Sprinting for Peace and Holiness, Part 3
I have referred to Heb 12:14–17 as “Sprinting for Peace and Holiness” because the running metaphor in Hebrews 12 is a reference to the ancient Olympic foot race where the runners would go all-out, the finish line always in sight.
As I said in the previous posts, there are two goals that the author tells us we ought to sprint for: Peace and Holiness.
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Peace and holiness summarizes two of the most essential parts of our walk with the Lord as his church. If we’re running the race faithfully, we ought to be flourishing in our relationships with one another, and we ought to be flourishing in our relationship with the Lord.
Peace with everyone is a reference primarily to our responsibility toward others in the body of Christ.
Holiness—the kind that we need if we are going to be with the Lord—is what the Lord gives us when we come for salvation. We are told here to strive to live holy lives, separated from the world, and unto the Lord in our devotion to him.
But how do we strive for peace and holiness? How do we live so that these two virtues are alive and well in our lives and in our church?
The answer is in verses 15–17, which continues the exhortation,
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; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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.
Although the ESV translation, “See to it,” is an imperative, the verb is actually an adverbial participle telling us how we are to “strive” for peace and holiness. We are to strive while “seeing to it,” or, better, “watching out for” three damaging problems in the church that rob God’s people of peace and holiness.
What are these three damaging problems? They are easy to spot, since they are clearly marked off both in the Greek text and in the English translations. In the ESV they are marked off with the words, “That no.”
- That no one fails to obtain the grace of God.
- That no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble.
- That no one is sexually immoral.
What is unique about these warnings is that each of them, in their own way, are sometimes misinterpreted or misunderstood. My goal in this final post on Heb 12, therefore, is modest. I want to simply set forth the basic meaning of each of these warning texts in their context and explain how each of them must be avoided if we would sprint after peace and holiness.
WE MUST WATCH CAREFULLY FOR FALSE CONVERSION.
When the author says “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God” (Heb 12:15a), the words “grace” is NT shorthand for “the grace of God that brings salvation” (Titus 2:11). This passage, like a handful of other Hebrews texts, is sometimes taken to imply that people could fall away from God’s grace when they are already a believer and so “lose” their salvation. So, it is helpful to compare the language of this text with similar NT passages.
For example, in 2 Cor 6:1 Paul warns those who read his letter “not to receive the grace of God in vain,” and he follows this warning with a call to salvation. “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2b). In other words, he is warning those who are not believers lest they learn about the grace of God’s salvation through Christ yet not receive it for themselves. Paul has a similar concern when writing to the Galatians in Gal 5:4, where he cautions, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (i.e., the grace of God which brings salvation through Christ). In the context of the letter, Paul is warning that those who have assented to Christ and are trying to come to him through the law are not following the Christian gospel (cf. Gal 1:6–9). They are running the race, but they will not make it to the finish line (Gal 5:7).
In fact, the NT is consistent in its admonition that those who have never received Jesus Christ eventually drop out of the race. 1 John 2:19 puts it this way:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
The damaging problem in this exhortation is obvious. If church members are not true believers, there is nothing truly uniting them to the Lord and to his people and no Holy Spirit enabling them to live a holy life. Therefore, we must be diligent in building relationships within the church so that we can watch carefully for false conversions.
WE MUST WATCH CAREFULLY FOR APOSTASY.
That no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled (Heb 12:15b).=
Most of us have heard a good sermon or two on this verse, warning us against the sin of “bitterness.” And it is true that the sin of bitterness—resentment, hostility, acrimony, a seething ungratefulness—can rob a congregation of peace and holiness, and can even infect or “defile” other people (note Paul’s warning in Eph 4:31).
However, those sermons were most likely an example of right preaching from a wrong text. When the author says, “root of bitterness,” this is a descriptive genitive. He is talking about a “bitter root,” or a root that has a bitter quality.
We find the same grammar in Heb 3:12 where the author warns about a “heart of unbelief, or an unbelieving heart. So what does the author mean by a bitter root?
Like so many other places in Hebrews, we discover that the author is borrowing his language from the OT—particularly from Deuteronomy 29. In Deuteronomy 29, Moses is speaking for the last time to the children of Israel, whom he has led in the wilderness for 40 years. He tells them in Deut 29:16–17,
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.
Here he is reminding them of the idolatrous and immoral lifestyle of the nations out of which they had been rescued by God. He is telling them, “You remember that! So that you do not ever go back to it!”
Next, beginning in verse 18, in language that is highly similar to the language of Heb 12:15, Moses tells them,
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.
Who is this “bitter” or “poisonous” root among the people of God? Moses continues in verse 19,
… one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.”
In other words, the bitter root in Israel was a person who has been a member of the family, but falls back into disobedience, leading others astray. This is an example of apostasy.
Apostasy occurs when a person abandons a religious belief or practice which he or she once held or pretended to hold. An apostate is not simply a person who does not agree with the Bible or does not live a holy life; an apostate is someone who is going along with a congregation of people who believe the Bible and who are struggling to live a holy life by God’s grace. But then, slowly, even imperceptibly, that person begins to slip away, to believe something else, and to practice something else. And before long that person has influenced another person or family to follow a different example.
Sadly, what is supposed to be a body of believers at peace with one another because they are gathering around the same sound doctrine and holy living is corrupted, not by external pressure or the entrance of bad doctrine from without, but through the very hearts of people within.
WE MUST WATCH CAREFULLY FOR WORLDLINESS.
… that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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.
Why am I summarizing these verses by using the word worldliness? Two reasons:
First, because of the terminology at the beginning of verse 15:
“See to it that no one is sexually immoral or unholy.”
The expression “sexually immoral” translates the Greek word pornos, which can refer to any kind of sexual sin. However, the author may not be thinking about literal immorality here but about immorality as a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness. In fact, because Esau is not used as an example of sexual sin the author is likely using the term pornos to speak of a believer who does not remain faithful to God (cf. Jas 4:4; Hos 4:12).
This interpretation follows when considering that not only does the author warn about “sexual immorality,” but also about being “unholy.” This word “unholy” is very specific. It literally means that which is common to everyone, that which everyone sees, i.e., of this world only, not at all to do with the transcendent world, or the world beyond our physical senses. In other words, the word refers to worldliness.
So together these words warn us to watch out for the danger of believers becoming spiritual fornicators, loving the world more than God, loving God’s gifts instead of loving God himself. The author is warning us to watch out for the danger of living as if this world is all that matters, when we have inherited eternal, spiritual riches through Christ instead.
EXAMPLE OF ESAU
The second reason that I see this last warning as having to do with worldliness is because of the illustration the author uses to make his point here, the OT figure of Esau.
That no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
This is a reference, of course, to the story in Genesis 25 of Esau’s trading his birthright for a pot of stew because he was famished. The language of Heb 12:16 is emphatic. We could read it, “… like Esau, who actually sold his birthright—think of it!—for merely a single meal!”
The birthright is the right that the firstborn son had to inherit his father’s estate, to gain possession of most of the resources, to take over as head of the family. It would be like inheriting the family business, so it was an honored and coveted position, and one that had far-reaching implications. But Genesis 25:34 says that Esau “despised his birthright.” He counted it of little esteem. How could he?
The conclusion that the author must draw is that Esau he did not understand the value of what he was giving away, or perhaps he did not believe in its value.
“Birthright? Birthright? I’m starving. What is there to inherit anyway? We live in tents! We don’t own any of the land. We move from place to place with a lot of smelly animals. Then there’s this promise that Dad says was given to us from God. We’re supposed to become a great nation and all of the nations of the earth will be blessed through us. Hah! What a joke! Where’s the nation? Where’s the land? Where are all of the people? How do we know this is going to come to pass? It’s probably nothing. But right now, I really need something to eat. So, Jacob, you can have it.”
Do you see why the author is emphatic? Esau stood to inherit not only his father’s wealth but also the status of patriarch over the family through which God was going to rescue the human race. It would have been Esau God would have changed his name to Israel. It would have been the twelve sons of Esau.
Can you imagine?! For only a little bit of food—for something so small—to exchange something so magnificent. But Esau did not care, because he had little faith. He did not believe in the promise. In fact, he despised his birthright—he belittled it; demeaned it; spat on it; disregarded it.
That is what worldliness is, in essence. Worldliness is living as if all of the spiritual blessings we have been promised in Christ do not matter. When we focus on the things of this world, as if our job and our position and our status and our image and our pleasure are really the most important matters to us, we demean, we cheapen and disregard who we really are in Jesus Christ.
That is why we as a church—a body of God’s people, striving for peace and holiness—can never realize God’s blessings unless we put this world in the perspective that the author of Hebrews does. What we see going on here is merely a shadow passing away. It utterly pales in comparison to the eternal spiritual blessings that are ours through simply walking with the Lord and not giving our hearts to the world.
This is why the author exhorts us, watch out for false conversions—make certain you’re a believer. Watch out for apostasy—make certain you’re a faithful believer. Watch out for worldliness—make sure you’re a heavenly-minded believer.
For these are the damaging problems which can draw us away as a church from God’s blessing. May we guard against them in our own lives, and may we guard against them in the lives of others in our assembly, as we know and encourage one another, pressing on together toward the peace and holiness which defines us as the Lord’s church.