STUDIES IN HEBREWS
© Rosemary Bardsley, 2002
STUDY FOURTEEN: POINTERS TO PERSEVERANCE UNDER PRESSURE
So far we have learned:
- Jesus Christ is the ultimate - he is God.
- Jesus Christ is the ultimate - he is perfect, sinless man.
- The salvation obtained for us by Jesus Christ is the ultimate - a once-for-all sacrifice for sin with 100% eternal effectiveness.
- Faith does not depend on present physical realities but on eternal spiritual realities.
- True faith is faith that endures.
- Suffering is not to be seen as God punishing us for sin, but as God correcting us as a loving Father.
Having taught us all of this the writer again says 'therefore ... ' and proceeds to give us a number of coping principles to help us to persevere under pressure:
A. 'STRENGTHEN YOUR FEEBLE ARMS AND WEAK KNEES ... ' (12:12).
Knowing that our suffering and hardships are not God punishing us, but rather his loving correction, we are here exhorted to 'strengthen' ourselves. Feeble arms can't carry anything, weak knees can't stand or walk. These are physical images meant to teach spiritual truths. We need to ask ourselves 'What is it that will strengthen me spiritually? What will enable me to keep on walking with the Lord?'
For your study: You will find the answer in the following verses: Psalm 18:1,32-36; 22:19; 28:7; 29:11; 37:23-24; 40:2; 46:1; 55:22; 56:13; 59:9,17; 63:8; 66:9; 81:1; 95:1; 116:8,9; 118:14; 121:2-3.
The source of strength is not in ourselves: it is God himself. We do not survive pressure by focusing on surviving, we do not survive pressure by focusing on our own perceived strength. We survive pressure by keeping focused on God, (as 12:2 has told us - keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus); there and there alone will we find strength.
B. 'MAKE LEVEL PATHS FOR YOUR FEET ... ' (12:13).
This is a quote from Proverbs, part of a larger passage: 'Let your eyes look straight ahead, fix your gaze directly before you. Make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm. Do not swerve to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil' (Proverbs 4:25-27).
Again we are reminded of that 'keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus'. As our writer has emphasized, the message of Christ and his cross is the ultimate way. Beside it no other way is valid. As Jesus himself said: 'I am the way ... No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6). Here we are commanded not to deviate from that one way. The moment we consider other ways, the moment we doubt the claims of Christ to be the one true God, the moment we waver in our confidence in his death as our substitute, and begin to consider other or additional means of salvation, at that moment we begin to walk on a rough track which can only cause us to stumble and to experience a weakening and disabling of our faith, and in that position we will be extremely vulnerable to the onslaughts of the enemy.
For your study: Study these verses to understand the utter importance of commitment to the pure message of Christ and his perfect salvation: Psalm 1:1-3; Psalm 119:105; Matthew 7:13-27; Luke 13:24; John 3:16-21; 8:12, 42-47; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-13; 2 Corinthians 6:1; 11:3-4,13-15; Galatians 1:6-9; 5:2-5; Colossians 2:2-4, 8,16-19; 1 Timothy 4:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:1-5; 1 John 3:7; 4:1-3,15; 5:1,5,12,13.
C. 'MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO LIVE IN PEACE WITH ALL MEN ... ' (12:14)
The Hebrew Christians were experiencing suffering at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews. In such a context the normal human reaction is retaliation and/or withdrawal and avoidance. Here, however, we are commanded to be proactive in our relationships with all men, which includes those who are against us. 'Make every effort' translates diokete which speaks of a present continuous eager pursuit of something. It is the word sometimes translated 'persecute' (for example: Matthew 5:10-12; John 5:16; Acts 9:4-8, where the meaning is to actively track down). This verse is not telling us simply to passively keep out of trouble, but rather to actively do all that we can to establish and maintain peace with all men.
This is a very practical command aimed at minimizing the persecution and trouble that comes to us because we are believers, and maximizing good will towards Christ and his church. It prohibits a martyr complex; it prohibits actions that will provoke opposition; it prohibits disobedience to the civil authorities; it prohibits making a nuisance of ourselves by our Christian activities. In other words we are being told: don't go looking for trouble; don't do things that are going to make people get annoyed with you. In addition to all of that we are to deliberately set ourselves on a course that will promote peace with all men: we are to relate to them in such a way that they will be our friends, not our enemies; to build positive relationships with relatives, neighbours, civil authorities, communities, organizations, and so on, so that they will be positive in their attitude to us.
For your study: Study the following to get an overall picture of what it means to 'live in peace with all men': Matthew 5:9; 17:24-27; Mark 9:50; 12:13-17; Romans 12:14-21; 13:1-10; 1 Corinthians 7:15-16; Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 2:11-18; 4:3-6; Philippians 2:1-4; 4:2-3; Colossians 3:15; 3:18-4:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 5:13-15; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:22-26; James 3:13-4:12: 1 Peter 2:13-17.
In Romans 12:18 Paul instructs us 'If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.' This puts two restrictions on this command to make every effort to live in peace with all men. The first is that sometimes it is not possible to do this, and still maintain our Christian distinctiveness, as we will see in the next point. The second is that sometimes the issue doesn't depend on us. We can have tried our hardest to live at peace with a person, or group, or community, but they will not live at peace with us; in this case the absence of peace is not from our side, but from theirs.
D. 'MAKE EVERY EFFORT ... TO BE HOLY ... ' (12:14)
'Make every effort' refers not just to living in peace with all men but also to being holy. So we are commanded to just as actively and persistently pursue holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.
What is this holiness that we must be committed to tracking down? What is this holiness without which we will not see the Lord?
 At the bottom line holiness is uniqueness. Its primary meaning is 'set-apartness'. God is holy: he is utterly unique, one of a kind. There is no one and nothing else like him. This uniqueness includes, but is not limited to, his utter moral purity.
Study: Isaiah 6:1-5; 40:18,25; 44:6-8; 45:18,22; 46:9.
 The tabernacle and the temple, and all their equipment, as well as the priests who served there, were regarded as holy or sanctified, because they were set apart by God and for God.
Study: Exodus 40:9-13.
 Christians are described as 'holy' or 'saints' or 'sanctified' (all the same word in the Greek) because they have been set apart by God for God as his special possession.
Study: These are some of the many verses in which Christians are called saints or holy or sanctified: Acts 9:32; 26:10; Romans 8:27; 12:13; 1 Corinthians 3:16,17; Ephesians 1:1,4; Colossians 1:12,22; 3:12; 1 Peter 2:5,9. Study also the following, where the verb 'to make holy' or 'to sanctify' is used in reference to God's setting people apart for himself: John 17:17-19; Acts 20:32; 26:18; Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11; Hebrews 2:11; 10:10.
 Because we have been set apart by God as his special, unique possession, because we are 'holy' by virtue of belonging to him and sanctified by the blood of Jesus, we are commanded repeatedly in the Scriptures to be holy. In other words, the holiness which is ours by virtue of our belonging to God is to be expressed in our lives. We are live lives which demonstrate and reflect the holiness - the uniqueness, the distinctiveness - of our God. This will include, but is not limited to, the pursuit of moral purity.
It is here that the command in Hebrews 12:14 kicks in: here we are commanded to actively pursue, to actively strive for this experiential, practical holiness. What our writer is telling us is: in our actively making every effort to live in peace with all men we are not to jeopardize or compromise our distinctiveness and uniqueness as the children of a holy God. This pursuit of holiness is the practical, observable expression of our commitment to our God. This pursuit of holiness indicates that God is the focus and centre of our lives, not ourselves, and it is this God-centred mindset which will enable us to persevere under pressure.
Study these verses: Matthew 5:13-16, 43-48; Luke 1:68-75; Romans 6:19; 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 4:23-24; 5:1-2, 8-10; Philippians 2:14-15; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 4:3-8; 1 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 1:13-15; 2:9-12; 2 Peter 3:11-12.
E. 'SEE TO IT THAT NO ONE MISSES THE GRACE OF GOD ... ' (12:15)
As we have been reminded right through this letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ and his salvation is something worth holding on to. True faith knows this. The 'faith' that lets go of this has never believed it in the first place. No one, knowing that they held a genuine $100 note in their hand would discard it and take up a counterfeit note. No one, really believing that Jesus Christ is the one, eternal God and the salvation that he gives is complete and eternally guaranteed, discards this God and this salvation, for anything else, because everything else is of necessity a counterfeit god and a counterfeit salvation. Against such a foolish move the New Testament constantly warns us, for such a move would immediately invalidate our profession of faith and identify us as those who have not really believed, and that we have indeed missed out on the grace of God.
Study: Matthew 7:21-27; 13:24-30; Luke 8:5-15; John 2:23-24; 6:60-70; 8:30-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1; Galatians 3:3:1-6; 5:1-12; Philippians 3:1-3; Colossians 2:4,8,16,18,20. In addition, review the study on Warnings and Exhortations in Hebrews.
For extended study: Read through John's Gospel and his first letter, taking note of every reference to believing. You will find that the vast majority of promises made to those who believe refer to believing in the present tense. Yesterday's claim to believe is only valid if I believe today. Effective faith is always present faith; if it only existed yesterday it was never true faith. For a full-on study go to the studies in John's Gospel in the Who is Jesus? studies on this website.
F. 'SEE TO IT ... THAT NO BITTER ROOT GROWS UP TO CAUSE TROUBLE AND DEFILE MANY' (12:15)
A faithless, godless reaction to hardship and suffering is that of bitterness towards both God and man. We were warned against this in chapter 3 when we were reminded of the Israelites' hardness and rebellion. This final rebellion was the culmination of a consistently bitter and complaining attitude towards God and his appointed leader, Moses.
Study: Exodus 5:20-21; 14:10-12; 15:23-24; 16:2-3, 7-11; 17:1-7; 32:1; Numbers 11:1, 4-15.
We could here go right back to the original temptation in Genesis 3, where Satan insinuated that the command not to eat the fruit was an expression of God's meanness, of his withholding something desirable and beneficial from Adam and Eve, a suggestion that caused Eve to doubt the goodness of God, to doubt the necessity and integrity of his command, and led to her disobedience. With similar doubts Satan also tries to infect believers when they are suffering hardship, with the purpose of making them bitter towards God, and so to deflect them from faithfulness to him.
G. 'SEE THAT NO ONE IS ... LIKE ESAU ... ' (12:16-27)
The writer tells us to see to it that we are not like Esau. He describes him as 'sexually immoral' and 'godless', describing his foolish exchanging of his birthright for a bowl of stew. The meaning here is far more than a warning against sexual immorality. The word is pornos, which is variously translated as fornicator, adulterer, whoremonger; it refers to the sexually impure and unfaithful. Why is this word used here of Esau when we are nowhere told in the Bible that he was sexually immoral?
When we realise that verse 15 has been urging us to remain faithful to God, we can readily see that this verse is not speaking of physical, sexual immorality (which is dealt with in 13:4) but of spiritual adultery, of the same nature as that which the prophets repeatedly accused the Israelites. Esau despised his birthright, and in doing so he despised the blessings and promise of God which were inextricably linked with the birth right. He held them in disrespect. So he is here described in Hebrews as pornos and bebelos - an adulterer/fornicator, and profane/unholy/secular (without God). Esau counted a momentary, physical pot of stew of more value and importance than the eternal, spiritual blessings and promises of God.
We are told: don't be like that! Don't count temporal, earthly comfort of more value than the spiritual, eternal realities. To once again make us realize how drastic a thing it is to contemplate giving in to pressure and letting go of Christ to return to useless and redundant ritual symbols the writer again teaches us of the great difference between those physical symbols of the Old Covenant and the spiritual realities of the new:
- The Old Covenant was inaugurated at Mt Sinai - a mountain that could not be approached because of ritual uncleanness/sin (18, 20), a mountain surrounded by 'darkness, gloom and storm' (19), a place of fear and the threat of death (20,21).
- The New Covenant was inaugurated in the real heavenly dwelling place of God (22), a place of joy (22), where we come into the presence of God himself (23), where we are members of the 'church of the firstborn' and our names are recorded (23); through Jesus our Mediator we come into the presence of the Judge of all men (23,24), joining with all true believers who are now made perfect through the sprinkled blood of Jesus (23,24).
Esau, having cast aside his birthright, could not get it back, no matter how much he desired it (17). See to it, the writer says, that none of you it like that. Don't be spiritually adulterous and secular like him. Don't give up the real spiritual blessings of God that you have in Christ for the sake of easing physical hardship. Don't revert to the shadows and fear of the old ritual relationship with God just to make your life a litter easier.
H. SEE TO IT THAT YOU DO NOT REFUSE HIM WHO SPEAKS (25-27)
Here again we are alerted to the extreme contrast between the old and the new, between Moses and Christ, between the earthly sanctuary and the real presence of God in heaven, between the blood of animals and the blood of Christ.
There was no escape for those who scorned the lesser, the earthly; how can there be escape for those who scorn the greater? The writer has already made this point in 2:2-4 and 10:26-29. FF Bruce comments 'To disobey the gospel incurs judgment more certain and terrible even that that incurred by disobedience to the law' (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p382). As we were told right at the outset: 'in these last days (God) has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe' (1:2). Not Moses. Not the angels. Not the prophets. But his Son. The question asked in 2:3 hammers in our ears: 'how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?'
There is only one answer: if we ignore this salvation, there is no escape. Ever.
I. 'THEREFORE, SINCE WE ARE RECEIVING A KINGDOM THAT CANNOT BE SHAKEN ... ' (28,29)
The writer has established beyond doubt the utter superiority of Jesus Christ and his salvation; he calls this salvation 'a kingdom that cannot be shaken'. This is the grand certainty and guarantee of what we have in Christ. Other things can be shaken, even the earth and the heavens (26,27), but what the believer has in Christ cannot be shaken. It stands for eternity.
Therefore, rather than waver in our faith, rather than consider giving up, rather than revert to our former belief system, since we have such a salvation, since we are already members of such a kingdom (Colossians 1:13):
- Let us be thankful (not so ungrateful as to despise so great a salvation by turning our backs on it);
- And so worship God acceptably (in the way that he has decreed - through acknowledging his Son);
- With reverence and awe (overcome by so great and costly a gift of salvation and so great a Saviour);
- For our God is a consuming fire (if the cross is what he did to Jesus because of our sin, what will he do to those who refuse to embrace this salvation?)
Such thankfulness, such worship, such reverence and awe are the only right response to God's gift of his Son.