Hebrews 12:12-17 Part 2: Seven Exhortations To Run This Race Of Faith Well To The End
Last week we noted that the author of Hebrews has been writing very wisely and in a pastoral way to these weak Christians. He has inspired them with many stories about the faithful saints, that great cloud of witnesses, that has gone faithfully before us. He then comes to Hebrews 12:1-2 and tells them to run the race that is set before them.
This is when it seems to me that it would be so easy for us to mistakenly begin to speak to these believers what is written later in Hebrews 12:12-17, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us...Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet…”.
The author of Hebrews does not do this. Instead, in Hebrews 12:3-11 he tells them to consider the ‘difficult providences’ that they are experiencing as ‘discipline’ from their Heavenly Father. This discipline is proof of His love for them. Through Jesus’ life and death believers have now been adopted into God’s family and this discipline will produce in them holiness and the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
Only after the author of Hebrews says these things is he able to write as boldly as he does in Hebrews 12:12-17. Other biblical writers are careful to do something similar in their writings to other Christians. In fact, we could say that this is the structure of all of scripture. We are always given biblical truths and then we are exhorted to receive the grace of these truths by faith.
For example, James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father. He then says, “Of His own will He brought fourth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.” (1:16-18) Because of the Word of truth has been received through repentance and faith these individuals become new creations. Therefore, James begins to exhort these Christians to no longer live the way they once did. They are no longer to be angery because it will not produce the righteous life God desires. Instead, James says, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (1:21-22)
After the author of Hebrews reminds these Christians of these doctrinal truths (their Adoption) he can then gives them exhortations about how to run this race. He says, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 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.”
In this text the author of Hebrews gives 7 exhortations and one example of someone that they are not to follow if they are to remain steadfast and finish this race.
Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed…”.
Strive for peace with everyone.
Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.
See to it that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.
See to it that no one is sexually immoral or unholy.
No one should be 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.
As I have considered this text I have been grateful for these instructions.
I have often thought of an example of someone who experienced adversity and finished well. Please look at Psalm 64 for just a moment. In this Psalm David begins by asking God to hear his complaint. He says, “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from the dread of the enemy.”
David had a complaint because he was facing an enemy (or enemies) who made his heart and mind dreadfully fearful. Like all of us, David will either be controlled by fear or he will respond in faith. Which will it be?
In verse 2 he calls this enemy the ‘wicked who secretly plot’ and he calls them a ‘throng of evildoers’. Last week we learned about a ‘throng of evildoers’ in France. They ran throughout the streets yelling, “Take courage, we have had a good beginning; let us finish in the same way!” This mob, like in David’s day, had been stirred up against God’s people and they created dread and terror in the hearts of God’s people. I have often noticed in those words how we see that the wicked, the godless and the faithless are in a race. It is not a race of faith, it is not a race that is run in the daytime, like the Christians; rather, they run their race without faith and in the darkness.
In Psalm 64:3-6 David describes his enemy and it is easy to see why David dreads them. He says,
they whet their tongues like swords
they aim their bitter words like arrows
they shoot from ambush at the blameless
they shoot suddenly without fear
the hold fast to their evil purposes
they lay snares secretly
they search out injustice from the depths of their wicked and faithless hearts and minds
David finds himself in a difficult spot. His faith in God has put a target on his back. Perhaps this began with just one man- Saul. However, soon Saul’s bitter words poisoned others and this animosity spread into a great throng of people. This bitterness consumed these people to the depths of their hearts and minds (6).
We might wonder at this point, “Did David endure in the faith under such dreadful opposition?”
Yes, at some point David says that God delivered him, saying, “But God shoots His arrow at them; they are wounded suddenly. They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them…” 7-8). Their folly and God’s judgment is seen by all and are made to fear the LORD (Psalm 64:8-9).
We might ask, “Did David become embittered by these things or did His faith produce holiness and the peaceful fruit of righteousness?”
David was not embittered. He was not made faithless. He did not become like his enemies in any way (James 1:19-21). His mouth did not curse or spew fourth bitter words; rather, instead he says, “Let the righteous one rejoice in the LORD and take refuge in Him! Let all the upright in heart exult!”
David did things in such a way that his example becomes a model for the suffering Christian. He endured these things in such a way that he remained steadfast in his faith, this faith in God produced the fruit of holiness and the peaceful fruit of righteousness. He endured these things in such a way that he was not be embittered; which would have defiled many.
No, instead David emerges as one who praises and worships God. He endured these things in such a way that his example and his encouragement would promote the worship and exaltation of God by others. He says, “Let all the upright in heart exult!”
We might ask, “How was David able to do these things under these sort of difficult conditions?”
Perhaps David did the very things that the author of Hebrews exhorts these suffering Christians to do when they find themselves in this situation. David encounters these things and prays to the LORD and shelters in Him. David draws close to the LORD with whom he has a special relationship. David, like these Hebrew Christians then...
David had to lift his drooping hands and strengthen his weak knees.
David had to make straight paths for his feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed…”.
David strove for peace with everyone.
David had to strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
David had to strive to obtain the grace of God in himself and others.
David had to see to it that no “root of bitterness” sprungs up and caused trouble, and by it many would become defiled.
David had to see to it that he was not given to un-confessed sexual immoral (or idolatry) or unholy.
If the faithful believer will do these things they will not be like faithless Esau!
When I was reading Psalm 64 a while back I had to spend time repenting of my own sins that were similar to the sins mentioned in vv. 3-6. I do not need someone to teach me how to run that race that the ungodly and the wicked are currently running! No, I used to run in that same race. I was on that wide path that led to my destruction. Running that race comes natural to my flesh.
But now I have come to Christ and I have a new nature and a new heart and I need to be instructed in godliness and righteousness. I need to receive the grace of God and be instructed how to run this new race. This is exactly what the author of Hebrews is doing in our text today (Hebrews 12:12-17).
The author of Hebrews begins by telling these Christians, ‘Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.’
These beleaguered Christians were running a difficult race through which God was training them and disciplining them so that holiness and righteousness would be produced in their lives. Yet you get the impression that in this battle they had stopped going to the scriptures to be built up and strengthened in the faith. As a result they were spiritually weak and unable to run a strong race. But if they will receive this letter and respond to the scriptures by faith they will be able to ‘lift their drooping hands and strengthen their weak knees’.
Because of their condition the author says that they were ‘forgetting’ and had ‘completely forgotten’ important scriptural truths (12:3) that they needed to remember. He has told them that they should have been teachers by now but they needed someone to teach them the basics all over again. They needed to become skilled in the word of righteousness and become mature. When this happens they would be able to distinguish good from evil (5:11-14). They also been encouraged to strive to enter into the rest that has been promised by remembering that the Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:11-13).
In your race of faith have your hands drooped and your knees become week? Continue to cry out to God and seek Him without wearying (Psalm 77). Among all the blessings that the Word of God brings to us it gives us strength! (Proverbs 8:14)
The author of Hebrews tells them to, ‘Make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed….’.
We need to be hearers and doers of the Word and be blessed because of it (James 1:22). Wisdom says in Proverbs 8:8-9, “All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to him who understands, and right to those who find knowledge.” If we will receive and obey the Word of God we will walk on a straight path and we will find healing and refreshment.
Proverbs 3:5-6,8 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths...It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”
Proverbs 4:11-12, 20-22 says, “I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. When you walk, your step will not be hampered, and if you run, you will not stumble...My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.”
The author of Hebrews says, ‘Strive for peace with everyone.’ The author of Hebrews has encouraged the runners of this race of faith to be strengthened in the Word of God. He has also told us that the Word of God will make our path straight and bring healing. Now we are also told of another benefit of being a hearer and a doer of the Word of God. If we will do this we will grow in biblical wisdom and understanding and this will be displayed in our good conduct towards others as we ‘strive for peace with everyone’.
This is what James says in James 3:13-18, “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Next the author of Hebrews says to strive for ‘the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’
There have been four things said about this verse. First, it may mean that if we are not living in a holy way before God there is reason to wonder if we have truly been saved. If we are not saved we will not see the LORD in eternity. Secondly, if we are not pursuing holiness we will not see the LORD do much of anything with us, through us, and for us. Third, some have said that if we do not pursue holiness then the people around us will not see the LORD through us. The point of this statement is really quite plain, “Without the pursuit of holiness, one will not see God in the same way as if he did pursue the LORD.”
Every believer is to strive for sanctification. God is the standard for true holiness and our lives are on display before Him. It is before Him that we will one day stand and be judged. A true believer who abides in Christ will bear the fruit of holiness.
Christ came to provide redemption from sins. He redeemed us from our sins in three ways. First, we are redeemed so we are the LORD’s and we are not our own. We are now his bondservants. Secondly, we are redeemed from sin and have been given freedom. Third, we have been redeemed from sin and we have been brought into God‘s family and given a new heart, a new nature, and the desire to obey His commands. Because Christ has done this for us we are now free to serve the LORD without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. (CF: Luke 1:68-75)
Christ has come and defeated our enemies who hate us. As a result, the believer has Christ in Him and he can be empowered to obtain the victory over these foes (Galatians 2:20). Christ has has defeated indwelling sin, sin in the world, and Satan. Those who have now been united to Christ receive every precious promise to be victorious in this world (2 Peter 1:3). We are to strive against these enemies and walk in the victory that Christ has won for us by His grace and strength.
The author of Hebrews says that they are to ‘see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God’. Time and time again the author of Hebrews has told these Christians to lay hold of Christ, to look to Christ, to consider Christ. When he says that they are to ‘see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God’ he is saying the same thing. The apostle John says that it is through Christ we receive grace upon grace (John 1:16).
Paul says to Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to redeem us from all lawlessness and purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.”
Paul then says to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.” This is what the author of Hebrews is doing here in this verse. He is teaching and exhorting these believers to look to Christ and receive His grace. Christ has redeemed us from all lawlessness and purifies us to be zealous for good works. The author of Hebrews is encouraging all of us to come alongside the struggling Christians and help them receive the grace of God (1 Peter 4:10-11).
The author of Hebrews says that that they are to see to it ‘that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.’ In Psalm 64 we saw how ‘bitter words’ spread quickly and creates a ‘throng of evildoers’ (2-3). David determined not to be infected with this bitterness and to instead be found praising, worshiping, and exalting in the LORD alone (10).
Exodus 29:18-19 gives us a good indication of what this ‘bitter root’ would look like. We read, “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’.”
Everyone ought to be aware of this ‘root of bitterness’ which would turn away from the LORD and would then serve something else. In this text every man, woman, clan and tribe is warned. In our day we might say that every man, woman, church, and denomination should watch out for this ‘bitter root’. If we are not careful we could experience what Jude says when he writes, “certain men have crept in unnoticed’. (4)
We began this sermon by looking at David. He was a faithful man, a man who believed in the Promise and was justified, and as a son of God he endured the Fatherly discipline of God’s ‘difficult providence’. After that trial and time of training David stood strong in the faith and praised God as he boldly exhorted others to do the same.
Hebrews 12:17 ends by giving us an example of a faithless man- Esau. He was never justified by believing in the Promise. In the end he shed tears of regret as he pleaded for the restoration of the inheritance but there was no foundation of repentance upon which forgiveness could be offered. He cried out with tears but Esau did not have the foundation of justification and access to the Throne of Grace to receive grace and mercy. Our prayers to God even when prayed with our tears cannot justify the sinner apart from saving faith that has first received justification. The sinner must be justified by God by grace through faith. Upon the foundation of God’s sovereign and merciful justification comes every other blessing.
Esau did not enjoy the benefits of Adoption which are spoken of in the LBC 12.1, “God has granted that all those who are justified would receive the grace of adoption, in and for the sake of His only Son Jesus Christ. By this they are counted among the children of God and enjoy the freedom and privileges of that relationship. They inherit His name, they receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, and are enabled to cry ‘Abba, Father!’ They are given compassion, protected, provided for and chastened by Him as a father. Yet they are never cast off but are sealed for the day of redemption and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.”
The author of Hebrews says that they are to see to it ‘that no one is sexually immoral or unholy (profane) 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.’
When you think of Esau in the scriptures you do not see a man who lived a life that was characterized by running the race of faith by following the exhortations given in Hebrews 12:12-17. No, his whole life is summarized in a few brief words by the author of Hebrews, ‘he was sexually immoral and unholy and he sold his birthright for a single meal’. He prayed outward tears but there was no grace found working in his heart. One commentator made this simple comment, “Our tears will never be able to undo our sins.” Only the washing of regeneration can accomplish our justification before God (Titus 3:5).
These Hebrew Christians are to run this race by faith with the strength that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. They are not to return to Judaism because as we will see next week that would be a truly frightful thing. It is terrifying to stand before God’s unmediated holiness. We need the one mediator between God and man- Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5-6) and we are to see it that no one among us falls short of this grace.