RPM, Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 11, Number 3, January 18 to January 24 2009

Hebrews 12:12-17

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of the letter to the Hebrews. The premise with which we have been working is that the writer's goal in this letter has been to stop his readers from drifting away from their Christian profession of faith. Put more positively, his goal has been to encourage them to keep hanging on, to keep persevering, to keep believing, to keep faithfully pursuing the Lord Jesus Christ. The reason he is having to do this is because his readers are "in a tight spot" - apologies to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

But the fact is: These Christians are "in a tight spot" and are being tempted, under all the pressure being put upon them, to walk away from Christianity, to give up on the whole thing. But it's more than just that. Because they were not only being tempted to walk away from Christianity, they were also being tempted to revert to a former belief and practice - the Hebrew faith.

Now, in order to address and hopefully prevent this, the writer has, thus far, done a couple of main things. Firstly, he has talked a lot about the Old Testament and the things that appeared there and how all those things pointed toward and looked forward to something greater than themselves. And the thing that they pointed to - the thing that was the reality compared to which all the Old Testament things were a mere shadow - actually wasn't a "thing" at all but rather, a person - the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, that being the case, their abandoning Christianity to go back to the Old Testament types and symbols was just plain crazy. It was like trading a real car for a mere drawing of one. Which would be silly.

But it was not just silly, it was tragic and foolish since doing so would require them to deny Jesus, to turn their back on him, to say that he wasn't who he himself said he was. A person who does that - says the writer of Hebrews - places himself beyond the possibility of forgiveness. A person who does that leaves himself/herself liable to the full judgment of God. And that's the other sort of "main thing" that the writer has been going on about for the bulk of this letter.

Well, as we've seen before - but I'm still going to keep hammering away at it - after majoring on those sorts of things for about ten and a half chapters, the writer of Hebrews begins applying them, encouraging his readers to embrace the truth that Jesus was the clearest revelation that God had ever made of himself, that Jesus was the fulfillment of all that was anticipated in the Old Testament, that Jesus was the greatest and last High Priest.

The writer of Hebrews wants his harassed and weary readers to take hold of these things anew - and with vigor. He wants them to begin living like people who actually believe them. And to the degree that they do that, to that same degree they will be demonstrating the kind of faith that their spiritual ancestors had shown - people like Noah, like Moses, and like David.

All of that brings us through to the end of chapter 11. Following that, and ever since the opening verse of chapter 12 we have seen the writer of Hebrews, building on what he has said, exhorting and encouraging his readers to "run the race before them with endurance" and to do so by keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus.

And then, in the midst of saying these sorts of things to them, it is almost as if the writer interrupts himself, if only for a moment. But it is as if he realizes and remembers that the people to whom he is writing have had a pretty rough time of it and, as a result, were wondering, at least some of them, what it all meant and whether they ought to take their present difficulties as some sort of sign that God had left them behind.

So, being aware of this, the writer of Hebrews takes a moment to address this sort of concern in 12:5-11, pressing home to his readers the point that their present troubles, while difficult, ought not be regarded by them as a sign that God did not love them, or had abandoned them - or anything like that. Rather, the very opposite was true. These things ought to be seen as evidence that God deeply loves them and has taken them as his own children - so much so that he, like any good earthly father, does not withhold discipline from them but rather uses it to shape and train up his children, for their good.

The writer wants his readers to see that this sort of thing is true, even when the hardship they were experiencing came at the hands of other people who meant nothing but harm to them - just like what happened in the days of Joseph. The actions that his wicked brothers meant for evil - those same actions God used for good in his life.

So, after interrupting himself to reassure his readers of these things, the writer of Hebrews continues on with his encouragements and exhortations, returning in verse 12 to the imagery that he introduced in verse 1, the imagery of an endurance race - like a marathon. What the writer has to say about all of that will be the focus for the remainder of our time together. Before we look at that, however, let's take a moment to pray:

Father in heaven, please guide us now as we listen to these words which you authored through your human instruments and which you now, by your Holy Spirit, are bringing to bear on our very consciences. Thank you for loving us enough to not leave us to our own devices in understanding You and what You are doing in this world. Thank you for loving us enough to reveal yourself in creation and then to encapsulate the things that would be important for us to know in a written form, that we might always have this concrete form of revelation to guide and shape us and help us to know you better. Lord, at the end of the day, that is what we want - to know you, and to be known by you. Use this time to bring us one step closer to the full realization of that hope. We pray this in Jesus name, Amen.
Let us read Hebrews 12:12-17:
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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.
As we have already seen, having initially challenged them to run the race before them with endurance, and then having assured them that their present difficulties ultimately should not discourage them but encourage them - because of what they indicate - having done all that, the writer then comes back to the race imagery in verse 12.

As you look at verse 12 and what follows, in your mind's eye I want you to picture a runner, nearing the end of a long, grueling race. He is at about the 25th mile of a 26 mile marathon. He is exhausted. He is utterly worn out. His bones are aching. Every muscle in his body is burning.

Arms that earlier were way up high, swinging and pumping vigorously and rhythmically, are now moving with very little energy, his hands drooping lower and lower, feeling more and more like lead weights. With every passing second, strength is draining out of him. His knees are weak and feel like they might buckle at any moment. On top of all this, he has developed a slight limp that, if not addressed soon, may become something worse.

That is the sort of imagery that the writer of Hebrews is appealing to here. He knows his readers have been running a difficult race. He knows that their present condition is not good and likens it to the condition just described to you, and which endurance runners often find themselves in as they near a finish line.

So, the writer here does what any good coach would do with an athlete who was struggling - he encourages the athlete to keep going, to keep pushing ahead, to do the very thing that he is absolutely convinced he can't do, but which the coach knows he can. He urges him to lift drooping hands that he is convinced he cannot lift, to strengthen weak knees that he is sure will give out at any moment, and to stop staggering and drifting all over the course but, instead, to make straight paths for his feet.

The natural question that comes when you read these sorts of things is, "What does he mean by this? What does it mean, what will it mean to do what the writer of this letter is commanding his readers to do so that a present problem (lameness) does not become a worse one (dislocation)? How, practically, do you do this?

Well, it seems to me that the passage does not leave us high and dry in this area but, instead, gives us some fairly concrete descriptions of what responding to these commands will mean for the readers. How does the writer of Hebrews want them to go about "lifting their drooping hands" and "strengthening their weak knees" and "making straight paths for their feet"? Well, and I may be wrong about this, but if you take verses 14-16 to be "exegetical," as I do, then they tell us that they are to do this by:

  • a) striving for peace
  • b) pursuing holiness
  • c) caring for and protecting the community of God's people
Let us take a few minutes to unpack these a little bit.

Firstly, the writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to "strive for peace with everyone." The word that is translated here as "strive" - diwkete - is a very strong word, as those of you who are Greek scholars will know better than me. It is a word that is used in other places to talk about persecution, or to earnestly chase after something - like you're trying to catch up with something that is threatening to get away from you.

The place we lived in the longest during our time in Melbourne was a house at the end of a court - #5 Wombat Court - to be precise (I'm not making this up). It was a great house and it had this big, open cul-de-sac in front of it. It sat at the top of a small hill so that when you came into our street, you had to drive uphill a short ways before you reached the end and drove straight into our driveway. I and the other kids used to ride our bikes around the cul-de-sac and played all sorts of games there. One of the favorite things for our kids to do was to ride this big, red, oversized tricycle that sat up high and had this main seat, and then right behind it, a second seat for a passenger. The kids would spend hours on that thing, taking turns, and usually with Emily as the passenger in the back. Emily just loved it.

Well, one day Emily decided that she had had enough of being the passenger and wanted to drive it for herself, even though she was barely big enough to do so. I found out about this new found desire of hers when, one morning, I came out of our bedroom and was walking toward the kitchen when Lisa, who had already been up, shot past me without saying a word, burst out the front door, and was tearing off down the street as fast as she could go. Why? Because she had looked out the window just in time to see Emily - on the red tricycle - starting to head down this hill, and picking up speed, and threatening to roll right out into the middle of a very busy street.

I can still see this image of Lisa, running down the road in her pajamas and robe, shouting "Stop! Stop!" Thankfully, she got there in time to prevent what could have been a disaster.

You do not have to be a parent to imagine what it might feel like to be in that situation. You don't have to be a parent to know the kinds of things that would be going through your mind as you are running, desperately, trying to chase down this runaway tricycle, stretching every muscle, racing as fast as you can, with your heart pounding and your lungs gasping for air.

That is the sort of scene you need to have in mind if you want to understand what the author of Hebrews is communicating when he says, "strive for peace with everyone." That is what the word used here is all about. He is not saying that you should be concerned to be at peace with everyone. He is not saying that you ought to merely be interested in being at peace with your brothers and sisters in the Lord. He is saying that you need to strive after it, track it down, chase after it, dare I say to persecute it, to not let anything put you off or get in your way - to go after it with the same intensity and concern that a parent running to save her child would have.

Do you know how lively churches with a strong sense of community get transformed into dead churches with factions and divisions and lots of discouraged people and seemingly very little love for one another, much less any real concern for the things of the Lord? Do you know how that happens? Well, those of you here who have been in ministry for any length of time will know that it happens for a lot of reasons. But if I could isolate on just ONE reason, one contributing factor that I think is fairly common, it would be this: The demise of church community and the onset of discouragement and divisions happens when people don't strive after peace, when they don't value it, when they don't think it matters or applies in their circumstance.

To be sure, that is not the only reason churches get transformed. But it's a big one. Because the truth is, the church is made up of people who have problems. You, me, all of us have problems - huge problems. We are up to our ears in depravity. We are selfish, and self-serving. We are proud and apathetic and un-forgiving, and vengeful, and we say and do horrible things to one another, and think horrible things about one another.

Instead of our sinfulness toward one another becoming a means by which we are humbled and broken and made more like Jesus as we deal with these things - instead of that happening, we just don't deal with them, and then pretend we don't remember them - but we really do. So, we don't deal with our stuff. We don't confront, we don't ask for forgiveness, and we don't grant forgiveness and grace. Instead, we settle for mere civility which, in this context, and I choose my words carefully here, is a damned civility because, as Steve Brown says, "It smells like smoke, and it comes from the pit of hell."

So, over time, what happens is this - we start to partition-off people in our minds. You used to interact with everyone but now - well - there are these ten people that you're still keeping score with - with stuff that you have never addressed or dealt with - and so they get sectioned off in your mind. And, over time, more and more people get added to this "exclusion list" until you get to the point where your "church" consists of about 5 people and everybody else - well - they don't really count.

That is how churches die. One hurt at a time, one un-resolved issue at a time. They die a slow death, born of countless thousands of decisions NOT to strive after peace, NOT to chase it down as if your life - perhaps I should say, lives - depended on it.

Why does the writer of Hebrews make a point out of this? Because it has everything to do with what he has been trying to accomplish in this letter. Because he knows that persevering in the faith, keeping on keeping on, remaining faithful to the end - especially in the midst of hardship - that sort of thing requires an entire community to pull it off. It takes an entire body of believers, pulling together, looking after one another, sinning and repenting, confronting and being confronted, having the hard - but good - conversations over and over again - it takes all of that to do this thing we call "churching" - and do it well - and in a way that honors God.

A fragmented, fractured community - by contrast - will not prove to be the support and encouragement that it needs to be in order for the individual members of that community to remain faithful and encouraged in their pursuit of the Lord. When we don't strive for peace, when we trade real peace for mere civility - when that happens people don't run the race with endurance and many of them drop out of the race altogether. So, the writer of Hebrews' first encouragement as to how his readers can "lift their drooping hands" and "strengthen their weak knees" is by pursuing peace with everyone.

The second thing he says to them is to not only strive for peace but also to pursue holiness. And, as the ESV translation shows, the same word that is used to urge them to strive after peace is also used in talking about their pursuit of holiness.

So, similar sorts of things could be said here about the intensity of this pursuit of holiness. It is not a casual, haphazard approach. It is not a mild curiosity or passing interest. It is not an occasional burst of zeal. It is an all-out pursuit, a consistent, day in and day out, running after it, chasing it down. In other words, there is real energy behind the writer's words here.

Which is to say that holiness, sanctification, growth in grace - whatever language you want to use - but that sort of thing doesn't just happen to you while you are pre-occupied with other things. It is not this passive process that is just sort of going on of its own accord, without any acknowledgment or engagement on our parts. It is something which gets pursued, that is sought after, that, without which, no one will see the Lord.

Why does the writer of this letter emphasize this issue with his original readers? Well, to be honest, I am not precisely sure. It may be because he is concerned that in the midst of all their hardship and difficulty they had become morally lax. It may be that some of them may have felt that their troubles gave them some sort of entitlement - some sort of excuse that exempted them from the need to pursue holiness like every other Christian. It may be because he had specific knowledge of some particular issues going on with some of the believers. Or it could be something else. The reality is that we cannot say, for sure, what the specific reason might have been.

But I think we can say, in general, why the writer would emphasize this sort of thing. If you look back at verse 1 of chapter 12 you will see how the writer has already raised this issue...

Hebrews 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,
So, the writer has already made a connection between sin and persevering in the faith. And THAT, I think, is the larger, more general reason behind his words here. The writer is pushing this need to pursue holiness because it has everything to do with what he has been trying to accomplish and because, when holiness is not pursued, the hindrance that it can be - both for the individual and for those around him/her - is substantial, even devastating.

What was true then, is just as true now. And this point, in particular, is one that has abiding significance for God's people and I think it is vitally important to make at least a brief comment on it since there is, in my view, some unhelpful thinking going on in this area among Christians in our own day. Now, I'm not sure what it has been like in Australia in recent years, but I can tell you that often when I talk to American Christians on the subject of holiness, or hear Christians talking about this subject - particularly in reformed circles - I get the impression that the pursuit of holiness has become, for some of them, a largely, if not entirely, passive activity. It is talked about as something that is a chiefly mental exercise centered upon having a right understanding of our hearts, and what is going on inside them, and how desperately wicked we are, how much this proves we need Jesus, and how we are utterly dependent upon the grace of God.

I do not have a problem with the substance of those things. I believe them. I further believe that these sorts of emphases came back into the American church at a good time and were, initially, a very helpful corrective in an evangelical context that had reduced the pursuit of holiness to mere moralism - engaging in certain disciplines and exhibiting certain behaviors while scrupulously avoiding others.

I believe that in place of a Gospel-informed pursuit of holiness, we had slipped into practices and perspectives that had the unfortunate result of confirming self-righteous Christians - I, chief among them - in their overly generous perceptions of themselves. At the same time, it left vast tracts of the interior landscape of our depraved hearts essentially undisturbed. So, rather than becoming more humble, and broken, and more deeply convinced of how utterly dependent we were upon Christ, instead, we became smug, and proud, and were totally out of touch with the real state of our hearts before God.

So, for example, I believe we had settled for a sort of "surface righteousness" that told people things like, "you shouldn't lie" - but which didn't address the matters of the heart. It was an approach that didn't even attempt to understand the reasons why people lie in the first place and which, as a result, left totally undisturbed the idolatry and the running after alternative sources of righteousness that often lay behind our lying and which, because these things WERE undisturbed, we were certain to make little if any real progress in addressing these things.

All of those things, I believe, were very much a part of the evangelical landscape, and certainly needed addressing. And I believe that the church HAS woken up to so much of that and I am deeply grateful for the helpful correctives that have swept through, and continue to sweep through the church in a movement that has been a real source, I believe, of vitality and renewal and increased vigor for Christian growth and for Gospel ministry.

NEVERTHELESS, I do worry about the fact that, in our zeal to address some real deficiencies in our approach to and understanding of holiness and sanctification we have sent the wrong signal. I wonder sometimes if we have over-corrected and simply replaced one unhelpful imbalance with a different one - an imbalance that deals with the much neglected issues of the heart, and idolatry, and faith and repentance, to be sure - but one which also, for fear of being categorized as mere moralism - falls short in the area of encouraging and challenging people in the active pursuit of holiness. I sometimes feel like we have gotten to the place where we don't think we can say to people anymore, "You should do this...." or "You ought to do that....". I wonder if we are now so worried about people doing things for the wrong reasons, or with the wrong understanding, that we completely avoid this sort of language with and ministry to one another.

But then I keep reading the Bible. As I continue to read it, I keep coming across passages like this. Passages that tell me that the pursuit of holiness involves more than just mental gymnastics. It is not only about having a clearer understanding of our depravity and a deeper appreciation of God's mercy and grace. It is more than just shrugging our shoulders and saying that we are just rotten sinners in need of God's mercy and incapable of saving ourselves.

It involves more than merely understanding the particular idolatry or false righteousness that lies behind a particular sin of commission - like lying, or omission - like failing to care for widows and orphans.

It also involves an active pursuit of holiness - resisting those things which are sinful and which lead us away from the Lord, and actively pursuing those things which are pleasing to the Lord and which are more in step with the perfect humanity of the Lord into whose image we are being made.

So, to go back to the previous example - when it comes to something like lying, I need to not only understand why I lie, and confess that I am a liar, and turn from the idolatry and the approval-seeking, and the search for an alternative righteousness that lies behind it - I need to do all of that. But I also need to just stop lying. I need to exert moral effort to resist exaggeration, to resist embellishment, to resist conveniently leaving out certain details when it suits me. I need to value truthfulness and work hard to be scrupulously honest in all my dealings with people. To be sure, my pursuit of holiness involves more than that, but it does not involve less than that.

I will not go on any more about this. But let it suffice to say that when the writer of Hebrews here urges his readers to vigorously, zealously, pursue holiness - to chase it down - he means it. And his expectation is not just that his readers will sort out their mental categories about holiness but that they will strive after righteousness, and become more godly - that their character will change.

Lastly, and very briefly since our time is almost gone, in addition to encouraging his readers to "lift their drooping hands" and "strengthen their weak knees" by striving after peace, and pursuing holiness, the writer also strongly urges them here to care for and protect the community of God's people. This, it seems to me, is the sum and substance of what we find in verses 15-17,

Hebrews 12:15-17 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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.
While scholars have some different viewpoints on these verses, as to whether they are referring to a number of different things or whether they are all centering around one particular thing - my own view - without going into all the reasons why - is that they basically ARE centering around one thing - a thing we have seen before, namely, the very real danger that some professing believers will fall away from that profession - and as a result do damage both to themselves, and to the wider Body of Christ in the process.

That, I believe, is what the writer of Hebrews is referring to when he talks about people "failing to obtain the grace of God". The other instructions - seeing to it that no "root of bitterness" springs up and that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau - both of those things are related to this matter of "failing to obtain the grace of God".

Clearly, the writer of Hebrews thinks that God's people have a real responsibility toward one another, and can have a real influence on one another in these things. We are to be on the lookout for those among us who have become, or perhaps are becoming bitter within the Body of Christ. It might be because of something that has happened in their life. It might be because of something that didn't happen that they were hoping would happen. It might be a consequence of someone's sinning against them. It might be a consequence of their own sin. Or, a combination of things.

But we are to be on the lookout for such things in one another's lives and to address them as they surface. Because the consequences of not doing so are so severe. Moreover, if you look at the way the writer puts it here - you could say that bitterness is - or at least may be - a pre-cursor to a person's falling away from his/her profession of faith. If that is true, and I think it often is, then when we see this sort of thing taking place we need to act - for the sake of the person in question, and for the sake of the whole body which is in danger of being negatively impacted - "defiled" - as the writer of Hebrews says - damaged, discouraged, led astray.

In addition to this, the writer of Hebrews urges his readers not to be "sexually immoral or unholy" - like Esau. Now, in all likelihood, the reference to sexual immorality in Esau's life is a reference to the fact that he - in defiance of what he knew to be right - married foreign women, women who were from outside the community of faith - and he did this as an expression of his rebellion.

However, the greater expression of his rebellion, it seems to me, happened before that when he rejected and despised his "birthright" - i.e., the rights that typically would have fallen to him because he was the firstborn, the eldest. What happened was that, in a very callous and, indeed, unholy fashion Esau, finding himself on one occasion without food, and extremely hungry, traded his birthright privileges - something that was substantial and lasting for a 30 minute gratification of his growling stomach. He "sells" his birthright to his younger brother and, in the process, shows how little he values these things and how much he despises his own heritage and inheritance.

Later on, feeling some sense of remorse, he becomes emotional and seemingly distraught over the issue. But his are not the tears of a man who fully appreciates the gravity of what he has done. They are, instead, the tears of one who is angry and frustrated over the fact that he is missing out, and is going to miss out on some good things.

So, taken together, the writer's overall point in verses15-17 seems to be that he wants his readers to be concerned to care for and protect the community of God's people - which involves at least two things: 1) keeping an eye out for and addressing bitterness wherever it begins to surface, and 2) taking seriously those who, like Esau, are overtly rebellious or who trivialize and despise and treat as nothing things that are important, even holy. People in both of these camps are in a precarious position themselves. They are in danger of "not obtaining the grace of God," as the writer puts it, and are also in a position to do great damage to the body of Christ and so seriously hinder and discourage God's people from running the race before them with endurance.

As one commentator points out, the original readers of this letter will be guilty of a much greater act of profanity and immorality than even Esau if, "....disheartened by the difficulties of the contest, they barter not an earthly but a heavenly birthright for a short period of worldly ease and prosperity."

You've probably heard the story about the Special Olympics video that shows a group of runners - with various challenges like Down's Syndrome, etc., who are all shuffling around this track when one of the runners trips and goes tumbling into the center of the field. There is this remarkable scene where - when that happens - the entire field of runners stops, goes over and helps this person up - a girl I believe - walks her onto the track - and then they all locked arms, and came across the finish line together. That is a visual parable if ever there was one.

The writer of Hebrews' exhortation is not just that you - individually - run this race with endurance. It is that we run this race with endurance. Which is why it is vitally important that we strive for peace with everyone, that we pursue and hunt down holiness, and that we care for and protect the community of God's people. Because it's not about you crossing the finish line alone. It's not about me crossing the finish line alone.

It's about US........all of us....... finishing the race, together.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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