March 3, 2019
Many of us can remember leaving home for the first time. It may have only been a weekend for youth retreat, or maybe more permanently to go off to college or some new job in a new place. We can remember the instructions given by our parents – usually mom – that went something like this – in rapid fire:
- Drive safely.
- Don’t speed.
- Let us know when you get there.
- Don’t forget to write (for those of us who are older).
- Call or text often (meaning, daily).
- Do your homework.
- Eat right.
- Brush your teeth.
- Wash your clothes (every once in awhile).
- Don’t stay up all night (you know, playing video games).
- Don’t sit too close to the TV (or computer screen).
- Let us know if you need anything.
- Go to church.
Dad is usually more direct, like, see you, be good. Now, I’m sure there were many other instructions – and probably more when you made those daily phone calls. Honey, are you getting enough sleep? Are you doing well in school? Are you getting enough to eat, etc.? The point is, parents will always be parents, with lots of instructions – that’s our job. And when time is limited, those final instructions can come out rather haphazardly and rapidly – as you’re driving off, we’re still yelling instructions. And yet, as final instructions, they are important.
A few weeks ago at the end of Hebrews 11, nearing the end of our study, I suggested the author glanced at his watch and realized he was about out of time. He said, “And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of…” and he goes on to give a long list of names which he thought belonged in the Hall of Faith. But, like any good pastor who says, in conclusion and preaches for 15 more minutes, our author goes for two more chapters, which is good for 10 more sermons! But, like mom giving final instructions, he starts covering things rather rapidly. Now, they may not be haphazard, but it’s a little tougher to discern the flow. We’ll try. You’ll see what I mean as we read our text in Hebrews 12:12-17.
So, upon first glance, these look like final, random instructions. And I do think the author is wrapping up – giving some final thoughts. But they may not be as random as they first appear. You see, the text begins with the word, therefore, tying it to what has come before. As result of what I’ve just said, therefore, do these things. What has he just said? Over the past two weeks, he’s said, therefore, pointing us back to chapter 11, since we are surrounded with such a great cloud of witnesses, run your race with endurance. Glance at these great examples of faith, but keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, who is the goal line. He is the author and perfecter of faith – and He too, like those in the Hall of Faith, faced trial, hardship, even persecution to the point of death.
But for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. So consider Him, who endured hostility from sinners so that you don’t grow weary and lose heart. And then, last week, amazingly, we saw even our opposition and persecution are for our good. God allows them, even brings them, to discipline us. To mature, to teach, to grow us. After all, what son or daughter who is loved doesn’t receive discipline? So also, our heavenly Father loves us, and proves it by His continual training and instruction. God wants us to share in His holiness and to produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness. So consider these His drive safely, eat right instructions.
Therefore, he returns to the idea of a race with which he began the chapter – of running with endurance. But he makes a very significant change. Therefore, strengthen the hands – notice, not your hands – the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your [and your is in the plural], for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint – the idea is sprained or disjointed – but rather be healed. The author, familiar as he is with the OT, is actually quoting a couple of OT passages. The first is found in Isaiah 35:
3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4 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.” (ESV)
The context is the coming Babylonian captivity. God has promised not to leave them. But the captives will undoubtedly become discouraged, so Isaiah seeks to encourage them – strengthen those with weak hands and feeble knees. Be strong – I know it’s been a long time, but God will come and rescue you. Therefore, strengthen weak hands and feeble knees. Say to those among you who are struggling, Be strong and fear not. God is coming – He will save us. I know it’s tough – I know we face challenges, but be strong – God will come and deliver. You ever feel like you’re alone – like you can’t continue?
Here’s the point. This is not an individual race. Yes, you have a race to run, but you do not run alone. As I said a couple weeks ago – the difference in this Christian race and every other race is we are not competing against each other. Everyone who competes and completes the race gets the prize. This is not a matter of demonstrating how much better I run than you – how much faster, stronger, better equipped, better trained and prepared I am. No, God saves us individually through our individual faith. But having saved us, it is a community trip – a community race to heaven. We need each other.
So look around. This isn’t just about you doing well spiritually, although it is. It is about the community of believers doing well. So look around. You can tell those who are exhausted, can’t you? Those who are struggling, gasping for air, finding it difficult to take another step. Do we just leave them behind. See you at the finish line, if you make it.
No, we fix our eyes on Jesus, but we look around to help others in the race. That’s what he’s saying. If you’ve ever run a long distance – like a marathon – you know when you’re tired. When your hands are flopping around. When your knees are aching against the pounding of the pavement. Now, in your race, you may not be struggling now – you’re breezing along, feeling good. But others around you may be struggling. You can see the tale-tell signs. What are they?
There are those who drift – who begin to question the exclusive claims of Christ. Certainly Jesus isn’t the only way – other faithful religions will get you there. And then we remember the words of Hebrews 2, “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it…how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” That Jesus and He alone provided.
There are those who exchange beliefs for behavior. What do I mean? Well, the Christian faith says there is such a thing as sin, and we should say no to sin, and yes to Christ and righteousness. But we all know people who professed Christ for awhile. But, they wanted to engage in a behavior that was inconsistent with their beliefs – with the Christian faith. So they had a decision to make – beliefs or behavior. You see, if they don’t line up, one’s gotta go. And sometimes it’s beliefs. Not always – you know people have been drawn to some sinful behavior, who said no, I will, by the power and presence of the Holy, follow Christ.
But some don’t. And so then remember the words of Hebrews 3, “Take care, brothers, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” You mean our battle against sin is a community effort? Like mom saying, don’t stay up to late, or dad saying, be good?
What about those who don’t grow in the Christian life. They’ve never been discipled or in the Word – they just show up here on occasion to get a little Jesus fix. That is, they never really go beyond salvation – that’s really all I need. I don’t need to be bothered by doctrine and theology. It was John MacArthur who said, “When people tell me that doctrine divides, I say, you’re right. It divides truth from error.” And we remember the words of Hebrews 5, “Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” You never grew.
I could go on and on. The primary reason for writing this letter is because these readers were facing persecution because of their new faith in Jesus. And so they were considering quitting and returning to Judaism. And he warns them over and over – don’t do that. Do you know anyone like that? Who when facing a particularly difficult time began to question God and His goodness, accuse God, wonder whether God can be trusted? Thinking about quitting.
And some do. We don’t see them anymore. They don’t gather with believers for worship and fellowship and growth in the faith. And we remember the words of Hebrews 10, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more you see the day approaching.” We can all remember some who used to be here. Not just Sunday – we were involved in their lives, and they in ours.
There are all kinds of signs of those struggling in the race. No doubt, people come to mind. Do we just leave them? Well, that’s up to them. Or do we encourage them, warn them, go after them? Do we strengthen weak hands and feeble knees? Do we hold them up in the race, remembering eternity is at stake? Do we do everything we can to make straight paths for them? By the way, that’s a quote from Proverbs 4, which says,
25 Let your eyes look directly ahead And let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you.
26 Watch the path of your feet And all your ways will be established.
27 Do not turn to the right nor to the left; Turn your foot from evil.
But our author makes it plural – do what you can to smooth out – that’s the idea – to make straight paths for all you all’s feet. And if someone has stumbled such that they sprained an ankle, do all you can to help the sprain heal. Don’t let them fall behind in the community race. Well, I guess since I just finished the first point, I should give you the outline:
- Run Together – helping each other in the race (12-13)
- Things to Pursue, together (14)
- Things to Prevent, together (15-17)
So, point two, as we are running, pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see God. Again, he starts sharing final instructions. Now, the verb is pursue – it’s a strong word – an interesting choice. It’s the word often translated persecute – the idea is to run after or pursue with great effort. Some translations even have it, make every effort to seek peace. It speaks of intensity and urgency. Oh, and by the way – it’s in the plural. All of you together, pursue two things:
First, pursue peace with all men. What men? Is he talking about Christians or non-Christians? Those with whom we do life together, or those who are persecuting us? Well, he says all men – all people. So certainly, we pursue peace with other Christians. Of course. But he broadens it, incredibly, to say pursue peace, run after peace, with all people – including non-Christians. Even those persecuting us? That seems to fit the context. We remember several verses in the NT which speak of pursuing peace, I’ll mention three:
Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Paul said in Romans 12, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
Later, Paul said in Galatians a fruit of the Spirit is peace – love, joy, peace. In other words, peace – the fruit of righteousness – is to be characteristic of God’s people. Even when opposed, ridiculed, persecuted. While they are persecuting you, pursue – same word, pursue peace with them through your righteousness. And by the way, peace is not just the absence of conflict, it is the presence of righteousness.
Which is why, he says secondly, we are to pursue sanctification. That’s a big theological term that refers to holiness. Pursue holiness. We remember from last week God disciplines us so that we may share in His holiness and so that we may produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
Meaning, Christians are to be holy, peaceful people. But what does it mean to pursue sanctification? Well, when God saves us, He declares righteous or holy. Our sins our removed – we are positionally holy. That’s called justification. But now, we pursue not positional holiness – we have that – provided for us through Christ and His cross. No, we pursue practical holiness such that our practice matches our position. That’s sanctification.
Meaning, we actually work – well, it’s God working in us with whom we cooperate – to be more and more holy. To be more like Jesus. You see, I don’t know about you, but I’m not perfectly holy. I want to be, so I grow. And along the way, God disciplines, trains, matures me to be holy. How long? Well, till I die. You see, there are two ways in which my practical holiness will be perfect like my positional holiness – when I die and go to be with the Lord; or, He returns and takes me home. Until then – death or His return – I pursue, with intensity and urgency, I pursue sanctification.
Because without it, we will not see the Lord. You say, wait, I’ve got to pursue righteousness to see God. I thought I was saved by grace through faith – not of myself. Now you’re saying salvation through the gospel is not enough – if I don’t pursue sanctification, I won’t finally be saved? What gives? Yes, salvation is by grace through faith. But proof of our salvation is that we continue to grow, to be more holy. If you are expecting to use Jesus as fire escape, and you don’t desire to grow in Christ-likeness, you prove you don’t really know Jesus. That’s why you won’t see the Lord. True Christians pursue practical holiness.
Well, that’s what we pursue. But what do we seek to prevent or get rid of? And we remember verse 1 of the chapter – lay aside everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Which sin? Point 3, verses 15-17. There are three things he says to lay aside – actually, he says, see to it that there not be, among you, the following:
First, see to it that no one comes short of the grace of God. What does that mean? We can actually want God’s grace, have God’s grace, and somehow come short of it? Lose it? No. In the context of the book, the author has been warning his readers not to commit apostasy – not to leave the faith. In doing so, you come short of God’s grace. You’ve got to continue to believe, continue in His grace, complete the race, in order not to fall short of it – the finish line.
God’s grace is available to everyone who believes. But continued faith is necessary. Walking away is evidence you never had faith, and therefore the grace of God. There’s lots of discussion about this – we’ve talked about it in our study of Hebrews. Some say you can have God’s grace and then lose it. Others say you cannot lose God’s grace; therefore, you only appeared to have it. I personally don’t believe you can lose your salvation. Regardless of your position, the point here is God’s grace is freely available. Don’t squander it. And notice, see to it no one else comes short of it either – squanders it, walks away from it. The trip to heaven is a community trip. We are watching out for each other, making sure no one among us falls short of God’s grace.
Second, see to it that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble – by it, many have been defiled. There have been many interpretations of this passage. Many suggest we are not supposed to let bitterness gain root in our hearts – it produces the further fruit of bitterness and unforgiveness. Don’t do that, be patient people, forgiving people, kind people, don’t be bitter, sour people. All that is true, but is that the teaching of the text? You see, both the context here and the OT text quoted here give clarity. The OT text is Deuteronomy 29:18 – it’s critically important:
16 “You know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we came through the midst of the nations through which you passed.
17 And you have seen their detestable things, their idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, which were among them.
18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit…” (ESV)
Moses is preparing the people to go into the promised land – finally, after forty years of wandering. Remember, our author has mentioned that rebellious generation before – their bodies fell in the wilderness – they did not enter the land, they did not enter His rest. Don’t be like them. Now, Moses is preparing this new generation. It’s time to go in, but don’t let anyone among you turn from the Lord and serve other gods. In other words, we serve the true and living God – don’t turn away from Him. Beware, lest there is a root of idolatry and apostasy among you which produces bitter fruit – namely this: causing others to turn away from God.
And we remember the author is warning about apostasy. And here, the point of Moses and our author is a warning to keep an eye on each other and defend truth. Biblical orthodoxy. The truth that God is God, and there is no other. To challenge each other, don’t be wooed by the culture. Don’t give into the idea that leaving, walking away from Christianity is ok – you’ll be fine. You will not be fine. Don’t walk away from the faith – Jesus alone has the words of truth. And if we see a root of bitterness – a root that produces the bitter fruit of apostasy, we must deal with it. It is eternally damning.
Third, very quickly, see too it there be no immoral – the word is pornos – sexually immoral or godless person among you like Esau. We are to be concerned about each other’s purity and godliness. If we know a professing brother or sister is involved in sexual immorality or ungodliness, we should do something about it. We should rescue them from sin that so easily entangles. And if they refused to be rescued, painfully, we should remove them. I’m talking about people involved in sexual sin, who are ungodly, who have been lovingly and graciously confronted – who have no desire to repent. We cannot allow them to remain – a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Paul says to expel the immoral brother or sister.
Like Esau – which helps us understand what the author means by being godless. You remember the story. Esau was Jacob’s twin – but he came out first, making him the firstborn. Which meant he had the rights of the firstborn – a double inheritance, a greater blessing. He would carry on the family name and line – the covenant promises made to Abraham and Isaac. But Esau was more concerned about earthly things than God’s promises. Indeed, he cared more about a bowl of soup than his firstborn right. One day, he came in from hunting, was famished. Jacob had just finished preparing a meal of lentil stew. Esau said, give me a bowl of stew. Jacob, cunningly said, I will in exchange for your birthright. Esau, what is that to me, I’m starving. And he sold his birthright, which entitled him to the fulfillment of the promises of God. He cared more about the stuff of this earthly life than the things of God. That is what it means to be godless. My brothers and sisters, I can think of no more important text for American Christianity than this one. You can love Jesus and your stuff, too.
We’re not exactly sure what the author means when he called Esau sexually immoral. He married two Canaanite women, which grieved his parents. Later Jewish tradition referred to that decision as Esau being sexually immoral. Again, we’re not sure, but apparently he was. See to it that no one is sexually immoral – we cannot tolerate sexual sin among us. We must graciously and gently confront it – and call for righteousness. But further, we must also watch out for each other – listen – that we not be too focused on the stuff of this life. We must graciously and gently point each other’s eyes heavenward.
Verse 17, for you know that even afterward, when Esau desired to inherit the blessing – the blessing of the firstborn, he could not. He had despised it. When Isaac was old, he was prepared to give his blessing to his boys. But Jacob deceived his father, came in dressed like Esau, and received his father’s firstborn blessing. Esau came in later, and in tears sought a blessing. The point of verse 17 is the deed had been done. Esau was rejected – and could not find repentance. Meaning, he could not change what was already done. Esau was not seeking repentance and forgiveness – he was seeking more material blessing from his father. He continued to have his eyes on the stuff of this earth.
So there you have it – the beginning of final instructions to us. Help each other in the race. Pursue peace and sanctification, together. And keep an eye on each other. See to it that no one falls short of God’s grace by leaving; see to it that no one turns to apostasy and thus infects the body; see to is that there is no sexual immorality or godlessness among you. The overall truth to take from this text – the trip to heaven is a community trip. Love each other. Help each other. Watch out for each other. Eternity is at stake.