For an introduction to this series, click here.
November 18, 2007
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (12:1-3)
The witnesses are those mentioned in chapter 11, those who lived in the power of faith and saw God do marvelous things. These people put aside the cares of this world and lived a life dedicated to the Lord. That was the whole purpose of that chapter, of course: to encourage us to do the same thing. And if those people aren't enough, then there is Jesus, the "founder and perfecter of our faith."
"Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
'My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.'
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (12:5-11)
There are a lot of people who think this passage teaches that God punishes believers when they do wrong. I don't deny that God can and does correct His children in this life. But this particular passage, especially given the introduction in verses 3-4, seems to be speaking about tribulations and various hard times we have to endure in this life. God doesn't coddle His children. He gives us what is best for us and for Him. And more often than not that means heartaches and struggles. Trials bring us closer to God and allow us to be a testimony to the world. If you can go through life without a struggle, then you may not legitimately be God's child.
"Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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." (12:14-17)
The writer here tells us to be careful and to watch others in the church, primarily to encourage those who are going through difficult times and to root out those who are trying to tear things down. Then he gives us an example of that kind of person: Esau. Esau is a strange character. The Bible tells us that God told Isaac and Rebekah before they were born that the younger son would be the one to inherit the blessing. Yet after they were born, both Isaac and Rebekah apparently told their sons that since Esau was the oldest, he had the birthright. Jacob got both the birthright and the blessing of his father by trickery, but it was God's will that he get both of those. Esau eventually got over his hatred of Jacob, as we see when they meet long after the incident, but the Bible tells us here that Esau never fully accepted his place and turned to God for salvation. He wanted the blessing, but he did not want the God from whom the blessing came.
The last part of this chapter deals with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai and what that pictures for us:
"For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, 'If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.' Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, 'I tremble with fear.' 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, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. 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. 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.” 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. 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, for our God is a consuming fire." (12:18-29, ESV)
The Israelites were afraid when they saw God from a distance, but we will have the opportunity to see God with all of His angels in heaven and join in the celebration. Yes, this of course is a wonderful thing to look forward to, but it is also a fearful thing. It reminds us that God is holy, and therefore we should strive to be holy as well. We will never attain perfection, of course, but we need to remember to "offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe."
Once again it should be noted that the writer addresses unbelievers he knows are in his audience. I hear so many people say that Hebrews is full of "problem passages." The problems arise when you think the writer is always addressing Christians. But when you understand he is writing to a mixed group of believers and unbelievers meeting in the same synagogues, then the problems are much easier to handle.