Sunday, September 25, 2022

Three Steps to Staying Faithful (Hebrews 12:25-29)

When I taught at the university, one of the challenges I had to deal with (and I think this is common to most, if not all, teachers) was the failure on the part of some students to actually learn what I had taught them. This was true even sometimes of students who came to class every time. They would sit there and take notes and nod their heads in agreement, but when it came to applying that knowledge to specific problems on an exam, they just couldn’t do it.

What was the problem? Well, one of the problems is that some students think that seeing something is the same thing as truly knowing and understanding it. They’ve seen a particular problem worked on the board and were able to follow the steps and so on, and they think that’s all there is to it. But it isn’t. And what I had to keep reminding my students is that if you really want to learn the material, you have to do the homework. This is true in most subjects; it certainly is true in mathematics. It is not a spectator sport; if you want to learn it, you have to be able to do it on your own. This is true also in the sports arena. You don’t learn tennis by watching tennis but by playing tennis. You don’t become a Lebron James by just watching every basketball game that James has played in. You have to play the game. You have to take knowledge and apply it.

As we get to the close of the book of Hebrews, we have to admit that we’ve been taught a lot. There is a lot of information here. There is a lot about the glory of the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is a lot about the promises of God to the believer. There is a lot about the privileges that God’s children have. There is also a lot about the dangers that await those who abandon the faith. But all this was not simply information to take in. It was all meant to be applied. Doctrine is supposed to lead to duty, exhortation to application. And the application was meant to be perseverance in the faith as opposed to abandoning the faith. The duty was steadfast love and loyalty to Jesus their Prophet, Priest, and King.

However, sometimes it can seem difficult to know how specifically to apply truth to our lives. It can therefore be very helpful when we are given concrete steps that show us the way. I think that this is sort of what is happening here in the verses before us. The point is about application. How do I go from halting between two opinions to being determined to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost? What practical, concrete steps can I take to apply God’s word to my life?

Well, in these verses, we have what I’m calling three steps to service. The first step is to hear God’s word. You see this in verses 25-27 and 29. The second step is the response of gratitude. You see that in verse 28. And then what follows from that is service and worship. You see that in verse 28 also. I think these steps are not only important in and of themselves, but also their order is important. Let’s consider these three things together and in their proper order.

We must hear God’s word (25-27)

You might remember that one of the points I made in our very first message on this epistle is that it is bookended with emphases on the fact that Jesus the Son of God is speaking to us and we need to hear him. In 1:2, we are told that “in these last days” God has “spoken unto us by his Son.” Now in verse 25 of chapter 12, we are told, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh.” In that verse, the one who is speaking is also Jesus, for it is his blood that “speaketh better things than that of Abel” (24). So he has spoken, he is speaking, and he will speak (26-27). The problem with the Hebrew Christians appears to be that they had stopping hearing him as they should, and the author of this epistle is trying to awaken them to their need to listen to him. They have been listening to all the wrong things; they need to turn to eyes and ears to Jesus.

The same thing is often true of us. Too often we just end up listening to the world, a world that is alienated from God. This is a world that tells you that making money and keeping money is more important than laying up treasure in heaven. We listen to a world that tells us momentary comfort is more important than eternal life. It tells you that self-care is more important that loving your neighbor as yourself, and it has absolutely no category for the love of God. This is a world that tells you in fact not to listen to anything else or to give anyone or anything ultimate authority over your own heart. Of course, hopefully you see the irony in this. We end up thinking we are self-determining our own destiny and identity, but what we are really doing is just doing what the wider culture approves that we do. We are slaves, but only slaves to a society in rebellion against God, and that is not going to turn out well.

We need to listen to the Lord. So how do we do that? Well, first of all we need to know where to find the word of the Lord. The point of our text is that it is found in the words of Jesus. And that in turn tells us that we ought to value the authority of the Holy Scriptures because our Lord himself accepted the Old Testament as the authoritative word of God and his gave his authority to his apostles who in turn gave us the New Testament. We can have confidence in the Scriptures because we have confidence in Jesus. And we have confidence in Jesus because he rose from the dead and vindicated his claim to be the Son of God and Savior of the world. If you are a Christian, you have experienced his power already in raising you from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ. So what I am saying is that if you have a high view of Jesus, you must have a correspondingly high view of the written word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. They go together; you really cannot have one without the other. You should in fact look with skepticism upon anyone who claims to honor Jesus but who then downplays the teaching of the Bible. Would you hear the Lord? Go to the Bible!

But we not only need to understand where to find the word of the Lord; we also need to understand the seriousness of what the Lord is saying to us. This is something that the author of Hebrews has labored to get across throughout the pages of this epistle. It is a fact that just because something is serious doesn’t mean people will take it seriously. If that were the case, there would probably be a lot fewer wars. Parents spend a lot of their time trying to convince their children that certain things are more serious than their kids think they are. Even so, the reality is that sometimes we don’t take God’s word seriously because we don’t understand just how serious the issues are that it speaks to.

The seriousness of God’s word to us in Christ is underlined in verses 25-27. There we are brought again before Sinai. When we read, “him that spake on earth” (25) and “whose voice then shook the earth” (26), we are meant to imagine Sinai. At Sinai, God’s words literally shook the earth. That should have gotten the attention of everyone present. But it didn’t and the reason why we know it didn’t is that many of those same folks went on to rebel against God’s word. They refused to obey. They turned back from Canaan in unbelief. And, as we have already been reminded in chapters 3-4, they came under the wrath of God. They rejected God’s word, but that didn’t mean they escaped God’s judgment. They most certainly didn’t. Their carcasses fell in the wilderness as a warning that those who turn their backs on God’s command will face his unremitting judgment.

But note how the argument turns here. It is again an argument from the lesser to the greater. We saw this back in 2:3; we see it again here: “much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven” (12:25). What is the point being made here? The point is that the one who is speaking to us now is Jesus the Lord, enthroned at the right hand of the Father. He is risen and to him all power in heaven and earth has been granted. Jesus is speaking to us, but he is no longer speaking to us, as God did at Sinai, on the earth, but from heaven. He is speaking to us as such, as the risen Lord, in the gospel. He is speaking to us as such in the pages of the Scriptures. That’s why the apostle Paul could tell the Ephesians who had never personally met Jesus, “But ye have no so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20-21). When we hear the gospel being preached in Spirit and in truth, we are hearing Christ. But when we do so, we should not imagine him in his weakness. No, he is the King; he is your King and mine. The words of Christ are words from heaven: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

And there is a difference between God speaking on the earth at Sinai and God speaking from heaven in Christ. Sinai promised the children of Israel good harvests and healthy children and secure borders if they obeyed. The gospel promises real forgiveness of sins and joy in the presence of God forevermore. The blessings of the gospel are not material; they are spiritual. In other words, the difference between God speaking on earth (Sinai) and God speaking from heaven (in Christ) is the difference between the temporal and the eternal. Jesus did not rise from the dead and ascend into heaven in order to grant you a better life now. He did it so that those who believe in him will have eternal life. What the gospel promises is not health, wealth, and prosperity in this sad world, but life in the world to come. It doesn’t promise worldly success; it promises restoration into God’s fellowship. It means being justified before God and accepted with God on the basis of the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

You see this also in verses 26-27: “Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.” This is a quotation from Hag. 2:6, but the point is that at Sinai only the earth shook. Sinai only shook up the present order of things, so to speak. But what the gospel points us to is something more permanent and more stable and more enduring. It points us to the eternal order, and order that will still remain when God rolls up this sin-sick earth and brings about the new heavens and new earth (cf. Heb 1:10-12). God’s voice will one day not only shake mountains but the very earth itself and remove anything that is not eternal, and only those who are in Christ will survive that.

And that means to turn away from the gospel is to turn your back on the eternal, the most valuable. It is to turn your back on God’s Son himself. And that merits an even greater punishment than what happened to those who turned their backs on the God of Sinai. That is the point here. When you reject the gospel, you are not rejecting someone else’s recipe for a better you or for a better career or better earthly prospects. You are rejecting him who speaks from heaven, whose blessings are spiritual and eternal and whose authority is that of the risen and enthroned King of kings and Lord of lords.

Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that any of God’s elect will be lost or that God ultimately depends upon our response. God’s elect will not be lost, and God’s purpose of grace will stand. But what I’m saying is that Christ is Lord, and that he is the Lord of every single person on this planet, past, present, and future. It doesn’t matter who you are; he is your King, and because of that it is wicked to refuse to hear him. On the other hand, it is eternal life to hear him. So what should be our response to this? It should be to do what verse 25 says to do: “See that you refuse not him that speaketh”!

Just to underscore this, the author comes back to this in verse 29: “For our God is a consuming fire.” God will shake loose all that is not eternal. And he is a consuming fire to destroy all who are not in Christ, “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9). If that doesn’t show you how serious this is, I don’t know what can.

So if you are convinced of the seriousness of the word of Christ, the gospel, how should you hear it? Well, you should receive Christ as Lord and Savior – that’s the language of Scripture (Jn. 1:12; Col. 2:6) – which is really just to recognize him for who he really is in fact. Trust in him as your Lord to rule you, and your Savior to redeem you. Stop living as if you called the shots; submit to him. Stop thinking that you are good enough or can become good enough; rest in the finished work of Christ. If you trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, to see him as the one who has the right to rule over you and as the only one in whom you can find the forgiveness of sins, I can promise you on the basis of Scripture that you are saved, forgiven, and justified before God in Christ.

And then, don’t stop there. Preach the word of Christ to yourself on a daily basis. Meditate upon them. Apply them to your life. Pray God’s word. Take the language of Scripture and make it your own. Take the epistles and ask the Lord to make the commands a reality in your life. Ask him to help you to appropriate his promises for yourself. See that you refuse not the one who speaks from heaven. That’s the first step.

We must be grateful for God’s gifts (28)

The second step is gratitude: “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace” (28). Now this word “grace” here should be taken in the same sense as when we “say grace” at the table. We all recognize that to “say grace” is the same thing as to “give thanks.” This is sometimes how the word grace is used in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Tim. 1:12, we read that Paul writes, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord,” but the Greek literally says, “I have grace with Christ Jesus our Lord.” The translation “I thank Christ” is of course the correct one. To have grace in this sense is to be thankful. And so when our author says, “let us have grace” he means, “let us be grateful” (ESV).

Now this must follow, for to hear God’s word correctly, by the Spirit working in our hearts, means that we will receive it with hearts of gratitude to God. Those who hear God’s word and reject it and suppress it do the opposite. They become hardened in ingratitude. This is what the apostle says, for example, in Romans 1: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [down] the truth in unrighteousness . . . because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 1:18, 21, 25). Here we see the opposite trajectory than we see in our text. In our text we see hearing God’s word leading to thankfulness leading to service and worship. In the Romans text, we see suppressing God’s word leading to unthankfulness leading to idolatry.

How does this work? Well, if you understand the seriousness of the danger we are in through our own sin and rebellion against God, and if you understand the grace of God which comes to us freely through the redemptive work of Christ on the behalf of sinners, and which is not received by works of righteousness but simply by faith, then you cannot but be grateful and thankful. You cannot help but say with the apostle Paul, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). (Incidentally, the Greek here also reads, “Grace [charis] to God for his inexpressible gift!”). The grace of God towards us must inevitably lead to the giving of grace back to God in expressions of gratitude and thankfulness. The relief that one feels when they understand the twin truths that (1) they deserve God’s judgment and (2) that God has freely by grace averted his judgment by placing it on Christ instead, must lead to the love to God and joy in God.

We see this in the very terms of the text before us. First, if we belong to Christ through faith, we should be thankful to be in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of his dear Son. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “ thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet [worthy] to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12-14). If you are not in the kingdom of Christ, then you are under the power of darkness, ruled over by Satan and his emissaries, walking “according to the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), “taken captive by [the devil] at his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). To be translated into God’s kingdom is to be delivered once and for all from the malign presidency of Satan over the soul. Thank God for that!

It also means that we are not living under the rule of God, that we are citizens in his kingdom. When Paul says to the Philippians in Phil. 3:20, “For our conversation is in heaven,” that word conversation means citizenship. He is saying that the believer’s ultimate citizenship is not in some earthly state or kingdom or empire but in heaven. And as citizens of heaven, we are privileged with all the rights and responsibilities and the benefits that belong to such. It means that we have the Spirit of Christ. It means that we have access to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and help in time of need. It means that we are under the protection of the King of heaven and earth. What blessings we have! Not because we made ourselves worthy but because Christ made us worthy by his righteousness and blood. How thankful therefore we should be.

Second, if we belong to Christ through faith, we should be thankful for an unshakable kingdom. We have not only received a kingdom, but a “kingdom which cannot be moved.” This world and all that is in it will one day be moved. That is the point of the previous verses (26-27). God’s word which once shook Sinai will shake the universe to its very foundations and remove everything sinful and corrupt. As the apostle Peter put it, “For . . . by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:5-7). What this word of God will do, the apostle goes on to tell us: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (10). We are those who are “looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat” so that “we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (12-13).

For think about it: why are we so often sad? Where does much of our grief come from? It often comes from the losing (or perhaps failure to attain) a good and valued gift. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is a kingdom that, when it comes in its fulness and when we experience the new heavens and new earth that replaces this current order, will come with pleasures forevermore and joys undimmed by the passage of time. This is a kingdom where we really will live happily forever after. Why do you think we like stories like that? We like them because we were made for them. That’s what God gives us freely in Christ Jesus. We don’t have to be afraid of death or ignore the fact that we are going to die because for the Christian this is a door to be with Christ which is far better than any other alternative.

Third, we should be thankful for receiving this kingdom. Don’t miss this. “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom.” This is not something that we buy or merit or get on our own. It is not something that we work for. It is not something that we conquer or achieve, it is something we receive; it is a gift. This is grace.

Why? Because of the person and work of Jesus. That is the only reason anyone gets into this kingdom. “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Now suppose you are someone who is just realizing the danger to which your sins expose you. Suppose you want to flee from the wrath to come, but you don’t know where to run. What do you do? Do you set out reforming your life so that God will receive you? Do you work on cleaning yourself up first? Do you make yourself acceptable to God? Do you try to make yourself righteous?

No. For that is just the same as saying that it is your works that bring you into the kingdom. But that is not how we get in. We get in through grace. We get in not because of what we do or have done but solely on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ. The apostle Paul explains, “But after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:4-7).

This is why the Bible says over and over and over and over again that we receive God’s gift through faith. Faith is the hand of the beggar. It doesn’t bring anything to God to give; it only opens to receive. As Toplady put it so well:

Nothing in my hands I bring, 

Simply to thy cross I cling. 

Naked come to thee for dress, 

Helpless look to thee for grace; 

Foul I to the fountain fly: 

Wash me, Savior, or I die.

If you see yourself to be a wretched sinner in need of salvation, if you ask me, as the Philippian jailor asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Then I can only answer as Paul did: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:30-31).

Now don’t misunderstand me. The call to Christ is also a call to repentance. It is a message of repentance and faith (cf. Acts 20:21). You don’t come to Christ to keep your sins, but to turn from them. You don’t only receive him as Savior but also as Lord. So you must turn from your sins. But you need to understand that repentance is not the ground of your salvation. Only Christ is. You don’t trust in your repenting. You don’t even trust in your faith, but solely in the person and work of Christ. Don’t look to yourself but look to Christ. “Look unto me, and be ye saved all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22).

Thank God this is not a kingdom achieved, but a kingdom received. Do you believe that? Then cultivate the attitude of gratitude.

We must serve the Lord with reverence and godly fear.

If we are truly thankful for the grace of God toward us in Christ Jesus, this will lead to a heart that wants to serve and worship him. Hence it is that we read, “let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (28). The word serve here is synonymous with worship. To serve God is to worship him. Those who will not hear God’s word and be grateful for his gospel will end up serving and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). On the other hand, those who hear his word and are thankful will turn from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:10).

So we must not think of this only in terms of doing stuff for God. This is more than just deeds and duty. This is primarily about a heart of devotion to God. You see this in the way our service to God is described: it is “with reverence and godly fear.” So this is not just doing stuff for God, it is a lifestyle of walking with God and before God. In particular, it is living out the realities that we say we believe. We believe we have received a kingdom. Very well, that means God is our King, and we are his servants: let us therefore serve him. Let us seek his kingdom first, even before seeing to the needs of our food and clothing (Mt. 6:33). Above all, what this means is that we cultivate a sense of the presence of God in our lives.

Now this is what the author wants to encourage in the members of this little house church in Rome. It is the opposite of apostasy. They must not to turn back to a Christless Judaism. Nor should they to turn to idols. Rather, they should be steadfast in serving the true and living God.

But what about the words: “with reverence and godly fear”? Doesn’t this seem to point to a joyless, “why- so-serious” kind of religion? How is that attractive? Especially when it is motivated by verses like 29: “For our God is a consuming fire.” How is that consistent with a heart of thankfulness? How do we put these two things together? How do you have a person whose heart is brimming with gratitude to the Lord for his grace and at the same time filled with godly fear because God is a consuming fire?

Well, you really need to have both godly fear and gratitude. In reality, you can’t have one without the other. Take away the “our God is a consuming fire,” and you take away the breathtaking wonder that is salvation from sin. In other words, you take away any real grounds for gratitude. People who never take God’s justice and holiness and justice and power seriously, who never want to think about hell and the eternal punishment of the wicked, cannot have the kind of deep thankfulness that is commended in our text. They may smile but theirs is a thin smile pasted on a face that will not withstand the winds and waves of trouble and trials. Their joy is a thin joy, and their love is a thin love. But those who really stand before a holy God, who like Isaiah and Moses know what it means to tremble before the living God, they will never reach the bottom of the wonder of the grace and mercy and love of God. They will be forever grateful and thankful. As a result, their worship will not be something they have to do but a spontaneous and willing response of a joyful heart to the grace of God in Christ. Their joy will be “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).

So let us hear the word of God. Let us take it seriously. And let its truth cultivate the deep gratitude of faith in Christ, so that we worship and serve him, so that we serve the Creator rather than the creature, so that we serve him with our lips and lives, with our words and works, with reverence and godly fear.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Two Mountains (Hebrews 12:18-24)

How do you convince Jewish Christians to remain faithful to Christ, when they are under tremendous pressure to abandon their faith for a Judaism without Jesus? One way you do it by showing that Judaism without Jesus is not a religion that provides for salvation from sin. And you do it by showing that Jesus does provide full and certain salvation because he is the Son of God who is also the true high priest before God who accomplished redemption and atonement. That is what our author has been doing throughout this epistle.

He comes back to that now in the verses before us, and the way he does this is to use a Biblical metaphor that contrasts Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. Both of these mountains were of tremendous significance to the Israelites. On Mount Sinai the people of Israel received the Law of God. Mount Zion, the location of Jerusalem, was the symbol of the nation of Israel and its strength. It was also a symbol for the eternal city, not Rome but of heaven. You see this in Galatians, where the apostle Paul contrasts the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly Jerusalem: the former symbolizes Sinai and the Old Covenant and the latter the New Covenant (Gal. 4:21-31). You also see this in the book of Revelation, where heaven comes down to earth in the form of the heavenly, or new, Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1, ff).

You will also remember that the gathering of the Israelite nation before Sinai was on the front end of their wilderness journeying. During the wilderness era, the thirty-eight years following their refusal to obey God to go in and conquer Canaan, most of the men perished. We’ve seen that recounted in chapters 3 and 4 of this epistle. Even though they received the Law, they remained in unbelief, and they suffered the consequences of God’s wrath. They never entered into God’s rest. So you can see how Sinai can be a symbol for judgment, not salvation. That is how it is pictured here.

It is not that God’s Law is bad. As the apostle Paul will put it to the Romans (Rom. 7:9-13), God’s law is holy. We are the problem. We are sinners, and when you put sinners who want self-sovereignty in front of the demands of God’s Law, what happens is the push-back of rebellion and more sin. But what this shows is that Sinai is insufficient to save. It can reveal to a man his sin but apart from a Mediator, apart from a true sacrifice for sin, he will perish. The author does not want them to go back to a Christless Judaism, for that would be to abandon Jerusalem for Sinai. Instead, he wants them to go to Mount Zion (indeed, he is hopeful that is where they are already at!), where Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant.

Now we can read these verses and think that they are not really relevant for us. We might think or say that we really don’t care about either of these mountains. Like the Samaritan woman who encountered our Savior at Jacob’s well, we might have our own mountain at which we worship (cf. John 4:20). But what I want to argue this morning is that everyone will face one of these two mountains. You will either end up at Sinai or you will end up on Mount Zion. I am of course speaking figuratively, but that for which the figures stand are of infinite consequence to you and me.

The text of verses 18-24 is clearly divided into two parts. In verses 18-21, the readers are told that they have not come to Sinai, and what follows are seven things that characterize Sinai. Then in verses 22-24, they are told that they have come to Zion, and what follows that are seven things that characterized Zion. There could not be any greater difference between two mountains!

Now what does it mean here to come? Every other time this word is used in this epistle, it is a reference to drawing near to God. In 4:16, it is coming boldly to the throne of grace. In 7:25, it is coming to God by

Jesus. In 10:1 it is coming to the worship of God in the old tabernacle. In 10:22 is drawing near to God “in full assurance of faith.” In 11:6, it is coming to God by faith. So the coming here in verses 18 and 22, is a coming before God. And so here is what I want to argue for in this message: that these two mountains show us that we will and must appear before God, either at Sinai or at Zion, and that Zion is infinitely to be preferred to Sinai. But the only way we can go from Sinai to Zion is through Jesus. It follows, then, that it is incredible folly to abandon Jesus for that would put us back at Sinai; and, on the other hand, if we find ourselves at Sinai, we should make our way to Jesus as quickly as we can.

With these thoughts in mind, I want to make the following observations on this text.

First, where we think we are going and where we are actually going are not necessarily the same thing.

The Hebrew Christians who were thinking about leaving the Christian faith for a safer Judaism might have thought this was a good choice. For them, it meant leaving a religion whose legality was in doubt for one which had the protection of the Roman Empire. It meant leaving a religion with a huge credibility deficit for one which was at least tolerated. It meant leaving stigma and persecution behind for acceptance and safety. All in all, a good choice! But the author of Hebrews wants them to realize that they are leaving Zion for Sinai. They are leaving Jerusalem for judgment.

There is a similar pressure upon Christians today. One of the complaints about the Christian faith is that it insists upon certain things: a certain set of values that are now fundamentally at odds with modern, American culture, and a certain set of beliefs that are seen to be outdated and unscientific. And so people leave to embrace the cult of modernity and they think they have made a great choice. Now they can be more inclusive and loving, as the world sees it. They are embraced instead of shunned. They are honored instead of hated (where is all that love in the world, again?).

And so people leave Mount Zion; they leave the Christian faith. And they set out for a mountain of their own imagination, of their own creation. Or at least they think they do. But they will only end up at Sinai. And the reason they will end up there is because at the end of the day they do not get to choose reality. Only God gets to do that.

Now it is true that if this world is the product of undirected natural processes, if there is no God, then life truly has no meaning. And if that’s the case, the only meaning there is, is the meaning that you arbitrarily assign to it (although, you can’t think too hard about that, or you will realize that your “meaning” is really meaningless). Or, to put it another way, there are no mountains. Nothing is fixed, but we live upon ocean, ever changing and always unstable. But why should we think that? Why should we believe that there is no God? Why should we believe there is no meaning? I know the common answer to that is that evolution proves this. But how so? Apart from the problems with evolution – and more scientists are beginning to see that the neo-Darwinian synthesis has too many problems to be sustainable as a viable theory for the complexity of life on earth (witness guys like the Yale scientist David Gelernter) – the fact of the matter is that it is fundamentally illogical to think that unguided processes can produce order and logic and life. It is not science that gives us this; it is atheism, which is fundamentally a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

We don’t live, in any case, in a world where people really think that there are no mountains. Everyone believes in some sort of absolutes. But the thing is that if there are mountains – if there is this absolute reality out there – then you don’t get to define it. Only the one who made the mountains gets to define it. Only someone who stands outside the created order, who is not a piece of furniture in the universe, can tell us where the mountains are and what they mean.

And that is God. And God has spoken; he has spoken in history and in the person of his Son. He has spoken in the Bible – we know this because Jesus – God’s Son – accepted the authority of the Old Testament and gave authority to the writers of the New. And he tells us that there are only two mountains. Our text tells us there are only two mountains. If you leave Zion, you will only find yourself at Sinai. There are no other options.

Second, Sinai is reality apart from Christ. And it is only judgment, darkness, and fear. In verses 18-21, the author recreates for us the experience of Israel gathered before Sinai. The “mount” in verse 18, is Mount Sinai. There are seven aspects of their experience that he highlights in these verses. First, there was the fact that it “might be touched.” What is meant by this? When you compare what is said about Mount Sinai with what is said about Mount Zion, you will see that many of the realities referred to that characterized Zion are not yet tangible. The innumerable company of angels, the names written in heaven, the spirits of men made perfect. That doesn’t mean they aren’t real, but it does mean that they are not yet tangible. Faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). So I think one of the points being made here is that Sinai represents the tangible, the present order of things. But it is an order that is passing away (cf. 26-27). And it is passing away because of sin. Death is a part of the warp and woof of this world because of human sin and rebellion. It is why the apostle Paul said that “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). And that’s what this world is apart from Christ; it can be touched, yes, but it is passing away. If you want to grasp it, go ahead, but you will only have to give it up.

Second, Mount Sinai “burned with fire.” In Exodus 19, we read, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke therefor ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly” (17-18). Fire in the Bible is very often the symbol of the judgment of God. Fire can purify, yes; but it can also consume. It purifies gold; it burns up chaff. And it will consume all who are outside of Christ. His “fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:12). It is not for no reason that hell is described in terms of fire. Even so, Mount Sinai burned with fire. If you are outside of Christ, this is what you will face – though not the fire that quickly passes away and burns itself up, but the fire that is unquenchable.

Third and fourth, we are told that Mount Sinai was shrouded in “blackness” and “darkness.” This is emphasized in Deut. 4:11 – “And ye came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire unto the midst of heaven, with darkness, clouds, and thick darkness.” King Solomon said that God said that he would dwell in thick darkness (2 Kings 8:12). But it is darkness only because he who is light cannot reveal himself to sinful men without consuming them. It is our sin that brings the darkness. It was darkness that covered Egypt in the plagues, and it was a darkness that could be felt. Even so, our sin brings darkness. Our sin separates from God. Our sin blinds us to the glory of God. Thus it is that the apostle tells us that to walk in sin is to walk in darkness and to walk with God is to walk in the light (1 John 1). Darkness is again a sign of God’s judgment.

Fifth, there was a “tempest,” or a whirlwind. This was no quiet fire, nor peaceful darkness. It was a storm of fire and smoke and darkness. The mountain was shaking. It was as if the entire landscape transformed suddenly and apocalyptically into a furnace to burn away all the enemies of God.

Sixth, we are alerted to the “sound of a trumpet.” “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice” (Exod. 19:19). The trumpet was calling the people to attention. There was no avoiding this confrontation. There was no ignoring it. This was not a trumpet call you could pretend not to hear. God’s judgment is like that. The Lord may allow people to go on in their sins for a time. He may give them mercy for many years in fact. But there is coming a Day of Reckoning. There is coming a Day of Judgment, and the wicked will not escape it.

Seventh, there was “the voice of words.” Now this might seem anticlimactic in contrast to fire and tempest. But the point is that, whatever else they saw, the children of Israel didn’t see the form of God: “And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice” (Deut. 4:12). This is not only to prevent them from future idolatry; it was also to underline their distance from God. This is further reinforced in the rest of verse 19 and also 20 (of Heb. 12): “which voice they that heard intreated [begged] that the word should not be spoken to them any more: for they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart.” The voice of God is frightening apart from Christ, for it will finally convince us of our sins when we have spent our entire lives denying it. Those who spend their days denying their need of salvation will one day have their mouths shut as they are arraigned in the presence of the living God (cf. Rom. 3:19).

Now to understand just how awful this experience was, listen to the testimony of Moses: “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (21). This was Moses, the man of God. Here was a holy man, a chosen man. And yet he did not look at this as if it were some fireworks display. He didn’t find this exciting. He found it utterly terrifying. What makes us think we will find Sinai any different?

Listen, if you’ve had even a small realization of just how holy God is and how utterly exposed you are to his wrath, you would be right where Moses is. And if you’ve ever experienced this, thank God. So many people today shrug this off. They say that it is a bad thing that Christians tell others about the judgment of God and that they should be afraid of it. But if you are not afraid of it now, you will be later, only then it will be too late. You ought to thank God for his mercy if you have ever found yourself in front of Mount Sinai. For it is only when you realize that, that you will flee for mercy under the refuge of Mount Zion.

Do you know that you are a sinner? Do you know what that means? If you think you’re alright, why do you think that? What standard are you judging yourself by? Your own? What makes you think God will use your standard? My friend, God has revealed his standard. You will find it trumpeted on Mount Sinai. You will find it in his law, not in the licentious libertinism of our day and age. You will find it in a law that judges your motives and your thoughts and your dreams as well as your words and actions. Think about it: how embarrassed and humiliated would you be if everyone else could see your thoughts? What makes you think, then, that God – whose word will penetrate to the very depths of your inner self – will think you are okay? I can tell you on the basis of God’s own word, he will not! You are there before Sinai, and you will not solace for your fears or atonement for your sins. You will only find darkness, fire, tempest, and judgment.

Third, Zion is reality in Christ. It is this reality that is portrayed for us in verses 22-24. You see that in verse 24, where Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant. There are seven things about Sinai we should fear; even so there are seven things about Zion we should cherish.

First, Zion is called “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” When you come to God through Jesus, this is what you come to. This is the city that Abraham looked for: “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Heb. 11:16). Whereas Sinai points to the present order of things, Zion points us to the future. It points us to heaven. It points us to a place: “I go to prepare a place for you,” our Lord told his disciples, “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (Jn. 14:2-3). This is not a city that you come to apart from Christ; you only get to this through him (6).

Cities in our day have a pretty bad rap, not all of it undeserved, because they can be places where people are not safe, where there is more pollution, more poverty, more trash, more disease, less space, and less privacy. But in the ancient world, you were generally safer in a city. Cities had walls; villages didn’t. When our Lord says that he is preparing for us a place in a city, we should not think so much of the bad things we associate with the modern metropolis, but with a sense of belonging and safety. That is what our Lord provides to those in Christ.

And because it is the city of the living God, we can be sure that we will be forever safe there. In the book of Revelation, when Satan is released from his prison and gathers his armies together to fight against the Lord, they “compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city.” What was the result? Did their siege work? Is the city of God safe? Of course it is! “And fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:9- 10).

What is this city like? The apostle John tells us: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:1-4). This is very unlike Sinai! Sinai was a place to flee from; this is a place to long for, to hope for, to anticipate, a place given to us by Christ.

Second, Zion is the place of “an innumerable company of angels.” Now at this point, I need to address a translation issue. The KJV puts “general assembly” with “church of the firstborn.” However, if you look at the structure of the text, the word “and” seems to indicate where the commas should go (with the exception of the first, which seems to act in the sense of “even”). Hence, the seven things associated with Zion are (1) the city of the living God, the new Jerusalem, (2) and the innumerable company of angels in festal gathering (the meaning of the term “general assembly”), (3) and the church of the firstborn, (4) and God the judge of all, (5) and the spirits of just men made perfect, (6) and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, (7) and the blood of sprinkling. So I take “general assembly” with the “innumerable company of angels.”

There are two things mentioned about the angels. First, they are an innumerable company. The heavenly armies of God are not thin in the ranks. Second, they are gathered in heaven in joyful worship: the term “general assembly” is the Greek word panegyris and refers to “a joyful gathering in order to celebrate a festival”– hence we could translate this as “an innumerable company of angels in festal gathering.” Again, this is a stark contrast to Sinai. And although angles were viewed as being at Sinai (cf. Ps. 68:17), they were not there to celebrate but to give the law. Here they are celebrating over the works of God in redemption: “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Lk. 15:10). Heaven is not a place of gloom and darkness and fear, but a place of worship and joy and celebration.

We need to remember that we come to this when we come to Christ. The church on earth is united with the angels in heaven in the worship of the living God. It is easy to forget that, especially when we are small and of no account in this world. Imagine how small and powerless the members of a small house church in Rome must have felt! But we are reminded here that every Christian church, no matter how small, is an outpost for the kingdom of heaven in this world. We have angels on our side. Greater is he that is with us than he that is in the world. And when we worship in our closets and in our families and in our Sunday gatherings, we are joining the angels in festal gathering in heaven. Don’t forget that. And in particular, don’t run from that back to Sinai.

Third, we are told that we come to the “church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven.” Whether the word “church” here is used in a technical sense or in an informal sense, the reality is that this is pointing to believers who are viewed as belonging to one another because they belong to Christ. They are the “church of the firstborn” because they belong to him who is the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). Whereas Esau gave up his rights as the firstborn, the church can never lose its inheritance. That is the idea in the phrase “which are written in heaven.” What is written in heaven is written and cannot be erased. Again, we are reminded of the security that we have in Jesus, not just a temporal security, not just something that gives you earthly pleasures and comforts, but an eternal security which cannot be taken away.

Fourth, when you come to God through Jesus, you come to “God the Judge of all.” Now this might at first seem out of place, especially considering the contrast with Sinai, and especially given what has just been said about festal gathering. We don’t usually associate judgment with joy! But we must also remember that the church on earth is a persecuted church. Like their Lord, believers will be despised and rejected of men, whether you live in a religious world (like Jesus did) or in an irreligious one (like we do). And that means that the church will suffer injustice in the present. The believers in Egypt have been treated as second class citizens for over a thousand years. We must not think that if we just communicate the gospel carefully and winsomely that the world will recognize the wisdom of God. It won’t; it will hate it and persecute it. In the West, we have been living in a bubble that I think is bursting, and it will shock us if we are not prepared to accept the fact that in this world we will not always be treated fairly. So it is therefore a great comfort to know that the God of the church is the God of justice. That the throne of God will not only be the place at which the Lord says, “Come to me” to his elect, but at which the Lord will say, “Go away from me” to the wicked. We may not have justice now, but we will have it in the end – perfectly and finally. God will have the last word, not men.

Fifth, we come “to the spirits of just men made perfect.” If “church” is a reference to the people of God presently on earth, this is a reference to the redeemed who are already in heaven. They are just because they are justified by the righteousness of Jesus Christ and they perfect because every moral and ethical and spiritual flaw has been cast out. To be in heaven is to know nothing more of sin. It is to be done with imperfection forever.

At the same time, the fact that this is a reference to “spirits” is also an indication that they have not yet been glorified. That will happen when their souls are reunited with their bodies in the resurrection. And yet, even though they are not yet glorified, this text does indicate that between death and the Second Coming of our Lord, the elect do not merely sleep – no, they are in heaven with God the Judge of all, and with the innumerable company of angels. It wouldn’t make sense to say we come to a bunch of spirits in sleep. Rather, these are the souls of departed saints who are presently enjoying being with Christ in the Paradise of God.

Sixth, we come to “Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.” Zion was the capitol city of Israel and Judah under David and his heirs. Jesus is of course the ultimate Son of David who even now “holds his throne and sits in judgment there.” To come to Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem is to come to Christ. And it is to come to him as the mediator of the new covenant, and to find in him the fulfillment of all its promises. The law of God written in the heart, having God as our God, having the forgiveness of sins, these blessings come to us in Christ and because of who he is and what he has done.

Finally, we come to “the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” In 11:4, Abel speaks of the faithfulness of God to those who trust in him. But this is different here: this is a reference to Genesis 4:10, where Abel’s blood is crying to God for vengeance after his murder by Cain. So when we read that the blood of sprinkling (which is the blood of Jesus, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament sacrifices) speaks better things than that of Abel, we should interpret this to mean that the blood of Jesus doesn’t cry out for judgment, it cries out for mercy and grace. In fact, he becomes the mediator of the new covenant by his blood, so that it is because Jesus took the punishment in our place that we can get true peace with God.

So where are you? Are you at Sinai or are you at Zion? You will be at one or the other. If you think you can get into heaven on your own merit, if you think you can make it in because you are good enough, then you are at Sinai. Or you may think you don’t have to worry about Sinai or Zion – you are imagining yourself at a mountain of your own making. But the reality is that if you have not come to God by Jesus Christ, you are in front of Sinai. There is no salvation there, my friend, only judgment. There is no hope there, only darkness and gloom and tempest. We can only find salvation in Jesus Christ and in him alone.

Have you come to Zion? Then rejoice! And thank God for his grace, his sovereign grace, that brought you there.

William L. Lane, Hebrews 9-13 [WBC, vol. 47B], (Zondervan, 1991), p. 467.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

The Necessity of Hope and Holiness (Hebrews 12:12-17)

What begins at 12:12 and goes basically to the close of this epistle, are a series of practical exhortations to apply the great truths of the previous verses and chapters. You see this in the word, “Wherefore,” at the beginning of verse 12. Not that application begins here. In fact, we noted that though application has been happening throughout the epistle (especially in the warning sections), there was a definite sea change at 10:19, from exposition to application. However, the extended illustration of persevering faith in chapter 11 gives itself to further exhortation, and that’s how we should see these and the following verses. We are to take the examples of faith and faithfulness so carefully set before us in the Faith Hall of Fame (chapter 11) and seek to imitate and be inspired by their lives.

There are two aspects of this application in the verses before us, first, as it applies to our hope in Christ, and second, as it applies to our personal walk with the Lord. You see the first in verse 12, and the second in verses 13-17. However, both these things have to do with one overarching concern, and that is the concern over apostasy. In other words, we are to walk in hope so that we don’t give into despair and fall away from the faith, and we need to walk in holiness so that we don’t give in to the deceitfulness of sin and fall away from the faith.

The Necessity of Hope (12)

Hanging hands and weak knees

When the author encourages his readers to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (12), he is using language from the prophet Isaiah. Here is what the prophet said: “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you” (Isa. 35:3-4). The language of the prophet makes it very clear that the reference to weak hands and feeble knees is an illustration of the posture of people who have become thoroughly discouraged through fear and despair. They lacked the courage and hope needed to face the future. It’s all been taken out of them. So when we read in the epistle of Hebrews to lift up hanging hands and to strengthen the feeble knees, we should read it as a call to courage and hope.

Certainly the examples of past faith and faithfulness should be an encouragement to us. We can think that we have been given too much to handle or that we are just not good enough to face a foreboding and uncertain future. However, when we read the record of history, we find that some of the brightest examples of faith were not spiritual giants but rather ordinary people, even people with troubled pasts! They were not perfect at all. To be honest, I don’t think I would have put Samson or Barack or Jephthah in Hebrews 11, but there they are. You have people like Rahab the harlot whose knowledge of the God of Israel was only through what she had heard of the reports of Israel from other pagans – and yet she believed and perished not.

And then you have the examples of all those unknown saints at the end of the chapter who endured those terrible trials and persecutions and yet persevered to the end. We may think we have it rough, but when we look at what they had to endure, most of our trials pale in comparison. So you have people with problematic pasts and people facing overwhelming odds, and the commonality among all of them is that they endured in the faith. So don’t let your personal failures cause your hands to hang down. And don’t let the greatness of the burden weaken your knees. Fear not, trust in God and be strong – for at the end of the day it is not even our faith that is the great resource but our great God who saves those who trust in him.

Another reason to be discouraged is to misread our trials as if they were proof that God has abandoned us. That is the immediate context (verses 5-11) and we dealt with that last week. We argued that if we see that our trials are part of God’s training for us, and if we see them in the context of his Fatherly discipline and as an expression of his concern and care for us, we need not be discouraged. For we can be sure that the trials God has sent our way for our good will not overwhelm us in the end. So lift up the hands which hang down. Strengthen the feeble knees. Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.

We need hope and this is a call to hope based upon the realities which are presented to us throughout this epistle. However, the main concern of this passage has more to deal with holiness than hope. One of the reasons for this is that you cannot sustain hope in Christ while living in sin. I know a lot of people in our day have said that they are no longer Christian because of this thing the church has done or that thing the church believes. But if you pry into their lives, I think you’ll find that for many folks those are just excuses for the love of sin. They don’t have the Christian hope because they don’t want the Christian’s holiness.

The Necessity of Holiness (13-17)

Brothers and sisters, we must be holy. We need to understand not only the benefits of holiness but also the necessity of it. We need to grasp the fact that without holiness no one will see the Lord. I am increasingly concerned that in our day the devil’s cunning strategy is to lull people to sleep by getting them to affirm all sorts of orthodox things about Jesus while they yet functionally deny his Lordship. I am concerned that the fundamental problem with the modern evangelical world is calling him, Lord, Lord, and not doing the things which has commanded to be done (Lk. 6:46). It doesn’t matter how many creeds you say you believe if you are living in sin. It doesn’t matter if you affirm the Nicene and Athanasian and Apostle’s Creeds, or the Westminster Confession or the 1689 Baptist Confession, if at the same time you willingly embrace and affirm things that you know are contrary to God’s word.

So how does this passage command and commend holiness to us? I’ll put it to you this way: it tells us to look down, to look around, and to look up. That is, we are to look down to our feet, we are to look around to the people who are running around us and with us, and we are to look up to the Lord whose race we are running and for whose kingdom we are living.

Look down and make straight paths for your feet

In verse 13 we are commanded to “make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way, but let it rather be healed.” The idea here is probably going back to the sports analogy and so the concern here is that the runners stay in their lane. You don’t want to be running all over the track, wandering here and there, for if you do you will use up energy needlessly and you might end up wandering off the track altogether.

But what does it mean to stay in the lane? How do we apply this to our lives? Well, I think we can be helped once again by considering the Old Testament background to these words. In Proverbs, Solomon writes to his son (remember, the author of Hebrews had just quoted from Proverbs chapter three): “Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established [or, “all thy ways shall be ordered aright”].

Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil” (Prov. 4:26-27). What this implies is that making straight paths for your feet is analogous to walking in obedience to God’s law, to his will for your life as it is expressed in the Bible. To be turned out of the way, on the other hand, is to wander off into disobedience and rebellion.

Of course, the way we stay in the lane is by conforming our lives to God’s word. The runners don’t get to decide where to run. It’s laid out for them. The same is true with us. Let the word of God guide you. Read the Scriptures and obey them.

Here we see the concern with apostasy. To be turned out of the way is another reference to that fearful reality that the author of Hebrews never tires of warning his readers about. In other words, we are not dealing here with temporary lapses into disobedience, but with people who end up settling into a mindset of hostility to the Lord and to his doctrine.

To see this, note that the Greek verb here is used several times in Paul’s letters to Timothy with this same concern in mind. For example, in 1 Timothy 1:5-6, we are told that “the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: from which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling.” He is referring to false teachers who were seeking to draw Christians from the faith. In 5:15, he says, referring to certain women in the church who had abandoned their commitment to Christ (cf. 5:12): “For some are already turned aside after Satan.” In 2 Tim. 4:4: “And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and they shall be turned unto fables.” So when we read in Heb. 12:13, that the alternative to staying in the path of obedience is being turned out of the way, we should hear our author’s concern that they do not end up abandoning the faith.

But again, how do we keep from doing that? We do so by following in the paths determined and outlined by the Scriptures. We don’t conform ourselves to the world but to the word of God.

Look around and pursue peace with all men

Then we read in verse 14: “Follow peace with all men.” The word follow there is perhaps better translated pursue. It is, in fact, the same word that is sometimes translated persecute! In other words, this is a relentless following, a pursuit that presses on to the end. And what we are to press for, to follow, to pursue, is peace with all men. It should not surprise us that we are encouraged to pursue this, especially when we have just been told in verse 11 that the effect and fruit of God’s discipline in our lives is “the peaceable fruit of righteousness.” God has put us at peace with himself, and having done that, he makes us peacemakers who are called the children of God (Mt. 5:11).

It is also important for us to note that an essential part of holiness is being peacemakers. That’s why this is part of the Beatitudes, and why the apostle puts things like “revilers” in the list of things that keep people from inheriting the kingdom of God. You can be orthodox to the hilt, but if you hate the brethren, you are not in Christ. This is one of the major emphases of John’s first epistle. Loving the brothers and sisters is an evidence of salvation – and that without it, we cannot say that we are saved at all.

Now to follow peace with all men is clearly a corporate, not a private, concern. It is a reminder that we are members of a community, especially the community of the church. However, we need to be careful that we don’t end up still making this a private thing. We can think that we have fulfilled this command as long as we keep to ourselves and stay out of other people’s business. Now certainly we are not to be busybodies; the Bible forbids that too. But this verse doesn’t say to follow peace by being apart from all men, but to pursue peace with all men. So this is a very corporate, interpersonal command. We aren’t obeying it when we go off and hide from everyone, as much as some of us would like to do that.

Now what about that word “all”? Is this for all men everywhere? I’m not sure that it is. The word “men” is not in the Greek text and the referent to all is meant to be supplied from the context. But what does the context say? In verses 6 and 8, the “all” are all God’s children. Now we are certainly to be at peace with all men, whether they are believers or not. The apostle Paul will write, “Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:17-18). But I think perhaps the emphasis here is on the pursuit of peace with fellow believers. And that doesn’t mean just avoiding conflict. It includes that, of course. But in the Bible, the concept of peace is so much richer than that. To have peace is to have the fullness of blessing from God. When Paul sums up the blessings we have in Christ, it is usually in the words grace and peace. To pursue peace, therefore, we are seeking the spiritual wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are seeking to help them run the race set before them, looking to Jesus.

Of course, that means that we are constantly seeking to live in harmony with one another. It means that we are striving to work together and to be of one mind. That is the way that we persevere in the faith. Not simply not being mad at each other, but actively seeking to promote unity and harmony in the faith once delivered to the saints. And that is the environment in which perseverance in the faith is best nurtured.

Look up and pursue the holiness without which no man will see the Lord

We are to bear one another’s burdens. But we must also bear our own (Gal. 6:4), and if we are not doing the latter, we cannot do the former. We don’t need unholy men and women scolding others over their sins and failings. We need holy men and women showing others how to live and being a good example. And that brings us to the last part of our text: we are to pursue the holiness without which no man will see the Lord. This is the main thought for verses 14-17. Everything else hangs on this, as we shall see. We are not only to pursue peace with all, but we are to pursue holiness. Again, this is a relentless pursuit. You aren’t going to catch holiness like you catch the cold. You are going to have to make every effort to put the sin in your life to death and to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

And the reason why we should pursue holiness is that apart from it we will not see the Lord. Let’s meditate on that for a bit. What does that mean? When we consider Mt. 5:8 (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”) and 1 John 3:2-3 (“...when [Jesus] shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”), I take this to mean that holiness in the present is inseparable from heaven in the future. Or, to put it another way: those who live and wallow in their sin will not be saved.

You need to understand that there are damnable behaviors. Yes, there are damnable heresies. But there are also damnable behaviors. Thus the apostle Paul writes, “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolator, hath nay inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6). Or, as he put it to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind [those last two phrases describe men who practice homosexuality], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). It really does matter how you live. This is not legalism. This is not works-based salvation. It is simply the Biblical teaching that grace changes people, that Christ did not come to save his people in sin but to save them from it. It is saying, “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:7- 8).

Now to show you this in the text we are considering here in Hebrews 12, it is important to note that everything that follows verse 14 hinges grammatically on this verse. We are to pursue holiness – how do we do that? Well, these verses tell us that we do so by “looking diligently” or by “being careful” of three things: we are look carefully that (1) no one fails to attain the grace of God, (2) no one becomes a root of bitterness and defiles many, and (3) that no one is like Esau, as a fornicator and a godless man.

Now that last part is very important here. Those who are unholy are like Esau. Of course, one of the things about Esau is that he is unmistakably an example of one who is non-elect. We know so because the Bible says so: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” says the Lord (Rom. 9:13). So this tells me that when Hebrews 12:14 says that without holiness no one will see the Lord, it is not just talking about missing out on some earthly or even spiritual blessing this side of heaven. Rather, this is a clear warning that those who persist in their sins can have no real assurance that they will enjoy the eternal salvation which our Lord purchased for his people.

But I want you to notice how holiness is motivated. It is motivated both positively and negatively. Positively, in terms of seeing the Lord. Negatively, in terms of the bitter fruit of apostasy and sin.

The positive motivation to holiness (14): “without which no man shall see the Lord.”

The primary motivation to holiness is to see the Lord. Now there is a real sense in which all men will inevitably see the Lord. But they will not want to see him. They will have to be dragged before his presence as they cry to the rocks and the hills to cover them and to hide them from the wrath of the Lamb of God. So that is clearly not what is being thought of here. Rather, this is a seeing with delight and anticipation. This is the hope behind “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” It is the hope of being with the Lord forever, expressed by the apostle in the words, “I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.”

This is because the saved are those who love God, the God of the Bible, the Triune God – Father, Son, and Spirit. They are animated by this love, as Paul was – “For the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14). And this love will compel them to obedience, not primarily because they have to, but because they want to. They want to please the one they love above all earthly loves. As our Lord himself put it, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15).

I think one of the reasons we often fall into sin is because we forget our Lord and do not keep him before our minds and hearts. And so we start getting impressed with trivial things and forget about the infinite majesty and loveliness of our Savior, like a little kid who gets obsessed with a video game when the Grand Canyon is right there before him. So we need verses like this to remind us that when we sin, we are turning from the Lord, that are putting our lot in with those who don’t want to enjoy his fellowship and don’t want to see him. May it never be with us! May we constantly keep the Lord before us.

The negative motivation to holiness (15-17)

There are three reasons why we should not want to walk away from the Lord.

(i) First, we are to look “diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God” (15). Now I want you to notice that this verse does not say, “lest any man lose his salvation.” That’s not what it says. Rather, “lest any man fail of the grace of God,” or, if you prefer, “lest any man miss or fail to reach the grace of God.” You cannot lose the grace of God, at least not in the sense of losing the saving blessings of grace in Christ. Now the apostle Paul did tell the Galatians, “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). However, this falling from grace is a reference to a rejection of the doctrine of salvation by grace by embracing a scheme of salvation by works of the law. But Paul is not saying that you can lose your salvation; he is saying that if you reject grace in favor of works you are rejecting Christ, and that there is no salvation for those who do so. But he is not saying that they can lose their salvation.

We can’t lose what God preserves. He keeps us in the faith (1 Pet. 1:5). He tells us that his sheep will never perish and that no man can pluck them out of his or his Father’s hands (Jn. 10:27-29). No one can separate God’s elect from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). All who are predestined will be glorified – it is an unbreakable chain of saving blessings (Rom. 8:29-30).

So what is meant by failing or missing the grace of God? Well, I think he means that those who apostatize from the faith, who walk away from Jesus as Lord and Savior and reject him as such, will not be saved. It is grace that saves us (Eph. 2:5, 8); to miss it is therefore to remain unsaved. Again, not to lose salvation, but rather not to get it in the first place. But this is a terrifying supposition. And it ought to make us tremble. It ought to remind us that at the end of the wide gate and broad path is destruction eternal and unchangeable. It ought to make us flee, not fritter with, the wrath to come.

(ii) The second bitter fruit of apostasy is pointed out for us in the second part of verse 15: “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.” Once again, it is helpful to note the Old Testament background to this phrase. In Deuteronomy 29:18, Moses warns the children of Israel not to worship the gods of the nations around them, “lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” A root of bitterness is therefore a reference to a kind of person, a person who walks away from the true God for false gods and who corrupts those around him – “and thereby many be defiled.”

One of the things about becoming hard to the things of God and soft to the things of this world in rebellion against God is that it not only affects us but those around us. Don’t ever think that your sins just affect yourself. They don’t; when you decide to part ways with faithfulness to Christ, you become a root of bitterness, and those who share the fellowship of our life and choices will be poisoned by them. In fact, note the word many. Sin ought to repulse us, not only in terms of what it does to us, but also what it does to those around us as well. This is the opposite of pursuing peace with all – it is a course of personal and public ruin. It not only destroys our own lives but our marriages and our families and our churches and our friendships. It turns hopeful prospects into barren and deserted wastes. May God prevent us from going down that road.

(iii) Finally, we come to verses 16-17 which describe the bitter fruit of sin and apostasy in terms of Esau and his lifestyle and choices. We’ve already noted that this is an enlightening reference because we know Esau was not saved. We are warned against being like Esau, who is described as a “fornicator” and a “profane person.” But more importantly, he is the one “who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.”

This is a reference to Genesis 25:29-34, where we are told that Esau came in from the field one day very hungry and Jacob made a deal with him: Esau would sell Jacob his birthright and Jacob in return would give him a meal. Esau agreed, and in the words of the Genesis text, “thus Esau despised his birthright.”

Now what is the significance of this? Well, you need to understand that the birthright was the thing that allowed one of a man’s sons, usually the oldest, to receive the inheritance and to lead the family after the passing of the father. But you also need to realize that more is going on here than just physical possessions. Isaac was the inheritor of the blessing of Abraham. That blessing was a witness to the gospel. It was a part of the unfolding of God’s redemptive work in human history. So Isaac was going to pass that heritage on to his son Esau through the birthright. But Esau despised that. He thought more of a quick meal than he did of the promise of God to Abraham and Isaac. He rejected that. And so there is a religious significance to this. That’s why Esau is called a profane person, an irreligious person, an unholy person. In doing so, Esau is the quintessential example of the worldly man who sells his soul for the things of this world and neglects the infinitely more important and valuable things of the kingdom of God.

You also see this in the blessing, which is mentioned in the next verse: “For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected.” This is the blessing that was meant for Esau, but which Jacob ended up receiving (cf. Gen. 27). And though it is true that Jacob got this through deceit, the Biblical text makes it very clear, without excusing the deceit, that it was God’s plan all along to give the blessing to Jacob. Why? Because Esau was a profane man, a man of the world. The Lord was not about to let him receive the blessing of Abraham through Isaac. In fact, we are told that “he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”

Esau was like so many people today. They want the blessing, but they don’t want the holiness. They want heaven, but they don’t want the God of heaven. They may weep when they realize what are the consequences of their sins, but they don’t want to part with their sins. Their heart is in the world. Bread and potatoes are more important to them than the fear of God. Paul describes the Esaus of his day: “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:19).

The point of this, and the way this is meant to function to motivate us to holiness and away from apostasy, is to see the dreadful exchange we make when we lay up riches in this world and are not rich toward God. It is consummate folly (Lk. 12:15-21). To reject the gospel and to go back to the world is like Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of beans.


Hope and holiness go together. Those who lift up their hands and strengthen their knees and who hope in God and remain courageous are precisely those who are unwilling to sell their souls in order to gain the world. But holiness doesn’t come easy. It is possible for the Christian because of what Christ has done in

them and for them. But it is still something that must be pursued relentlessly. And so we need to be reminded of its necessity and the terrible fruit that comes when we harden our hearts to the things of God. Don’t become like Esau. He is the ultimate antihero to all the men and women of the faith in chapter 11 whose lives are meant to inspire us. Brought up in a godly home, he nevertheless rejected the inheritance of his fathers – an inheritance that spoke of the gospel and the hope in a coming Messiah who would bring blessing to all the world – for the pleasures of this world. But we know the end of Esau. “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated,” says the Scriptures. “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” asked our Lord. “Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:36-38).

The Gathering (Acts 2:41-47)

What is the church? What is its purpose? How does it function? If we claim to be a true church, then it behooves us to be able to answer the...