Hebrews 12. Having turned aside in the previous chapter to show many wonderful examples of faith, the writer returns to his purpose of exhorting the saints to live by faith as Christians. He compares the life of faith to an endurance race. The race, its hindrances, and its Object are described first (vv.1-3). Then, the subject of chastening is brought in, because God chastens us in the race of faith to help us rather than hinder us (vv.4-16). Our Father does not delight in chastening us. He would much prefer to draw us by attracting us to the person of Christ. But if we do not lay aside every weight and the sin in our lives then He can and will bring in chastening. If we do not understand chastening, we can become discouraged under it. Following this we have a number of helpful instructions for how to run the race (vv.12-17). At the close of the chapter, the writer takes up the great contrast between Judaism and Christianity, and the very serious danger that some of them were in, of rejecting Christ (vv.18-29). So we have another warning against apostasy.
The Race Set Before Us: Christ the Object and Example of Faith (12:1-3)
1 Let “us” also therefore, having so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight, and sin which so easily entangles us, run with endurance the race that lies before us, v.1 Laying Aside Weights and Sin in Order to Run with Endurance. The Christian pathway is likened to an endurance race. The list of Old Testament saints in ch.11 is referred to in ch.12 as a “great cloud of witnesses”. The witnesses are those who have finished the race before us. Although they lived in a different day, yet it is the same race in many respects. The main difference is what we have in v.2; we look to Jesus. They are not witnesses in the sense of watching us run, like spectators, but in the sense that they witness the path of faith in general. It is not a 100-meter dash; rather, it is a long-distance race. It will require patience or endurance to complete the race successfully. These witnesses encourage us, yet now it is our turn; “let us run”. There are two things mentioned in v.1 that can hinder us in running the Christian race: weights and sin.
- Weights are those things are are not positively sin, but can be a hindrance to our running the race of faith. For the Hebrews, the “weights” were the outward things of Judaism that many were still occupied with. For us, it could be something else. Weights spoil our enjoyment of Christ, and hinder us from pursuing Him. They are like “the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines” (Song. 2:15). One weight that is often a hindrance to young men is following professional sports. It consumes hours of their free time, fills their minds with interesting and exciting things, thereby displaces time and interest in the things of God. This is just one example; but there are many more. A weight for one person may not necessarily be a weight for another.
- Sin on the other hand is positively wrong. There are certain types of sin that each one of us are more prone to, and therefore they can be considered “besetting sins”. However, that isn’t exactly what this verse refers to. Certainly, every kind of sin needs to be laid aside, but specifically here it is simply “sin”; i.e. the general issue of sin, which so easily besets us. For the Hebrews, the “sin” was the sin of unbelief, of rejecting faith in Christ. They could look back over their history and see how the sin of unbelief had beset them many times. Now they must lay it aside once for all. Likewise, we also are easily “entangled” with sin. We are prone to choose not to believe God, and rather to act in self will.
If “weights” slow us down in the race, then “sin” takes us off course. Before the race begins, a runner lays aside anything that might slow or trip him up. The cloud of witnesses encourages us that the race is worth running, and so we must exercise self discipline in order to run with endurance!
2 looking stedfastly on Jesus the leader and completer of faith: who, in view of the joy lying before him, endured the cross, having despised the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. v.2 Focus on Jesus, Who Ran Perfectly. It is hard to run with endurance without a goal in view. The Christian has an object in the race; and that is Christ Himself! We are to remain looking “stedfastly on Jesus”, and if we do, our feet will remain in the path. The thought of “looking” is really “looking off” to Jesus (W. Kelly Translation), in contrast with looking at the cloud of witnesses. If the the cloud of witnesses are imperfect portraits of faith, Jesus is the unequaled masterpiece! We are not to look to the cloud of witnesses as our object, because – faithful as they were in life – they are not sufficient to be the believer’s object. Only Christ can be our goal. Christ is not only our object as a glorified man in heaven, but He is there as One who has completed the race; the perfect example for us. Hence, He is called “the leader and completer of faith”, because He began it, ran it, and finished it perfectly! Christ had an object before Him as well; “the joy that was set before Him”. What was the joy that lay before Him? The highest joy was perhaps that of bringing glory to His Father (John 4:34; John 13:31-32). There was also the joy purchasing the inheritance (Matt. 13:44), that He might redeem His people and gain a bride (Eph. 5:25-27). Having that joy before Him, Jesus was willing to suffer intensely on earth, because He knew what lay ahead. The Spirit of God brings before us the awfulness of the sufferings of Christ at the hands of man. He “endured the cross” or literally “crucifixion”, which was considered a most shameful and disgraceful way to die (Phil. 2:8). The horrors of the cross, awful as they were, and beyond our comprehension, did not dissuade Jesus from running the race. No, instead He “despised the shame”, not because He was unfeeling or callous, but because He had a goal in view. Jesus did indeed reach the finish line. He has finished His race, and “is set down at the right hand of the throne of God”. One day our race will be done as well. Jesus, having crossed the finish line ahead of us, now turns to help is in our race. Four times in Hebrews we have Christ seated in heaven: Heb. 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, and 12:2. How wonderful that Jesus Himself waits at the finish line to welcome us (Acts 7:55)!
3 For consider well him who endured so great contradiction from sinners against himself, that ye be not weary, fainting in your minds. v.3 Consider Jesus Who Suffered Greatly Yet Persevered. The Spirit of God returns again to the suffering of Christ, and His endurance through it, as an encouragement to us. The race is going to be difficult, and we will surely suffer. But it is a help to “consider well Him”, that we might be encouraged by the supreme example of faith. Particularly the “great contradiction from sinners against himself” is brought before us. The word ‘contradiction’ means to speak (‘diction’) against (‘contra’) someone. This refers to the wicked speech that was constantly directed toward the Savior. Examples would be the Jews’ false accusations in John 8, or the insults hurled against Him while hanging on the cross. Why is this aspect of the Lord’s sufferings presented to us as an example? Perhaps because it is an aspect of suffering that is hard to take. Can you imagine being taunted and insulted your whole life long, without just cause? These verbal attacks only intensified toward the end of our Lord’s public ministry. In the final days, the Lord experienced a sense of being surrounded by enemies – bulls (Jewish enemies) and dogs (Gentile enemies) – who were gaping upon Him “with their mouths” (Psa. 22:11-13, 16). Words can hurt, and the Lord’s enemies used them. In perfect contrast the these hard speeches, the Lord never retaliated. During His trials, the Lord was led from one judgment hall to another. Isaiah 53:7-8 speaks of His perfect harmlessness during those trials, as He was led from place to place; “he opened not his mouth”. Jesus never gave in to the taunting and mocking; and neither should we. His example encourages us to press on in the race, to not grow “weary” or “faint” in our minds.
The Lord’s Chastening and Our Response to it (12:4-11)
4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, wrestling against sin. v.4 Our Natural Unwillingness to Suffer. In contrast to what the Lord suffered, we have barely suffered at all. He resisted evil to the point of death. We “have not yet resisted unto blood”. We are naturally unwilling to suffer, and this can be problematic in the race that is set before us. We don’t like to suffer, but we need to, especially when it comes to “wrestling against sin”. This verse is not teaching that we should fight against sin with the energy of the flesh. Rather, it is showing that, if we are going to live a holy life, it will require us denying the lusts of the flesh, which is unpleasant to the old nature within us. While He did not have sin in Him, the Lord Jesus is the perfect example to us: He would rather die than disobey!
The word paideuo
could be translated chastening or discipline, and it really refers to the training of a child. Just as natural parents discipline their children, so the Lord disciplines us! This chapter deals extensively with the subject of chastening. Another book that deals with the topic is the book of Job. Chastening is not the Lord’s preferred method of changing us. He would first seek to draw us by attaching our hearts to Christ in glory. But like natural children, when the heart is not reached, chastening must come in. A very real danger is that if we don’t understand the chastening of the Lord, we might allow it to discourage us from running the race of faith. But when we understand chastening, it helps us to run with endurance. Read more…
5 And ye have quite forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when reproved by him; 6 for whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.” [Prov. 3:11-12] 7 Ye endure for chastening, God conducts himself towards you as towards sons; for who is the son that the father chastens not? 8 But if ye are without chastening, of which all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. vv.5-8 God’s Motive in Chastening. Not only do we tend to be unwilling to suffer in denying our flesh, but we also tend to shy away from the chastening of the Lord. The writer quotes from the early chapters of Proverbs, which the Hebrew believers ought to have been very familiar with, although they had forgotten it, where “my son” is addressed repeatedly. It is a term of affection. It is also very individual; God has an individual tuition for each one of us. The quotation from Proverbs reveals that the Lord chastens those whom He loves! Chastening is not a sign that God hates us, but rather that He loves us! If we aren’t chastened by the Lord (which he carefully adds “of which all have been made partakers” because is common to every believer), then we really do not have God as our Father, and we are not legitimate children in the family; “then are ye bastards, and not sons”. The point is simply this: chastening is inseparable from the father-child relationship. We are to remember that God chastens us because He loves us, and because we are His sons. The quotation from Proverbs 3 further reveals two attitudes which we must avoid in order to profit from the chastening of the Lord.
- On one extreme we can “despise” the chastening of the Lord. To despise the chastening of the Lord is to ignore that it is taking place, or discount it as unimportant.
- On the other extreme we could “faint” when we are reproved by Him. To faint under His chastening is to become depressed or discouraged by it.
The proper response to chastening is in v.11; to “be exercised by it”. This is the only way to profit from chastening; to really seek to learn from it the lesson the Lord is trying to teach us. A duck simply lets the rain roll off its back, the chicken flaps its wings and squawks when it gets wet, but the robin endures the rain, and then it sings!
Reasons for Chastening or Discipline. There are a number of reasons for chastening in the believer's life. Chastening does not always come into our lives because of some sin we have committed. It is important to see that. Job and his three friends had a very limited understanding of God's ways, and all fell into error in their thoughts about God relative to Job's suffering. Bruce Anstey has nicely organized these reasons under four English words that begin with 'P'.
- Punitive. To punish the believer when positive sin is committed. The goal is to correct the believer, and if refused, it could lead to one being taken in death (Heb. 12:6; 9-10; 1 Cor. 11:32).
- Purgative. To remove unnecessary hindrances from a believer's life. The goal is to make the believer more fruitful, and more radiant (John 15:1-2; Psa. 139:2-3).
- Preventative. To keep a believer from doing something he would have otherwise done; to preserve us from spiritual harm (Rom. 8:28; 2 Cor. 4:11; 12:7-9; Job 33:17-19).
- Preparative. To prepare a believer for a new phase of life or field of ministry, such as being a help to others who are suffering (2 Cor. 1:3-6; Heb. 2:17-18).
9 Moreover we have had the fathers of our flesh as chasteners, and we reverenced them; shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they indeed chastened for a few days, as seemed good to them; but he for profit, in order to the partaking of his holiness. vv.9-10 God’s Object in Chastening. The writer compares the chastening of the Lord with the discipline or child training of natural parents . There are many parallels between the two, yet the Lord’s chastening is far superior! The “fathers of our flesh” chastened us while we were young according to what “seemed good to them”, yet we revered them. It may not have always been the best administration of discipline, because natural parents are often self serving and lack wisdom in discipline. Sometimes they are too slow or fast, sometimes they do it for appearance, and sometimes they discipline in anger. Yet we still summitted to our natural father, as is proper for children in a family. Far superior is the discipline of God our Father. His discipline is balanced and perfectly suitable to our state, according to His divine wisdom. His object in chastening is “for our profit”. God wants us to be able to partake of “His holiness”. He wants us to have fellowship with Himself. We cannot have fellowship with God if there are certain hindrances in our lives (like “weights” and sin, v.1), and chastening is one means of removing those hindrances. Notice that God is called “the Father of spirits”. God doesn’t just deal with our behavior, but with our spirits or attitudes. Parents should strive for the same with their children. It is relatively easy to get children to do certain things, it is much harder to get them to do things with a good attitude. God’s discipline deals with the heart! Seeing how far superior the discipline of God is, and seeing that it is for our blessing, shouldn’t we readily submit to His hand?
11 But no chastening at the time seems to be matter of joy, but of grief; but afterwards yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those exercised by it. v.11 Chastening During and After. The writer now compares the experience of a soul during chastening and after it. This is true of child training, but more so in connection with the discipline of the Lord. While undergoing chastening, “at the time” it is a thing of grief. The Spirit of God in no way cheapens or downplays the grief that a soul passes through in trial. But “afterward” the outcome of chastening, if a soul is exercised by it, is very much a thing of joy. The “peaceful fruit” of chastening in our lives is practical “righteousness”. God wants our spirit and our conduct to be consistent with Himself, and this will result in peace in our spirits. It is a principle generally with God, that true peace is always a result of righteousness; “And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever” (Isa. 32:17). See also James 3:17. We have a similar thought in John 15. Our Father as the husbandman prunes the true branches in order that they might bear more fruit (John 15:2).
Example of an Exercised Soul. A beautiful example of one who was exercised by the chastening of the Lord is seen in Psalm 38-40, three Psalms of David. In Psalm 38 (a penitential psalm), we have David under the chastening hand of the Lord, feeling deeply the suffering he was passing through. Yet we find him exercised by it; “For I will declare mine iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin” (Psa. 38:18). In Psalm 39 he continues to pour out his heart to the Lord, seeing God at work behind the circumstances, and calling out for deliverance. In Psalm 40, the Lord delivers David from the trial, bringing the chastening to an end, and the result is beautiful; “he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD” (Psa. 40:3). At the time, the chastening for David was a matter of grief; but afterwards it yielded the peaceful fruit of righteousness because he was exercised by it.
How We can Successfully Run the Race (12:12-17)
Having taken up the subject of chastening, the writer now returns to the theme of the chapter, which is running the race of faith. There are a number of things that we must do, aside from laying aside weights and sin, that will help us to successfully run the race that is set before us.
12 Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the failing knees; v.12 Take Courage. The picture of one whose hands are hanging and knees failing is one of discouragement, of someone who is exhausted in a race. No doubt many among the Hebrews were discouraged. Perhaps they had gotten their eye off Christ, having been taken up with the outward trappings of Judaism. Perhaps they had experienced some of the Lord’s discipline. They needed to take courage and find their strength in the Lord, like David who “encouraged himself in the LORD his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). There may be an allusion to Moses in Exodus 17, whose hands grew heavy as the day wore on. Aaron and Hur were used to lift up his hands; a picture of encouraging one whose faith is faltering. We can do this for our brethren!
13 and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned aside; but that rather it may be healed. v.13 Have Consistency and Singleness. To make straight paths for our feet is to have singleness in the race of faith. The best path is one that goes straight toward the goal, without swerving and mis-stepping. Our own consistency or lack thereof affects not only ourselves, but other companions in the race. There are those who are “lame”, who have some weakness that hinders their spiritual progress. In the language of Romans 14, these are the “weak in the faith”. We are responsible to set a good example for others. Every believer should have his eye trained on Christ, but we do influence one another. If I am inconsistent in my faith (up and down) the lame can be turned aside from the pathway. We should instead run the race in a way that would cause no further damage to the lame, but would allow time for the injury to heal. With time, those who are weak in faith – in this case it was Hebrew believers having difficulty letting go of Judaism – will grow stronger.
14 Pursue peace with all, and holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord: v.14 Maintain Right Relationships with God and Man.
God wants us to pursue peace with believers and unbelievers alike, as Paul says elsewhere “if it be possible, as much as lieth within you, live peacefully with all men”
(Rom. 12:18). Someone who is growing in grace will generally be at peace with others. We see this in the development of the Lord Jesus as a perfect man. He increased with perfect balance; “in favor with God and man”
(Luke 2:52). But this “peace with all”
is not peace at the expense of holiness, but peace coupled with
holiness. From the context of the passage, we can see that this is practical holiness. If it was a positional holiness the Spirit of God would not urge the believer to pursue it, because there is nothing we can do in ourselves to gain a holy standing before God. But God would have us to know that we cannot enjoy fellowship with Him unless we are sanctified. Holiness is not only outward separation from evil, but an inward nature that delights in what is good, and hates what is evil. To pursue holiness is what we call practical sanctification. Read more…
The Lord cannot have sin in His presence, and thus we must be clear of sin to enter His courts. God would have us consider the importance of holiness, and therefore it is a word to the conscience. But it is not something that need trouble the heart of a believer seeking to please the Lord. We know that our standing before God is “holy and without blame before him in love”
(Eph. 1:4), and when the Lord comes, the work of sanctification will be completed, and we will be transformed morally to be like Christ (1 John 3:2). Yet there is another side of this which is equally important. Sin blinds our spiritual eyesight. If we have sin in our lives we will not be able to “see the Lord”
as the object of the race we are running, and we will be turned out of the way.
Holiness. The word 'holy' is used in scripture in two different ways. It can refer to the character of a nature, or to an objective state. In the first sense, holiness is the character of God's own nature. It is the love of good and the hatred of evil. As we have in Psalm 45, speaking of the Messiah, “Thou hast loved righteousness and hast hated lawlessness”. God is light, and His nature is "holy, holy, holy" (Rev. 4:8). The believer is also said to be “light in the Lord”, because we have divine life, although we are not Divine. The reason we do not always experience the holiness of the divine nature within us is because we have also a fallen, evil nature as well. Paul’s teaching on deliverance explains that by walking in the Spirit, we have deliverance from the fallen nature. But holiness is also used in another sense, referring to an objective state. For example, a sacrifice in the Old Testament was said to be “holy unto the Lord”, because it was sanctified or separated to the Lord. This aspect answers to sanctification. There is an inward character, but there is also a outward condition. By positional sanctification the believer is made holy in an absolute sense. There is also practical sanctification, which is a process. The holy nature and the holy walk are connected. If a person does not have the inward character (new birth) it will be impossible to stay clean practically. Holiness is important, because God cannot have communion with evil; "holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Holiness cannot be attained by following a legal standard, such as the law of Moses. Believers already have the holy life of Christ, and practical holiness is a matter of walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).
15 watching lest there be any one who lacks the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and many be defiled by it; 16 lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright; 17 for ye know that also afterwards, desiring to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, (for he found no place for repentance) although he sought it earnestly with tears. vv.15-17 Have Concern for One Another in the Path. We are to watch out for one another. Particularly, there were those among the Hebrews in danger of going back to Judaism. There is progression here:
- Someone turning legal, “lest there be any one who lacks the grace of God”. To lack of the grace of God is to lose the sense of the grace of God in our life. This turns a person legal, because they being to see the favor of God as something they merit through their own works. There are many different kinds of legality, but the root is always the same. Read more…
- Someone turning bitter, “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you”. If we lose a sense of God’s grace toward us, it can lead to us becoming bitter. Firstly, a soul can become bitter against the Lord, and have hard thoughts toward Him. This can happen when we do not understand His chastening, if we lack an appreciation of grace. Second, we can become bitter against others. Bitterness is called “a root”, because if suppressed in one area but not fully judged, it will spring up somewhere else. Bitterness spreads like an invasive weed, defiling many. Sometimes an entire family over multiple generations can be destroyed by bitterness. An example of this is with Esau, who was bitter that God had chosen Jacob. His bitterness was carried out in the lives of his descendants for generations. We see it in Obadiah, where the bitterness is exposed, condemned, and judgment pronounced. A sense of God’s grace is the strongest antidote to bitterness (Eph. 4:31-32).
- Someone turning away, “lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright”. We have two forms of evil: “any fornicator” is someone engaged in gross moral sin, and a “profane person” is someone to treats the sacred things of God as though they were common. An example of the latter is Esau. He despised the birthright (sold it for “one meal” of pottage) and later was denied the blessing. Esau had no value for the promises of God. Jacob connived to take the blessing, but here it is viewed as something God refused to give Esau, because he had despised the birthright. In a typical sense, for one morsel of meat (their place and nation), the Jews sold their birthright (crucified their Messiah). Later, Esau sought the blessing earnestly with tears, but he was rejected. He found no place for repentance in the sense that his heart was unchanged. Compare the reaction of Esau, “Bless me, even me also, O my father” (Gen. 27:34), with the reaction of the prodigal son, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (Luke 15:21). Esau sought the blessing earnestly with tears, but did so without repentance. The prodigal came to the father in repentance and got the blessing! Repentance is a moral change that takes place in a person whereby they take God’s side against themselves because of their sin. Read more… Esau is a picture of one whose life proved that he had no value for the things of God. He despised the promises and was himself rejected. It is a picture of an apostate, one who despises their birthright (what they have professed, Christ and all blessing associated with Him), and for such a person it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. But even for a true believer, if they carry on with unjudged bitterness in their life, it can lead to them turning away from the Lord.
Having warned of the solemn condition of a profane person, the writer next takes up a warning about apostasy.
(The Choice Between Two Approaches to God) (12:18-29)
The second half of the chapter is a warning against apostasy; the great danger that some among the Hebrews were facing. They had made a profession of Christianity, but some were not real and were in danger of ultimately rejecting Christ and going back to Judaism. The writer warns them of the seriousness of such a choice by reminding them of the great difference between the two approaches to God. The two approaches are pictured by mountains, by which one might ascend. On the one hand there was the approach on the grounds of man’s responsibility, and it was accompanied by fear and judgment. On the other hand there was the approach on the grounds of grace, it was accompanied by many wonderful things that are a total contrast to law. This warning takes the form of a parenthesis, being one of five such warnings in the epistle.
The Mount Sinai Contrasted with Mount Zion (12:18-24)
18 For ye have not come to the mount that might be touched and was all on fire, and to obscurity, and darkness, and tempest, 19 and trumpet’s sound, and voice of words; which they that heard, excusing themselves, declined the word being addressed to them any more: 20 (for they were not able to bear what was enjoined: “And if a beast should touch the mountain, it shall be stoned;” [ref. Exodus 19:13] 21 and, so fearful was the sight, Moses said, I am exceedingly afraid and full of trembling;) vv.18-21 Mount Sinai and Law. The writer would remind the Hebrews of the character of the old system by looking at the occasion of the giving of the law. There are a number of things we are not come to, that the Spirit of God would bring before the Hebrews:
- Tangible yet inaccessible. It is remarked that we are not come “to the mount that might be touched and was all on fire”. The “mount” that is spoken of is Mt. Sinai, that Jehovah called “my mountain”, where He first appeared to Moses, and where later the Law was given to Israel. It was a physical, tangible thing “that might be touched”, much like the earthly system of Judaism. However, they were not able to touch it because the mountain was “all on fire”. Fire is often a symbol of God’s judgment because of His holiness. The system of the law could not bring man near to God because it took man up on the ground of his own responsibility. Sinful man must be kept at a distance! In fact, Moses was told to put a boundary around the mountain that Israel could not cross (Ex. 19:12).
- Obscure and frightening. The Israelites were confronted with “obscurity and darkness and tempest”. The clouds of smoke obscured the view of what was going on upon on Sinai. In a similar way, the Law was only a partial revelation of God, in contrast with the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The darkness and high winds that accompanied the Lord frightened the people, rather than drew them near.
- Overwhelming. There was a “trumpet’s sound” that grew louder and louder, and overwhelmed the people’s senses. Such is the character of a holy God in judgment. God as He is revealed in Jesus is the same God that came down on Sinai. His holiness has not diminished one iota. But the cross of Christ has satisfied His holy claims and glorified His nature such that God is free to come out to us in love and grace.
- Unbearable. Israel heard the “voice of words”, which refers to the “ten words”, or decalogue. The ten commandments were spoken aloud by God in His thunderous voice, but Israel declined to hear any more, although He was not done speaking. They wanted God to speak to Moses only, and then Moses could relay the message; “They that heard, excusing themselves, declined the word being addressed to them any more”. Hence God “added no more” (Deut. 5:22), and would afterward not speak directly to them, but through a mediator. In a parenthesis, a few examples are given of Israel’s great fear and the reasons for it (vv.20-21). Even an animal that touched the mountain would be put to death, and Moses himself – the mediator of the covenant – was very afraid. Even the very beginning of the law, the bare minimum standard that God had for man, was unbearable to the people!
When you consider the system of the law as inaccessible, obscure, frightening, overwhelming, and unbearable, how foolish to go back to it after having been delivered from it!
22 but ye have come to mount Zion; and to the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem; and to myriads of angels, 23 the universal gathering; and to the assembly of the firstborn who are registered in heaven; and to God, judge of all; and to the spirits of just men made perfect; 24 and to Jesus, mediator of a new covenant; and to the blood of sprinkling, speaking better than Abel. vv.22-24 Mount Zion and Grace. Having outlined the system of law pictured by Mount Sinai, which we are not come to, now the writer talks about what we have come to, a system of grace pictured by Mount Zion. There are eight things that are delineated by the word “and”. We are come to each of these things, but with some of them we have the guarantee, while the final accomplishment of them is still future.
- First, we are come “to mount Zion”. The mountain upon which the city of David was built is a picture of grace. The Hebrews would have been familiar with Zion as a picture of grace, because in their history the mountain is connected with the promises of God. When the ark was taken by the Philistines and the people and the priests were in a state of ruin, Jehovah intervened in grace and gave them a king after His own heart, connected with Zion, “As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore” (Psa. 133:3, see also Psa. 78:65-72). The same grace characterizes the new approach to God.
- Second, we are come “to the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem”. Lest our thoughts be confined to earth, and God’s grace here below, we are next lifted up to heaven. It is a heavenly Jerusalem in contrast with the earthly Jerusalem. The city referred to here is heaven itself, the third heavens where God dwells with all His own. In Revelation 21 the “holy city, Jerusalem” is “the bride, the Lamb’s wife,” i.e., the church. But in Hebrews 12, the “assembly of the firstborn” is distinguished from the “heavenly Jerusalem”. This shows that the “heavenly Jerusalem” in Hebrews is not the church, but rather the heavenly home of the redeemed saints of the Old and New Testaments. It is the “city which hath foundations” that Abraham and others looked for (Heb. 11:10, 16).
- Third, we are come “to myriads of angels, the universal gathering”. This speaks of the whole heavenly host, the huge number of angels that surround the throne of God and do His bidding; “the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Rev. 5:11). Within this universal assembly of angels there are various classes and orders of angels, but this views all of them together. As Christians, we are superior in rank to the angels, being associated with Christ! A Jew could never say this.
- Fourth, we are come “to the assembly of the firstborn [or ‘firstborn ones’] who are registered in heaven”. This is the only reference we have in the book of Hebrews to the church (‘ecclesia’, or ‘called out ones’), which is mentioned frequently in the epistles of Paul. Often we use the word ‘firstborn’ in connection with birth order in time, but it is also used in scripture in reference to preeminence. For example, Christ is called the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Here the Greek word ‘prototokon’ is in the plural, and it refers to Christians, who have a preeminent place in the family of God, however inferior to Christ who has utmost preeminence. For Christians, not only are our names written in the Lamb’s book of life, but our elevated place in the Church is “registered” in heaven! Our citizenship is in heaven.
- Fifth, we are come “to God, judge of all”. Under Judaism the people were at a distance from God. In Christianity, although God is still the holy “judge of all”, we are brought through the veil into the holiest of all! For all eternity we will enjoy the glorious presence of God Himself. God’s judgment over “all” will be displayed over the whole world in a coming day (the Millennium, see Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:20).
- Sixth, we are come “to the spirits of just men made perfect”. This refers to the spirits of Old Testament saints, the great cloud of witnesses, “just men” whose spirits are departed their bodies, but who will be “made perfect” when the Lord comes and raises them with changed bodies! “They without us should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40). These ones will join Christians in heaven, viewed together in Rev. 4-5 as the twenty-four elders.
- Seventh, we are come “to Jesus, mediator of a new covenant”. The greatest possession we have is the Person of Jesus. No Old Testament saint could say this, because Jesus had not yet come! He is said to be “mediator of a new covenant”. Christ will function as the mediator of the New Covenant in the Millennium when that covenant is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Meanwhile, we enjoy the blessings of the New Covenant secured to us through the blood of Christ.
- Eighth, we are come “to the blood of sprinkling, speaking better than Abel”. The blood of sprinkling is the blood of Christ, but in reference to the blood that was sprinkled on the mercy seat on the day of atonement. The blood of Christ is the basis of all blessing for mankind, and for the eventual reconciliation of the earth (John 1:29). It speaks “better things” than Abel’s blood, because Abel’s blood cried from the ground to God for vengeance (Gen. 4:10). The blood of Christ speaks of mercy and blessing, because the value of that shed and sprinkled blood has satisfied the claims of God against sin, and perfectly glorified His nature!
Warning Not to Refuse Grace (12:25-27)
25 See that ye refuse not him that speaks. For if those did not escape who had refused him who uttered the oracles on earth, much more we who turn away from him who does so from heaven: v.25 His that Speaks from Heaven. As he has numerous times in the epistle, the writer reasons that, seeing those who despised the word spoken by the Lord on earth came into judgment, how much more serious to refuse His voice now speaking from heaven. It doesn’t refer to the words of Christ on earth, but to the revelation that He has given as a glorified man in heaven, delivered to us through inspired channels. It is the glorified Son of God speaking from heaven! How much more serious to refuse that heavenly voice, especially since it is grace! Grace rejected is far worse than law rejected. As a side note, we can learn from this that is a mistake to elevate the words of Christ on earth above the inspired words in the rest of the New Testament. They are still the words of Christ, not as speaking on earth, but as speaking from heaven!
26 whose voice then shook the earth; but now he has promised, saying, “Yet once will “I” shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” [Haggai 2:6] 27 But this Yet once, signifies the removing of what is shaken, as being made, that what is not shaken may remain. vv.26-27 Shaking All Things. When God spoke to Israel at Mount Sinai, the whole mountain shook. But Haggai predicts a far greater shaking that is yet future, and not limited to earth only but also the heaven! No doubt Haggai refers to the great turmoil that will unfold in the prophetic week, where the earth and the nations in it are shaken, and the heavens with their angelic hosts are shaken too (Rev. 12:7). As a tender encouragement to the faithful remnant, the Lord says that the latter glory of that house (in the Millennium) would be greater than the former. However, the writer of Hebrews shows that this signifies an even greater shaking of all things, whereby the things of this present creation are removed, and God brings in a new creation. He connects Judaism with this present creation, as suited to it. Christ has spoken from heaven, announcing the end of Judaism, with all its outward forms for the flesh to lean on. Shortly, the earthly center of that religion would be shaken by a great military destruction (70 A.D.), and the temple itself would be destroyed. However, a greater shaking is yet to come, so that in the end, only that which is of Himself might remain.
Our Response to Grace (12:28-29)
28 Wherefore let us, receiving a kingdom not to be shaken, have grace [‘be thankful’], by which let us serve God acceptably with reverence and fear. 29 For also “our God is a consuming fire.” [Deuteronomy 4:24] vv.28-29 Thankfulness. God is going to shake all things, but for us, those who have faith, we possess something that cannot be shaken; “a kingdom not to be shaken”. This “kingdom” refers to the kingdom of God in its heavenly aspect, in contrast with an earthly kingdom. When God shakes all things (vv.26-27), there is an aspect of the kingdom that continues for all eternity! It is called the “everlasting kingdom” (2 Pet. 1:11, see 1 Cor. 15:24). Everything the believer has in Christianity is founded on an eternal Person who has accomplished an eternal redemption! Therefore, it is a kingdom that will never suffer decay or defeat, and it is beyond the reach of sin and death. We are already in the new creation by virtue of being in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even the dissolution of the elements (Rom. 8:38-39). When the old creation is dissolved, making way for the new creation, we will flourish in our native climate. We come to another “let us” statement; “let us… have grace” or “be thankful”. Being established in the unshakable kingdom, we can have an abiding sense of the grace of God wherein we stand. This grace produces a response of thankfulness in our hearts (the word could be translated ‘thankful’), and causes us to “serve God acceptably”; to know and do His will. The law will not cause us to serve acceptably. But grace will not cause us to live carelessly. Instead, we will serve “with reverence and fear”. The holiness of God is unchanged. The Jealous Jehovah who spoke on earth is still “a consuming fire” in His righteous government (Deut. 4:24), although we know Him as Father, and know ourselves accepted in the Beloved. His holiness, proven fully at the cross where it was satisfied by the work of Christ, is not at all diminished though we are under grace.