comparison that will follow later in verse twenty-two. But for now, we can say that this awe-inspiring scene had a profound effect upon the people of Israel …
“When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear. And they said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak directly to us, or we will die!’” (Exodus 20:18-19 NLT).
Moses subsequently explained God’s purpose behind His appearance to the people in this manner: “…God has come in this way to test you, and so that your fear of him will keep you from sinning!” (Exodus 20:20 NLT). While the fear of God will certainly help keep us from sin, one type of fear is emotionally affirming while another type of fear serves a different purpose.
The first type of fear grows from our love and respect for Jesus and intimacy with God through His Word. Just as we are fearful of hurting those whom we love, our love for Christ should prompt us to fear those actions or behaviors that bring Him pain. The other type of fear grows from our reverence and recognition of God’s holiness and His position as the all-powerful, sovereign Creator who holds our lives in His hands. We’ll explore this latter aspect in greater detail next.
“For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking. They staggered back under God’s command: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.’ Moses Himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling’ (Hebrews 12:19-21 NLT).
The Old Testament book of Exodus tells us that God’s descent upon Mount Sinai was accompanied by billowing smoke, fire, and a violent earthquake (Exodus 19:16-18). This was nothing like the elaborate pyrotechnic display that one might see at a concert, sporting event, or theatre presentation. Instead, this was terrifyingly real, and it had a profound effect upon those who witnessed it…
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’ The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:18-21 NIV).
To grasp the significance of this event, let’s consider the effect of that experience upon the senses of those who were in attendance….
- The people could see the lightning.
- They could smell the smoke.
- They could feel the earthquake.
- They could hear the thunder and the sound of the horn.
Those sensory experiences clearly had a deep emotional impact upon those who were there. Nevertheless, the context of Hebrews 12:18-21 emphasizes the temporal nature of that experience. This reference to Mount Sinai serves to express that idea, for while Mount Sinai may be large and foreboding, it will eventually meet its end, just like the covenant it represents.
Another important aspect of this passage is its emphasis upon fear. While fear can help us develop a reverent attitude toward God, it should prompt us to respond to Him with love and respect in recognition of His holiness. Unfortunately, the people of Israel had need of a different motivation…
“In Exo_20:18-21, when God had given the Ten Commandments, the people were afraid of God’s awesome holiness. They wanted Moses to mediate for them, fearing that if God spoke to them directly, they would die (Exo_20:19; Deu_5:25-27), for he came as a consuming fire (Deu_4:24; Deu_5:24-25). But God’s purpose was to scare enough sense into them to get them to stop sinning (Exo_20:20).” (1)
(1) Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary [Hebrews 12:19]
“the blast of a trumpet, and the sound of a voice. When the people heard the voice, they begged not to hear another word, because they could not bear the order which said, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling and afraid!’ (Hebrews 12:19-21 GNB).
The restrictions that accompanied God’s descent upon Mount Sinai even included the animals that inhabited that area. Any contact with the mountain in the midst of God’s presence meant certain death for the person or creature that did so. This produced a highly instructive response in the hearts and minds of the ancient Israelites…
“God had been very severe in His restrictions regarding even the slightest touching of Mount Sinai (Ex 20:18–21). If even a beast should touch the mountain, they were forbidden to touch the beast, but must rather immediately stone it or shoot it with an arrow.
Such stringent regulations did not produce a proper, positive response in the hearts of the Israelites. Rather, they entreated God to call the whole thing off; and instead, they spoke to Moses privately. The verb (Gr paraiteomai) could also be translated to require or to beg. More significantly, it can also mean to refuse, which is its translation only several verses later: See that ye refuse not him that speaketh (vs. 25).” (1)
When confronted with the reality of God’s presence, it appears there were some among the Israelites who preferred to maintain their distance from Him. It also prompted them to approach Moses to act as an intermediary on their behalf. However, Moses was facing a concern of his own: “Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling’” (NLT).
So Moses received a privileged invitation to approach God on Mount Sinai. Yet even though God’s presence was veiled by billowing clouds of heavy smoke, Moses was still afraid. This brings us to an important question: if Moses trembled at the prospect of approaching God on Mount Sinai, how much more shall it be for those who are unprepared to meet Him?
This passage thus illustrates the privilege we enjoy under the New Covenant. As the author of Hebrews reminded us earlier…
“…since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess… Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14, 16 NIV).
(1) Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, eds., KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 2578–2579
“By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22).
The Old Testament account of Joseph is fairly well-known, even to many who are unfamiliar with the Scriptures. For instance, some may know about the injustice that was inflicted upon Joseph when he was sold into slavery. Others may be acquainted with the account of Joseph’s ascendance to a prominent position within the Egyptian government. Perhaps some may be familiar with Joseph’s coat of many colors, or how he was determined to honor God despite the seductive advances of his employer’s wife, a decision that eventually sent him to prison on false charges.
Despite these well-known aspects of Joseph’s life, his final act of faith may be less familiar. That account is easy to find because it is the very last thing we read in the Biblical book of Genesis…
“‘Soon I will die,’ Joseph told his brothers, ‘but God will surely come and get you, and bring you out of this land of Egypt and take you back to the land he promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Then Joseph made his brothers promise with an oath that they would take his body back with them when they returned to Canaan. So Joseph died at the age of 110, and they embalmed him, and his body was placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:24-26 TLB).
This portion of Scripture tells us that Joseph never received a final burial following his death in Egypt. Instead, his coffin remained there for approximately four hundred years until the nation of Israel carried it out with them when they departed from that area…
“Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place’” (Exodus 13:19 NIV).
So how did Joseph know this exodus would occur? Well, the answer is given to us here in Hebrews 11:22: Joseph believed the words God had spoken to his great grandfather Abraham by faith…
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions… In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here…” (Genesis 15:13-14, 16 NIV).
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:22 ESV).
To the author of Hebrews, Mount Zion was more than just a physical location. Just as Mount Sinai serves to represent the Old Covenant, Mount Zion serves to represent the New Covenant, the realm of heaven, and the kingdom of God. The Old Testament book of Psalms directs our attention to the use of Mount Zion in this sense…
“Remember Your congregation, which You have purchased of old, The tribe of Your inheritance, which You have redeemed— This Mount Zion where You have dwelt” (Psalm 74:2).
“Those who trust in the Lord Are like Mount Zion, Which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:10).
“For the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His dwelling place: ‘This is My resting place forever; Here I will dwell, for I have desired it’” (Psalm 132:13-14).
More significantly, the New Testament epistle of 1 Peter cites the Old Testament prophet Isaiah in relating Mount Zion to Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith…
“For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame’” (1 Peter 2:6 NIV).
So while Zion represents a physical location, it also symbolizes “the city of the living God.” And unlike the fearsome specter of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, Mount Zion is populated with “…countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering” (NLT). One author builds upon that contrast with the following observation…
“As opposed to Mt. Sinai, where God gave the Mosaic law which was foreboding and terrifying, Mt. Zion here is not the earthly one in Jerusalem, but God’s heavenly abode, which is inviting and gracious. No one could please God on Sinai’s terms, which was perfect fulfillment of the law (Gal 3:10–12). Zion, however, is accessible to all who come to God through Jesus Christ (cf. Ps 132:13, 14; Is 46:13; Zec 2:10; Gal 4:21–31).” (1)
Finally, we should also note our author’s use of the phrase, “…you have come” to Mount Zion. In other words, those who place their trust in Christ have already arrived in the city of the living God through Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf. In light of this, the author of Hebrews encourages us “…not to go back to the First Testament, to Sinai, and judgment, and exhorts them to go on to the New Testament and join this vast multitude composing this festal gathering.” (2)
(1) John F. MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), Heb 12:22.
(2) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 12:22-24) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23).
This passage returns to the use of a concept that made an earlier appearance in chapter one of this epistle: “firstborn.” In the culture of that era, the eldest son (or firstborn) typically held a privileged position among his other family members. In a similar manner, the word “firstborn” conveys the idea of a favored or elevated position when used in this context. Here, the “church of the firstborn” identifies the assembly of those who share in the spiritual inheritance of Christ.
This passage also reminds us that “firstborn” is not necessarily synonymous with “born first.” The rights of a firstborn son were transferable, as was the case with Joseph’s son Ephraim (Genesis chapter 48), Israel’s King David (Psalm 89:27), and Isaac’s son Jacob, whose experience with Esau was referenced earlier in this chapter.
One Biblical scholar thus reminds us that the term firstborn “…must be understood from the background of first-century Jewish culture. From this vantage point we can see that the term firstborn refers to Christ’s exalted status as the heir of the Father. Just as the firstborn son usually received the patriarchal inheritance, so Jesus as the divine Son receives the Father’s kingdom as His inheritance…” (1)
Another author presents this concept in very practical terms…
“Notice that the following description, written to believers alive on Earth, is in the present perfect (not future) tense, which expresses a completed action: ‘You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect’ (Hebrews 12:22-23).
In a metaphysical sense, we’ve already entered Heaven’s community. By seeing ourselves as part of the heavenly society, we can learn to rejoice now in what Heaven’s residents rejoice in… Heaven, then, isn’t only our future home. It’s our home already, waiting over the next hill. If we really grasp this truth, it will have a profound effect on our holiness. A man who sees himself seated with Christ in Heaven, in the very presence of a God to whom the angels cry out, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ won’t spend his evenings viewing Internet pornography.” (2)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (1992). Essential truths of the Christian faith. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House p.53
(2) Randy Alcorn, Heaven, Copyright © 2004 Eternal Perspective Ministries [pp. 192-193]
“to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24).
Hebrews 12:24 represents the third and final reference to Jesus’ role as a mediator within this epistle. These passages are important to contemporary readers of this letter, especially when we consider the variety of opinions that others hold regarding Jesus. For instance, let’s consider a question that seems relatively simple: “Who is Jesus?” That question might elicit many different answers, each with varying degrees of accuracy.
For example, some might acknowledge Jesus as a teacher, leader, mentor, or social reformer, but nothing more. Others may recognize Jesus as a great man of God, or believe that He showed us the way to live a better life. Finally, there are those who believe that Jesus was simply one person in a long line of others who attained a higher transcendental state.
With these beliefs in mind, we can say that our opinions of Jesus may spring from many sources. Some of those sources may be accurate, while others are less so. We must also contend with the natural human tendency to focus our view of Jesus through the lens of our personal experience.
The problem is that our opinion of Jesus may say little or nothing about the person He truly is. However, it does say much about who we are. Therefore, it is important to build our image of Christ upon the right foundation, lest He become a projection of our desires, influences, or opinions.
That foundation is the Jesus we encounter in the Biblical Scriptures. If our image of Jesus is based on something other than the Biblical record, then there may come a time when we are surprised to learn that He is someone who is very different from the person we expected.
This portion of Scripture thus reminds us that anyone who seeks to be accepted by God must approach Him through the mediator He has established. That mediator is Christ, as we’re told here in Hebrews 12:24. The Biblical epistle of 1 Peter explains how that mediation took place: “Christ also has suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Jesus accepted the death penalty associated with our sin and opened the way that enables us to approach God and establish a relationship with Him. As Jesus Himself once said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
“and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24 ESV).
Hebrews 12:24 presents us with a comparison between Jesus and Abel, the man who was slain by his brother, Cain. In making this comparison, we can say that both men offered sacrifices that were acceptable to God. Each man was also subjected to an unjust execution. Yet one man’s death cried out for retribution while the other Man’s death facilitated our reconciliation to God.
We surveyed the account of Abel and his brother Cain earlier in our look at Hebrews chapter eleven. In Hebrews 11:4, we were told, “Faith led Abel to offer God a better sacrifice than Cain’s sacrifice. Through his faith Abel received God’s approval, since God accepted his sacrifices. Through his faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (GW).
While Abel’s act of faith speaks to us today, God’s response to Cain regarding his brother’s murder also speaks to us as well: “Why have you done this terrible thing? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground, like a voice calling for revenge” (Genesis 4:10 GNT). In this context, ‘blood” is a reference to the injustice committed against Abel, an act that provoked a call for retribution. However, there are some important differences between Abel’s murder and the death that Jesus suffered…
“Although Abel’s blood cried loudly and clearly, it spoke insufficiently. The New Testament tells us, however, that the blood of Christ speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:24). While Abel’s blood cried out for revenge and retribution, the blood of Christ cries out for redemption. When the blood of Jesus hit the ground, it cried not for revenge but for the redemption of the world.” (1)
Another source adds…
“Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God because it was offered in faith and obedience (cf. 11:4), but it had no atoning power. Jesus’ blood alone was sufficient to cleanse sin (cf. 1Jn 1:7). The sacrifice of Christ brought redemption (9:12), forgiveness (9:26), and complete salvation (10:10, 14).” (2)
So while Biblical passages such as Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:13-14, 1 Peter 1:18-19, and Revelation 5:9 emphasize the redemptive qualities of Jesus’ sacrifice, we should not neglect this aspect of His death. While the injustice committed against Abel cried out for vengeance, Jesus’ unjust death spoke something very different. We can illustrate that difference with a look at some of Jesus’ final words from the cross: “…Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).
(1) Carter, Anthony J, Blood Work: How the Blood of Christ Accomplishes Our Salvation © 2013 by Anthony J. Carter, Reformation Trust [pg. 9]
(2) John F. MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), Heb 12:24
“See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25).
We may gain a deeper appreciation for this passage if we view this portion of Scripture from the perspective of our relationships with others. For instance, imagine a scenario where one person extends his or her hand to another person in an expression of greeting, friendship, or acceptance. If the second individual in our illustration dismisses that gesture, the first person is likely to be insulted by such disrespect.
In a sense, God has “extended His hand” to humanity in a gesture of reconciliation through Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf. In light of this, it is important that we respond appropriately to that gracious act of propitiation. To encourage his readers in this regard, the author of Hebrews returned to Israel’s experience at Mount Sinai for use as an illustration.
If thunder, lightning, an earthquake, and billowing clouds of thick smoke accompanied the Old Covenant when it was presented to the people of Israel, we must pay greater attention to the New Covenant that has been delivered by the One who speaks from heaven. This brings us back to the passage that opened the book of Hebrews…
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds…” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
So God continues to speak to us today through His Son; therefore, we must ensure that we do not refuse Him. Hebrews 12:15 underscores the critical nature of this directive with the expression, “See to it…” (NIV), a phrase that presents us with an imperative action. This represents more than just a suggestion or a good idea; it implies a mandatory response by the reader.
The author of Hebrews further emphasizes the crucial nature of that response with this reference to an escape. Our author will expand on this idea in the final verses of this chapter, but for now, we might ask, “escape from what?” The Gospel of John presents us with the answer to that question: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).
“Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven?” (Hebrews 12:25 NET).
In light of Israel’s failure to heed God’s direction following their departure from Egypt, the author of Hebrews encouraged his readers to avoid replicating their poor example. This recalls our author’s historic reference from earlier in this epistle…
“Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! “‘Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years’” (Hebrews 3:7-9 NET).
The example set by the ancient Israelites thus provides us with an object lesson that directs us toward a universal truth: choices lead to consequences. The people of Israel made the wrong choice in refusing the One who spoke to them during that period. That choice led to some painful and irreversible consequences…
“…Then the Lord said ‘…not one of these people will ever enter that land. They have all seen my glorious presence and the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt and in the wilderness, but again and again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it… The only exceptions will be Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.’” (Numbers 14: 22-23, 30 NLT).
This passage also reinforces a cautionary message that appeared in Hebrews chapter ten…
“…anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. For we know the one who said, ‘I will take revenge. I will pay them back.’ He also said, ‘The Lord will judge his own people.’” (Hebrews 10:28-30 NLT).
Therefore. we would do well to remember these historical lessons to help avoid repeating them. In the words of one author, “God’s voice speaking the gospel must be heard with even greater attention and faith than the law spoken at Sinai (2:1–4; 3:1–5; 10:28, 29).” (1)
(1) R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 2220
“whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.’ Now this, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain” (Hebrews 12:26-27).
The passage quoted above calls upon an image from one of Israel’s less prominent (but equally authoritative) prophets…
“For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:6-7 ESV).
However, the Old Testament prophet Haggai was not the only prophetic voice to employ this imagery…
“Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger” (Isaiah 13:13).
The New Testament epistle of 2 Peter also expresses a similar idea in an apocalyptic framework…
“The day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day heaven will pass away with a roaring sound. Everything that makes up the universe will burn and be destroyed. The earth and everything that people have done on it will be exposed. All these things will be destroyed in this way. So think of the kind of holy and godly lives you must live as you look forward to the day of God and eagerly wait for it to come. When that day comes, heaven will be on fire and will be destroyed. Everything that makes up the universe will burn and melt” (2 Peter 3:10-12 GW).
Thus, we have four Biblical witnesses who testify to the approach of this all-encompassing, catastrophic event. That event will ultimately lead to the complete dissolution of the universe, along with every material thing we know today. To borrow an illustration from our text in Hebrews 12:27, everything that can be shaken, will be shaken during that time.
Nevertheless, that future reality should not provoke a sense of dread, fear, or apprehension among God’s people. Instead, we should join in the triumphal declaration of 2 Peter 3:13: “But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides” (NET).
“At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (Hebrews 12:26-27 ESV).
Our text from Hebrews 12:26-27 represents good news or bad news, depending on your perspective. For instance, let’s consider this passage from an analytic viewpoint…
“Scientifically, the end of the world must be viewed as a foregone certainty. Whether from the failure of its energies when the sun is at last burned out, or by the cataclysmic engulfment of the earth by the sun, one or the other being certain to come eventually, the earth must be viewed as having a terminator at the end of its course. There can be no scientific projection of an eternity for our earth.” (1)
While that clinical outlook is rather bleak, we can take no solace from an overview of history either…
“What does this world depend upon? Governments, politics, administration, education, legislation? These things are the fundamentals of history – the things men reckoned on, rested on, and counted on to keep human life going – but every one of them is something that can be shaken.” (2)
The same may be said of our political institutions….
“Men want to make the world safe, but no man can make this world safe, nor can any world organization such as the United Nations make it safe. It is not even safe for me to walk at night down the street on which I live.” (3)
The good news is that eternity will be far different from these assessments of our world today. Instead, the value system of eternity will exemplify the virtues of “…a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). This echoes Jesus’ encouraging message from Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (NET).
So in view of God’s promise to “shake not only the earth but also the heavens,” we would do well to adopt the spiritual perspective reflected in our passage from Hebrews 12:26-27…
“According to Haggai 2:5-7, all things in the world will be ‘shaken’ in the coming judgment period, but the things which cannot be shaken will remain -that is, God’s kingdom (12:28), His salvation (Is 51:6), Christ’s words (Ma 24:35), and those who do God’s will (1 Jo 2:17).” (4)
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on Hebrews 12”. “Coffman’s Commentaries on the Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/hebrews-12.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999. [verse 27]
(2) Ray C. Stedman and James D. Denney, Adventuring through the Bible: A Comprehensive Guide to the Entire Bible (Discovery House, 1997).
(3) J. Vernon McGee, Thru The Bible with J. Vernon McGee, “Hebrews 12:15-29 Danger Signal: The Peril Of Denying” Copyright 1981 by J. Vernon McGee
(4) Institute for Creation Research, New Defender’s Study Bible Notes Hebrews 12:27 https://www.icr.org/bible/Hebrews/12/27/
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12:28).
This reference to a kingdom that “cannot be shaken” calls our attention to Jesus’ parable of the two builders from the Gospel of Matthew…
“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall” (Matthew 7:24-27).
We considered this parable briefly in our earlier look at Hebrews chapter eleven, but there are certain other elements that relate to our text from Hebrews 12:28. For instance, this parable clearly points to something other than bad weather and sensible construction principles. So what do these builders, their houses, the foundations they built on, and the bad weather represent?
Well, we can apply this parable by placing ourselves in the role of these builders. Their homes represent our lives. We “build” those lives through the choices and decisions we make. The solid rock foundation represents Jesus and His teachings from the Scriptures. As we’re told in 1 Corinthians 3:11, “…no one can ever lay any other real foundation than that one we already have– Jesus Christ” (TLB).
Those who build their lives on God’s Word are building on a solid foundation, both now and in eternity. To use our terminology from Hebrews 12:28, that foundation is one that cannot be shaken. The sand foundation represents a life that is built on something other than Jesus and His teachings. Those who hear these teachings but decline to act upon them are like a shortsighted contractor who builds a home on the sand without a sound foundation.
That second home may look good on the outside and endure for a while. But much like a structure that has not been built upon a reliable base, it is certain to collapse when its foundation is shaken. In light of this, our text from Hebrews 12:28 encourages us to “…be grateful and worship God in a way that will please him, with reverence and awe” (GNT).
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, (Hebrews 12:28 ESV).
The fleeting nature of life is a realization that often catches up with us over time. For instance, we can see the transitory character of life in the rise and fall of nations throughout history. We can see it in the neighborhoods and landscapes that have changed over the years. We can see it in the machinery and appliances that break down, wear out, or become obsolete. Then there are the personal and emotional challenges that come with the prospect of life without a friend, mentor, or loved one who has passed away.
We may awake one day to find that musical tastes have changed, the language of the next generation is different, or the familiar landmarks of youth have ceased to exist. As cultures change and new generations rise up to replace the old ones, we may eventually come to feel as if we are living in a world that has become increasingly remote and unfamiliar.
For some, these hard realities may prompt a desire to return to a past where life was supposedly better. But as appealing as that may seem, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes offers an important word of advice: “Don’t long for ‘the good old days.’ This is not wise” (Ecclesiastes 7:10 NLT). Those words were composed almost three millennia ago, and they are still relevant today.
Even if the “good old days” were better in certain respects, they were still populated by fallible human beings who acted in accord with their fallen natures. Because of this, the “good old days” were probably not as good as we remember. Thus, we may seek to return to a history that never really existed in our desire to turn back the clock. In the words of Ecclesiastes 7:10, that is not wise.
This, along with our text from Hebrews 12:28, should encourage us to look forward and not back. While there is a place for nostalgia and pleasant memories of days gone by, this passage should encourage us to adopt a far more beneficial mindset…
‘”Let us be thankful,’ he says, ‘that the kingdom which we receive is unshakable; and in that spirit of thankfulness let us offer acceptable worship to God.’ To the grace of God the proper response is a grateful heart, and the words and actions that flow from a grateful heart are the sacrifices in which God takes delight.” (1)
(1) The New International Commentary On The New Testament – The Epistle To The Hebrews, F. F. Bruce, General Editor © Copyright 1964, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan [pg. 384]
“For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
Earlier in Hebrews 4:13, our author shared an important truth: “…no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (NET). He then followed with an encouraging message for those who have accepted Christ: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
That bold confidence allows us to enter a loving, trusting relationship with our Creator, secure in knowing that we are approved by Him in Christ. Nevertheless, our author will not permit us to adopt a shallow, syrupy view of that relationship. Thus, Hebrews 12:29 establishes an important balance that should temper of view of the sovereign God who is a “consuming fire.”
Consider the following insight from the pen of the well-known author C. S. Lewis…
“God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger—according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.” (1)
Thus, we should recognize that our relationship with our heavenly Father is held in tension….
- We must recognize the truth that underscores Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” To adopt Lewis’ terminology, we have reacted the wrong way and the Lord laid our punishment upon Christ.
- We also recognize the truth of Romans 8:15: “…you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’” (NLT).
So while the Scriptures teach us to adopt a childlike faith, there is a difference between “childlike” and “childish.” Therefore, in the words of Hebrews 12:28, “Let us be grateful and worship God in a way that will please him, with reverence and awe” (GNT). That mindset reflects “…a wholesome regard for a holy God and His standards and requirements, which if a person violates, he must suffer the consequences.” (2)
(1) C S Lewis, Mere Christianity New York : MacMillan Pub. Co., 1952. [p 38]
(2) Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Hebrews 12:27-29 ) Copyright © 1942-55 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Hebrews 12:29 NET).
In addition to what we read here in Hebrews 12:29, this reference to a consuming (or devouring) fire also appears in several Old Testament passages (see Deuteronomy 4:24, Deuteronomy 9:3, and Exodus 24:17 for some examples).
The New Testament epistle of 1 Peter presents us with a similar idea: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7 NIV).
These trials and afflictions exert a purifying effect, one that is mirrored in other areas of life. For example, a self-cleaning oven operates at high levels of heat in order to melt away impurities. In a similar manner, we sometimes heat metals to a liquid state to refine and purify them. Impurities that rise to the top of these liquefied metals are then skimmed away and discarded.
The heat of a trial or affliction serves to produce a similar effect. This helps explain why the New Testament epistle of James offers the following counsel…
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
James 1:12 later continues by saying, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” Such difficulties may serve as an incubator for spiritual growth or the means by which God polishes our character to help us reflect the image of Christ.
The following commentator ties these ideas together with our passage from Hebrews 12:29…
“As someone has well pointed out, fire will destroy what it cannot purify, but it purifies what it cannot destroy… We are passing through the fire which is designed either to destroy that which can be destroyed, or to purify that which can never be destroyed …God is leading us through these trials and through the difficulties of our day, in order that we may learn to cry with old Job, back there in the oldest book of the Bible, ‘He knoweth the way that I take, when he has tried me I shall come forth as gold,’ (Job 23:10 KJV).” (1)
(1) Excerpted with permission from Never Give Up © 1965 by Ray Stedman Ministries. All rights reserved. Visit www.RayStedman.org for the complete library of Ray Stedman material. Please direct any questions to webmaster@RayStedman.org