I have shown that the author's purpose in this letter has been to persuade his readers not to abandon Christianity for Judaism. He does this by demonstrating how Jesus is more glorious than any part or personality within the Jewish religion. He then goes on to say that God's people, in every age, glorify Him by being faithful. His conclusion, therefore, is that Jesus' disciples should glorify Him by their faithfulness.
He illustrates this point by parading a long list of Jewish heroes who all persevered under trial but died without possessing the promise. The writer explains that by faith they saw these promises from afar, and died without giving up hope. The unmentioned point is that his readers have seen the promise of salvation realized in Jesus Christ and have a better basis for belief, as well as a stronger reason for hope, and thus should not abandon their faith. In fact, he says, they should persevere all the more!
Just as the vision of faith enabled the people of the Old Testament to overcome obstacles and die faithfully serving God, the much clearer vision, created by faith in the fully revealed plan of God through Christ, should motivate the people of the New Testament to holy living and service as well. In the final section of this epistle the author will describe the life made possible by one whose eyes are opened by faith in Jesus Christ.
The Example of Jesus - Hebrews 12:1-3
The people of the Old Testament saw the promises from afar and provided a good example of faithfulness under trial. Today, they see Jesus, and the author says that aside from the witness of faithfulness from past heroes, the Lord's example of faith under extreme conditions should be the motivating factor to holiness and perseverance for them.
1Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
The author creates a scene where he compares the Christian life to a race where those who have successfully run in the past are now spectators cheering on the present contestants (Old Testament examples are the witnesses that surround the Christian in his race of faith). He adds that in the same way that long distance runners are lightly dressed and well trained, Christians must not be bogged down with sin and worldly concerns, and ready to run a race of endurance if they expect to finish.
2fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
In the Old Testament they saw the promise of salvation from afar. Christians, however, clearly see salvation in Jesus Christ and are urged to fix their focus on Him, and not be distracted by any other thing. The reason for this is that our faith was not only initiated by Jesus (His words and deeds), it will be completed by Him since He is there to help us finish faithfully. He gives Jesus as the supreme example of a runner who has succeeded by reminding his readers that Jesus focused on the joy that He was to experience (sitting with God after obtaining our salvation). This focus enabled Him to endure the mocking, shame, suffering and death on the cross without losing faith or focus.
3For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.
In every circumstance of the Christian's life, the key to finishing the race is to keep the focus on Jesus Christ and how He endured without failing to reach the end of His own race. Christian experience reminds us of the things we need to do to maintain that focus: a habit of daily prayer, regular worship and an ongoing study of His Word accompanied by a lifestyle devoted to obedience, service and Christian witness. These things guarantee that our focus on the prize of heaven will not waver. Concentrating on these matters will not tire us out or discourage us. It is sin, lack of focus on these things, and the inordinate love of the world that cause fatigue, discouragement, weakness and, ultimately, failure to finish the race.
Discipline, Proof of Sonship - 12:4-12
The author now addresses the difficulties that they are encountering as a result of their faith, and puts these into perspective. He tells them that these are not mindless events without purpose, but rather things that God uses to mold their character and perpetuate their faith.
4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin;
After describing the faithful lives of the Old Testament personages and the supreme example of Christ, he asks them to compare their present suffering with that of those who came before them. If these saints did not give up the faith in the face of death, why should they do so now, especially since they were experiencing lesser challenges?
5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as son,
"MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD,
NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM;
6FOR THOSE WHO THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES,
AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES."
He explains that trials and sufferings are used by God as a method to mold and teach them. Suffering is common to all men, but the fact that there are trials caused by faith is proof that some men are sons of God. Not all suffering is proof that we are children of God, lest this somehow become a criteria for salvation. However, suffering on account of faith is proof that God is working in one's life and the author says (by quoting the Old Testament - Deuteronomy 8:5; Proverbs 3:11-12) that this has always been so. For the one who disbelieves, his suffering produces little result and in the end becomes a sad reminder of sin and death. For the Christian, all suffering (specifically brought on by one's faith or as a result of human frailty) can and is used by God to produce spiritual maturity.
7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?
Suffering for our faith's sake is a proof of sonship, and the author parallels a natural father's relationship to his son with God's relationship with Christians. At that time, illegitimate children were not considered worthy of their father's attention so an absence of trials (discipline) was a sign of inattention and illegitimacy. We expect fathers to discipline their children and so shouldn't be surprised that our heavenly Father disciplines His children as well. The author concludes that if we respect our earthly fathers and submit to their discipline, should we not respect or submit to our heavenly Father with a hope of greater results stemming from His correction?
10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. 11All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
The author continues his comparison of the discipline of earthly and heavenly fathers. He says that earthly parents are sinful, inconsistent, temporal and preparing us for life here on earth. In comparison, our heavenly Father is perfect, fair, can provide correction from the beginning to the end of our lives, and does so to make us holy like He is thus enabling us to share in His eternal nature.
The author concludes that discipline, both earthly and heavenly, is never pleasant but it is fruitful, especially when given by God because it ultimately produces the spiritual fruit of peace that comes from a right standing with Him. If we endure trials faithfully, our hope for eternal life will be very strong and this hope will produce peace of mind. After explaining the reasons for their suffering and possible benefits produced from this, the author goes on to encourage them.
Encouragement - 12:12-13
He has already mentioned the immature, weak, unfaithful and discouraged ones among them. Now he tells them to build up these brethren, and uses the illustration of a healthy body with weak and injured members to make his point. This exhortation has two steps:
12 Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble,
Brace up the weak member. This is done by encouragement, teaching, correction and help, not by anger or speaking against them.
13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Go straight! Once the weak member is braced up, the rest of the body should go straight. In other words, once the spirit is supported it can more easily avoid the damaging effects of habitual sin. By bracing up the weak member and then going straight for the goal (spoken of before), the weak will be carried along by the strong and ultimately healed. In the church we do not amputate unless the member is dead. If the member is weak, we brace him up and carry him along.
Warning - 12:14-17
The writer goes from practical advice on what they should do, to a warning against the things they should avoid doing, and uses the example of Esau to make his point.
1. Avoid conflict
14A Pursue peace with all men
It seems that the problems within this church were either caused by or were producing conflict. In addressing this he urges them to avoid conflict by pursuing peace. Conflict, even for the best of reasons, often causes many to turn from Christ. He tells them to find ways that produce peace. These methods are difficult because they usually challenge our sense of pride and coveted positions. Pursuing peace always costs something and usually the one who pays the greatest price is the one who is trying to produce the peace (i.e. Jesus gave up His innocent life in order to produce peace between God and sinful man).
2. Avoid unholy living
14b and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.
To sanctify means to be separate unto the Lord. Avoid unholy alliances, unholy practices, unholy attitudes and pursue a continued separation of self to the Lord. Sanctified people encourage others, maintain peace within the assembly and should never be the cause for others to fall away.
3. Avoid spoiling others
15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled;
Some may give up following Christ because of many reasons (sin, faithlessness, cowardliness). Others act as a general cancer in that they fall away and, like a poison, bring others with them (their discouragement discourages others, their lack of faith weakens the faith of others, their sins infect and affect other people as well).
He warns these people that the damage that they cause to others may be irreparable even if they themselves one day repent.
16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.
Some things we do cause destruction that cannot be repaired, even if we ourselves repent and change our ways. The author uses Esau as an example of one who exchanged his birthright as "first born" (and the blessings and privileges that accompanied this position) to his brother Jacob for a bowl of stew because he was hungry. Esau was an impulsive and unholy man, and this attitude caused him to make this foolish decision. Later on he regretted it, changed his mind and wept before God asking the Lord to give back his position, but it was too late.
We see that later on in his life Esau changed. He became wiser and more reverent of God. He reconciled with his brother, Jacob, but this didn't change the results of his previous mistakes. Those who spoil others may regret and repent, but many times the damage done cannot be undone.
Exhortation - 12:18-29
Originally, the author was giving practical instructions on what to do (encourage) and what to avoid doing (conflict, unholiness, spoiling others). In this passage he says that the reason why these practical instructions should be followed is because we belong to the kingdom of God and bad conduct will not go unpunished. This has always been and will continue to be so.
Comparing the settings of the old and the new
18 For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, 19and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them. 20For they could not bear the command, "IF EVEAN A BEAST TOUCHES THE MOUNTAIN, IT WILL BE STONE." 21And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, "I AM FULL OF FEAR and trembling."
The author describes how the people of the Old Testament envisioned God and how God dealt with them. The scene he describes is from the people gathered at Mount Sinai in the desert (Exodus 19). Moses and the Israelites were terrified at the signs that heralded the presence of God among His people. These included a blazing fire, a trumpet blast, darkness and gloom, harsh words and a whirlwind that produced an awesome sight. Their image of God and His kingdom told them that they were not to come near for fear of defilement and death, that they were unworthy and unholy. Their fear urged them to obedience and yet, with all of this, they never were faithful to God. In other words, this terrifying vision never brought them any closer to living a holy and faithful life.
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
The image of God revealed through the new covenant (Christianity) is one of God being with His people in heaven, not on earth. The scene is still awesome, majestic and glorious, but is not meant to instill fear or rejection, but rather one of praise, comfort and invitation. Christians are not gathered in the desert at Mount Sinai but at Mount Zion (old name for Jerusalem).
In the Old Testament, Jerusalem was the "City of God" because the temple was there. In the New Testament, "Jerusalem" was the symbol for heaven because that is where God actually dwelled. Christians are not surrounded by gloom, fire, whirlwind, a terrible sound of trumpets and harsh words. They are among myriads of angels (praising God), the church (brethren), God (Father), Jesus Christ (Lord and Savior) and His sacrifice which, unlike Abel's blood that cries out for vengeance, has another purpose. Jesus' blood permits forgiveness and opens the doors of this celestial city where Christians have been invited to enter in as eternal guests.
In arguing for proper conduct, the author first begins by comparing the two settings where the people found themselves - one in the past and the one they are now in. In the last verses of this chapter he will show that even though the settings are different, God is the same. He did not tolerate disobedience and unfaithfulness in the past and He doesn't tolerate it now or in the future either.
Obedience to God is Necessary - 12:25-27
25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.
He makes an argument that says: if they refused to heed God's warning given through the terrible signs of His presence here on earth, and were punished for it - imagine the culpability for those who have seen the signs of God's presence in the heavenly sanctuary - and still disobeyed! Christ who died, resurrected and ascended into heaven is He who speaks and He who warns (from heaven) to remain faithful and to obey.
26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, "YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN." 27And this expression, "Yet once more," denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.
When God's voice spoke the first time (gave the Law, established His people and His holy place), the entire world shook and was affected. Verse 26 is taken from Haggai 2:6 (Old Testament prophet) who wrote about the reconstruction of the temple during the period of restoration. His thought was that once the temple was built, God would shake the nations in order to fill it with all of their treasures. The author of Hebrews takes this passage and uses it in connection with the end of the world stating that when Jesus returns, not only will the nations be shaken but the entire cosmic order will be dissolved (II Peter 3:10). The point here is that when this happens, only those things that cannot be destroyed will survive and the only thing that will survive the return of Jesus will be His faithful and obedient church (those who encourage and avoid conflict, unholy living and spoiling others) all else will be destroyed.
The author begins the chapter by explaining to his readers that the clearer view that they have of God through Jesus and His promises should produce a stronger faith in them than in the past. He says that this faith should motivate them to holiness and perseverance, despite the obstacles they face. He reminds them that when they encounter trials they should:
- Stay focused on Christ, not the trials, the world or themselves.
- Remember that trials are a proof of legitimate sonship where God is perfecting their faith.
- Realize that trials are not a punishment, they are a spiritual refining process if endured with faith.
He continues by telling them to encourage each other, especially the weak, and avoid things like conflict and unholy living which discourage others and destroy faith.
Finally, in verses 28-29 he tells them to be grateful for the blessings that they have in Christ.
28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29for our God is a consuming fire.
He shows how blessed they are by comparing the revelation of God that the Old Testament people had compared to the glorious one given to them in the New Testament. The comparison suggests that to reject God's offer of grace revealed through Christ is the height of ingratitude since it is revealed so gloriously and promises so much. The chapter ends with the reminder that the glory of God and His mercy revealed by Christ does not erase the terrifying side of His justice which will be exercised on all who reject His offer of mercy and forgiveness.
Our trials and difficulties overwhelm us only when we remove our focus from Jesus and begin concentrating exclusively on our problems. We become unfaithful and see no difference in our lives but foolishly ignore the fact that we could be swept away in a moment without Christ. The prayer, study and strengthening of our faith through service and worship prepare us for the day when the storm comes. And when it does come, we need to remember more than ever that we must keep our eyes on the Lord, not the storm.
Trials and suffering are part of everyone's lives, believer and non-believer alike. Being a Christian does not protect us from suffering. In fact, in many cases it causes more problems. We need to remember that even though we may suffer various trials, this is not a sign that God is punishing us. On the contrary, it is usually a reminder that God is intimately involved in our lives. Unlike unbelievers, our trials can work to produce everlasting rewards. Therefore, let us never use our trials as an excuse to abandon Christ or the church. We should try to see these things as tools that God uses to test our faith and create in us a more Christ-like character.
It is important to have a proper vision of God. Unfortunately, as sinful human beings, we tend to see God as we want to see Him (nice God, funny God, indulgent God, mean God), but the only description of God that has any accuracy is the one contained in His Word. It says that He is merciful, kind and compassionate to those who seek, obey and trust Him; but it also says that for those who disobey, who are unfaithful and ungrateful, that He is a consuming fire. A proper attitude in prayer, worship and conduct will only be developed when we recognize both facets of God's character: His love and His justice. This proper vision of Him will help us avoid the extremes of becoming too frightened of Him or too complacent about Him.