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).