Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 12:12-17

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

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Last week’s post discussed the previous set of verses, difficult to digest in some ways, about discipline from God. I suggested that we liken God to a divine coach, strengthening us through our trials the way an athletics coach would build up his charges’ strength through rigorous exercise.

The author of Hebrews is encouraging the new converts from Judaism to be strong and persevere with the faith, no matter what trials befall them. They lost their families and friends because of their Christian faith. Not surprisingly, they were faltering.

There were also Hebrews who were attending Christian worship services but had not fully committed themselves as followers of Christ. The author of Hebrews wanted them to make that commitment.

John MacArthur explains that the author’s intent was to save both groups from apostasy (emphases mine):

Sprinkled among these believing Jews were some who hadn’t even yet been saved. And they had identified superficially as professing Christians with this Jewish community of believers, and they were there in name only, not in truth. And they were in danger of turning around and going back to apostate, to be apostates, to apostatize if you want the verb. They were in danger of saying, “Oh, this is ridiculous. I’ve seen enough of this; I’m going back to Judaism.” And had they done that, they would have been locked in unbelief forever because they would have rejected against full information. And that’s what apostasy is.

These verses are addressed to faltering believers. Therefore, the author exhorts them to get themselves in position for the endurance that faith demands (verse 12), an analogy used elsewhere in the Bible, including the Old Testament:

What he’s really saying in athletic metaphor is get your second wind. Sure, the outward man is perishing, but what did Isaiah say? “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their” – what? – “their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” That’s a promise of God.

These converts, like any other Christian throughout history, needed to be stronger spiritually. Poor spiritual positioning could cause them to become spiritually lame, when they should be healed (verse 13).

MacArthur explains the running analogy based on his own personal experience at school. The upper case ‘He’ below refers to the Holy Spirit, who inspired the author of Hebrews along with every other author of the Bible:

You know, if you’re an athlete, and you’re going to train for a track meet, you’re going to discipline yourself or you’re not going to be any good in the track meet. Can you imagine a guy coming out to run a mile who’s never worked out? You see, the discipline isn’t meant to slow him down; the discipline is meant to speed him up. It’s meant to make him faster in the race. And God brings things into our lives in order that He might speed us, not slow us down.

You know, in any kind of a race, you can always tell when a guy gets tired. I ran enough track to know this. And you can always tell two things automatically happen. I know this from my – I’m telling you, personal experience; this has happened to me many, many times. The first thing that happens to a good runner, when he gets tired, is his arms drop. One of the first things you learn in running is the motion of your arms is very important and very strategic to the movement of your body. And the rhythm is all – all needs to be in congruity. It has to be going together. And you can always tell when a guy gets tired, because his arms start dropping, and that breaks his rhythm. You see, your arms are powerful enough to pull you into your stride. And any good runner works very diligently on the motion of his arms. And as he gets tired, his arms begin to drop, and then he begins to lose the drive.

The second thing that always happens to a runner, when he gets tired, is his knees begin to wobble. Now any of you guys that have run track, you know this; you know what it’s like to say, “Go, leg, go,” and it doesn’t. Right? And your knees are just going like this. Well, I can – I can remember so many times running a 440 and coming around to the 380 mark, with 60 yards to go, and saying, “Go, knees, go,” and they just – you just have to go – “Mmm” – like this, and just put one out in front of the other, almost forcing each leg individually.

And so, this is a very graphic illustration that He has here. The arms begin to droop, the rhythm is lost, and pretty soon he’s fighting against the growing numbness in his legs. And you know what happens then? If he begins to concentrate on the numbness in his legs, he’s finished. There’s only one thing that a runner can do at that point, and that is to look at the goal line. To look at that goal line and tell himself, “I am going to make that goal.” It’s the only thing he can do.

So, it is with a Christian. There may come times in the Christian life when your arms begin to droop, and your knees begin to wobble, and you don’t know if you can get one in front of the other one again, where you don’t look at your wobbly knees, and you don’t start looking at your drooping arms, and you just look at that finish line. And better than any guy who ever ran a race, you have the about guaranteed condition that you’re going to be the victor. And with that in the back of your mind, you fire on.

The author says that the converts must not only strive to make peace with everyone but also be holy, because without holiness, none of us will ever see God in the life to come (verse 14). Both of those are very difficult to do, especially when we spend so much time in the world of work and leisure outside the home. Temptations are everywhere.

Matthew Henry says:

Observe, First, It is the duty of Christians, even when in a suffering state, to follow peace with all men, yea, even with those who may be instrumental in their sufferings. This is a hard lesson, and a high attainment, but it is what Christ has called his people to. Sufferings are apt to sour the spirit and sharpen the passions; but the children of God must follow peace with all men. Secondly, Peace and holiness are connected together; there can be no true peace without holiness. There may be prudence and discreet forbearance, and a show of friendship and good-will to all; but this true Christian peaceableness is never found separate from holiness. We must not, under pretence of living peaceably with all men, leave the ways of holiness, but cultivate peace in a way of holiness. Thirdly, Without holiness no man shall see the Lord. The vision of God our Saviour in heaven is reserved as the reward of holiness, and the stress of our salvation is laid upon our holiness, though a placid peaceable disposition contributes much to our meetness for heaven.

This is why God gives us trials and tribulations, so that we endure them and come out as stronger Christians.

The author continues, exhorting the converts to make sure that everyone can obtain God’s grace. He also tells them not become bitter people, because bitterness takes root all too easily (verse 15). This verse concerns our personal behaviour and the example we must set as Christians.

MacArthur says that everyone who encounters us is affected in some way by the example we set. MacArthur tells us:

Christians, so often this is true – isn’t it? – when you say, “When I sin, it’s only my business.” No, it’s not. When you fall, somebody’s watching.

And our example to others will give either a good or a bad impression to them of Christianity.

MacArthur relates a true story about a father who was fond of strong drink and his young son:

I always think of the story my dad used to tell about the father who went out to get drunk again, and he was walking through the snow to the bar. And he hadn’t gone very far from his house, and he thought something was following him. And he turned around, and here was his little boy, six years old, stretching as far as he could to make sure he put his feet in his dad’s footsteps in the snow. And his dad said, “Where are you going?”

He says, “I’m just following your footsteps, Dad.” And as the story goes, his dad went home and broke down and cried, and some – through some other instrumentation, God sent somebody, and that man became saved and later told that story.

Therefore:

Well, you know, somebody’s walking along, just putting their feet right in the spot you’ve made. And if you’re wobbling around, knocking into everybody’s lane you’re going to mess up a lot of Christians. Make our paths straight, stay in your own lane. Run a smooth, clear, straight path. The Greek word here is a smooth, straight path. Now there’s a – this again is an Old Testament concept. I’m thinking it’s Proverbs 4 – I might be wrong – 25, yes, “Let thine eyes look right on” – that’s good; you didn’t know that was in the Bible, did you? – “Let thing eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look” – straight ahead – “straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil.” Make a straight path and go. Don’t wander from side to side, looking over the edge, seeing what the world’s doing. You’re going to mess up some other Christians.

Now, I like the term that is used here for paths, trochias in the Greek, and it means the track left by wheels. You know, the cart would go down in a straight line; it would leave tracks. And the point is that you’re not only running, you’re leaving a track. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? You’re leaving a pattern for somebody to follow. And there’s – somewhere back there are Christians who are either going like this after your life or like this. See? Knowing over other Christians while they follow you.

And so, continuance, beloved, isn’t just for your sake; it’s for whoever’s looking at you. It’s so that you can provoke each other to love and good works that you’re to run a straight path. It affects other people.

The author tells his audience not to engage in sexual immorality or to be unholy, like Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of stew (verses 16, 17). Esau could find no peace after that.

Henry explains the seriousness of Esau’s sin. God passed judgement on him and gave him no inner peace for his foolishness. Henry also picks up on this as a way for the author of Hebrews to warn about apostasy:

The apostle backs the caution with an awful example, and that is, that of Esau, who though born within the pale of the church, and having the birthright as the eldest son, and so entitled to the privilege of being prophet, priest, and king, in his family, was so profane as to despise these sacred privileges, and to sell his birthright for a morsel of meat. Where observe, First, Esau’s sin. He profanely despised and sold the birthright, and all the advantages attending it. So do apostates, who to avoid persecution, and enjoy sensual ease and pleasure, though they bore the character of the children of God, and had a visible right to the blessing and inheritance, give up all pretensions thereto. Secondly, Esau’s punishment, which was suitable to his sin. His conscience was convinced of his sin and folly, when it was too late: He would afterwards have inherited the blessing, &c. His punishment lay in two things: 1. He was condemned by his own conscience; he now saw that the blessing he had made so light of was worth the having, worth the seeking, though with much carefulness and many tears. 2. He was rejected of God: He found no place of repentance in God or in his father; the blessing was given to another, even to him to whom he sold it for a mess of pottage. Esau, in his great wickedness, had made the bargain, and God in his righteous judgment, ratified and confirmed it, and would not suffer Isaac to reverse it.

The Jewish converts were in danger of throwing away the birthright they had been given when they became Christians. The worst thing that a Christian can do is to spit in the face of that birthright, denying Jesus Christ and God the Father only to embrace the world and sin.

Henry explains:

We may hence learn, [1.] That apostasy from Christ is the fruit of preferring the gratification of the flesh to the blessing of God and the heavenly inheritance. [2.] Sinners will not always have such mean thoughts of the divine blessing and inheritance as now they have. The time is coming when they will think no pains too great, no cares no tears too much, to obtain the lost blessing. [3.] When the day of grace is over (as sometimes it may be in this life), they will find no place for repentance: they cannot repent aright of their sin; and God will not repent of the sentence he has passed upon them for their sin. And therefore, as the design of all, Christians should never give up their title, and hope of their Father’s blessing and inheritance, and expose themselves to his irrevocable wrath and curse, by deserting their holy religion, to avoid suffering, which, though this may be persecution as far as wicked men are concerned in it, is only a rod of correction and chastisement in the hand of their heavenly Father, to bring them near to himself in conformity and communion. This is the force of the apostle’s arguing from the nature of the sufferings of the people of God even when they suffer for righteousness’ sake; and the reasoning is very strong.

This is the second half of Hebrews 12, designed to put a holy fear into the converts. This passage is in the Lectionary and read on one of the Sundays in the season after Pentecost:

A Kingdom That Cannot Be Shaken

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly[a] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

People don’t believe that. It’s an analogy, they say. Or they say that it was true at the time it was written, but no longer.

No. If Scripture says that God is a consuming fire — and similar phrasing occurs throughout the Bible — then, we should take it on board as truth.

In closing, returning to verse 15, we need to watch out for others, too, lest they stumble. MacArthur explains the Holy Spirit’s intention in that verse:

Here’s a guy who comes to the church, sees Christianity, sticks around, sticks around sticks around — falls away into apostasy. Hebrews chapter 6, classic definition. Now He says, “Hey, people, take the oversight; don’t let that happen. Don’t let that guy go.”

You say, “Well, I don’t want to say anything. I-I-”

That’s the stupidest remark you could ever make. Ridiculous you don’t want to say anything.

“Don’t want to offend.”

Offend! Offend! Go offend! Wow, the cross itself is an offense, and let’s do a little offending. I mean if a guy’s going to go to hell just because we’re afraid to offend him, that’s the worst offense imaginable. And these people – you know, grace is available. He says, “They’re going to – grace is available, but they’re going to fall back from grace.” He says, “You take the oversight, and you watch and don’t let it happen to them.”

There is much to consider in these six verses. We have great responsibilities as Christians. This is why God is continuously training us to be better, holier people. He wants us to persevere in patience, with our eyes on the reward to come in Heaven.

Next time — Hebrews 13:9-14