A NOTE ON HEBREWS 12
John H. Paterson
THE work of God in the lives of His people is designed to make them “partakers of His holiness”. He undertakes their training in His school with the intention that, however difficult in practice the course may be, it will yield “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” in the lives of those who undergo it. This evidently represents His norm — no short-cuts and no exceptions. At least, He did not make an exception of Abraham, or Joseph, or Moses, or any of the other great men whose names are listed in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Their training lasted for decades and led them into painful situations and difficult places. But their lives, as a result, were incomparably fruitful.
So God makes it clear to His people that His methods of training, although often painful, are ultimately productive. But just because the way is difficult, and He does not conceal this fact, there are times when we wonder whether, frankly, it is all worthwhile. In particular, there are two mistakes we may make, and it is to warn against these that the twelfth chapter of Hebrews is written. Confronted by the purpose of God to make us holy like Himself we may either despise or refuse. Both are disastrous. The example of Esau illustrates the peril of taking the first way out. The example of Israel in the wilderness illustrates the second.
THE MISTAKE OF DESPISING
“My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him” (verse 5). But we must understand what in fact this danger is, if we are to avoid it. And the mention of Esau (vv.16-17) will help us. He made the mistake of despising (Genesis 25:34), and it was a mistake for which there was, ultimately, no amendment, even though Esau sought a solution tearfully and desperately.
Esau was the elder son of Isaac, and Isaac was the son of promise. God had committed Himself to Esau’s grandfather in a quite unprecedented way and, what is more, He had committed Himself to Abraham’s family: “… in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). All the tremendous promises of God passed down from Abraham to Isaac and would, in the ordinary course of events, pass from him to his eldest son. This was Esau’s birthright. This was what he sold to Jacob. And this was the measure of his ‘despising’.
The writer to the Hebrews calls Esau, on the strength of this incident, a “fornicator” (or “disposer of merchandise”) and a “profane person” (verse 16). This second term has in the original almost exactly the same sense as our phrase about someone ‘stepping in where angels fear to tread’ — that is, Esau had no concept of the rightness or holiness of things; no sense of spiritual values. When Esau was confronted with a choice, he chose the pottage rather than the birthright, so little did he value it. This “pottage” was almost certainly the food which, in the eastern deserts, is given to a man who is dying of thirst. If he is given water immediately (which is what, naturally, he wants) it is liable to kill him. He first eats a kind of gruel, and then it is safe for him to drink. Esau came in faint and begged Jacob to feed him: he was at his last gasp (Genesis 25:29-32). Jacob refused, unless he was given the birthright — which suggests, incidentally, that Jacob was even more mean than we customarily imagine him to have been, for Esau would die if he could not get the pottage. But for Esau it was a straightforward choice: survival or the birthright. He did not hesitate and by his choice he condemned himself.
The writer to the Hebrews feels that his readers are in danger of the same error. We make this error if we treat God’s declared intention to make us holy in the same way as Esau treated the birthright — as something unimportant compared with our own survival or well-being; as no more than an optional extra in the Christian life. To judge by the early verses of Hebrews 12, the Christians to whom it was addressed were saying, in effect, ‘But this Christian life is uncomfortable; it’s hard work, so we don’t think that we will bother to go on in the school of Christ.’ On the contrary, urges the writer: without holiness no man shall see the Lord (verse 14). There is nothing optional about holiness; without it, there can be nothing but loss, and loss as irredeemable as Esau’s. For if God commits Himself in a special way to people; if He chooses them and lavishes upon them special care and training, then the corollary is that they must take special [52/53] care of the life and the purposes with which He has invested them. And we must all help each other in the pursuit of holiness (vv.12-15), lest the attitude of one infect another. The Esau attitude can so easily spread — particularly with a Jacob or two about to provoke it!
THE MISTAKE OF REFUSING
The equal and alternative error when we are confronted with God’s process of training is to “refuse” as did the Children of Israel. The word the writer was using in the Greek occurs three times in the chapter: twice in verse 25: “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not, when they refused him that warned them on earth …”, and once in verse 19, where it is translated: “they that heard intreated that no word more should be spoken unto them.” In each case, it has the sense of to ‘beg off’ some event or some responsibility. For the Children of Israel, the events of Sinai were altogether too much; they brought the relationship of God to man on to far too personal a basis. The people preferred a God who remained aloof, remote and silent. When He appeared before them in glory and made demands upon them their reaction was, quite simply, ‘Count me out’. And with that they condemned themselves and their descendants to a second-hand knowledge of God in perpetuity.
At that, they had an excuse! The sights and sounds of Sinai may well have been overpowering; even Moses was scared. But for us who follow on later, there is no such excuse. In the light of all the revelation that men have received since the days of Sinai, we know now what lay behind that “blackness and darkness”. We know that the mountain of God is not forbidding but accessible; that it is full of His creatures enjoying His presence and, best of all, that access to it is held open for us by the Lord Jesus, whose blood secures our acceptance and our righteousness. Knowing all this, how dare we ‘beg off’? Rather let us, says the writer, have thankfulness (verse 28, margin) — thankfulness that God has provided this access; that there is a day of grace and a school for our training; that there is a divine intention to make us holy. For, in the last analysis, Sinai was not an illusion. Our God is a God of grace. He is also a God of consuming fire.