corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
ver. 2.0.17.07.23
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to classic.studylight.org/

Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Hebrews 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verse 1

0-40

CHAPTER XIII.

A CLOUD OF WITNESSES.

"By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even concerning things to come. By faith Jacob, when he was a-dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when his end was nigh, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.... By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been compassed about for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that were disobedient, having received the spies with peace. And what shall I more say? for the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon. Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens. Women received their dead by a resurrection: and others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tempted, they were slain with the sword: they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, evil-entreated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth. And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, received not the promise, God having provided some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."-- Hebrews 11:20-40; Hebrews 12:1 (R.V.).

Time fails us to dilate on the faith of the other saints of the old covenant. But they must not be passed over in silence. The impression produced by our author's splendid roll of the heroes of faith in the eleventh chapter is the result quite as much of an accumulation of examples as of the special greatness of a few among them. At the close they appear like an overhanging "cloud" of witnesses for God.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau; and Jacob, dying in a strange land, blessed the sons of Joseph, distinguishing wittingly, and bestowing on each(289) his own peculiar blessing. His faith became a prophetic inspiration, and even distinguished between the future of Ephraim and the future of Manasseh. He did not create the blessing. He was only a steward of God's mysteries. Faith well understood its own limitations. But it drew its inspiration to foretell what was to come from a remembrance of God's faithfulness in the past. For, before(290) he gave his blessing, he had bowed his head in worship, leaning upon the top of his staff. In his dying hour he recalled the day on which he had passed over Jordan with his staff,--a day remembered by him once before, when he had become two bands, wrestled with the angel, and halted on his thigh. His staff had become his token of the covenant, his reminder of God's faithfulness, his sacrament, or visible sign of an invisible grace.

Joseph, though he was so completely Egyptianised that he did not, like Jacob, ask to be buried in Canaan, and only two of his sons became, through Jacob's blessing, heirs of the promise, yet gave commandment concerning his bones. His faith believed that the promise given to Abraham would be fulfilled. The children of Israel might dwell in Goshen and prosper. But they would sooner or later return to Canaan. When his end drew near, his Egyptian greatness was forgotten. The piety of his childhood returned. He remembered God's promise to his fathers. Perhaps it was his father Jacob's dying blessing that had revived the thoughts of the past and fanned his faith into a steady flame.

"By faith the walls of Jericho fell down."(291) When the Israelites had crossed Jordan and eaten of the old corn of the land, the manna ceased. The period of continued miracle came to an end. Henceforth they would smite their enemies with their armed thousands. But one signal miracle the Lord would yet perform in the sight of all Israel. The walls of the first city they came to would fall down flat, when the seven priests would blow with the trumpets of rams' horns the seventh time on the seventh day. Israel believed, and as God had said, so it came to pass.

The treachery of a harlot even is mentioned by the Apostle as an instance of faith.(292) Justly. For, whilst her past life and present act were neither better nor worse than the morality of her time, she saw the hand of the God of heaven in the conquest of the land, and bowed to His decision. This was a greater faith than that of her daughter-in-law, Ruth, whose name is not mentioned. Ruth believed in Naomi and, as a consequence, accepted Naomi's God and people.(293) Rahab believed in God first, and, therefore, accepted the Israelitish conquest and adopted the nationality of the conquerors.(294)

Of the judges the Apostle selects four: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah. The mention of Barak must be understood to include Deborah, who was the mind and heart that moved Barak's arm; and Deborah was a prophetess of the Lord. She and Barak wrought their mighty deeds and sang their pæan in faith.(295) Gideon put the Midianites to flight by faith; for he knew that his sword was the sword of the Lord,(296) Jephthah was a man of faith; for he vowed a vow unto the Lord, and would not go back.(297) Samson had faith; for he was a Nazarite to God from his mother's womb, and in his last extremity called unto the Lord and prayed.(298)

The Apostle does not name Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and the rest. The Spirit of the Lord came upon them also. They too were mighty through God. But the narrative does not tell us that they prayed, or that their soul consciously and believingly responded to the voice of Heaven. Alaric, while on his march towards Rome, said to a holy monk, who entreated him to spare the city, that he did not go of his own will, but that One was continually urging him forward to take it.(299) Many are the scourges of God that know not the hand that wields them.

Individuals "through faith subdued kingdoms."(300) Gideon dispersed the Midianites;(301) Barak discomfited Sisera, the captain of Jabin king of Canaan's host; Jephthah smote the Ammonites;(302) David held the Philistines in check,(303) measured Moab with a line,(304) and put garrisons in Syria of Damascus. Samuel "wrought righteousness," and taught the people the good and the right way.(305) David "obtained the fulfilment of God's promises:" his house was blessed that it should continue for ever before God.(306) Daniel's faith stopped the mouths of lions.(307) The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego trusted in God, and quenched the power of the fire, without extinguishing its flame.(308) Elijah escaped the edge of Ahab's sword.(309) Elisha's faith saw the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about him.(310) Hezekiah "from weakness was made strong."(311) The Maccabæan princes waxed mighty in war and turned to flight armies of aliens.(312) The widow of Zarephath(313) and the Shunammite(314) received their dead back into their embrace in consequence of(315) a resurrection wrought by the faith of the prophets. Others refused deliverance, gladly accepting the alternative to unfaithfulness, to be beaten to death, that they might be accounted worthy(316) to attain the better world and the resurrection, not of, but from, the dead, which is the resurrection to eternal life. Such a man was the aged Eleazar in the time of the Maccabees.(317) Zechariah was stoned to death at the commandment of Joash the king in the court of the house of the Lord.(318) Isaiah is said to have been sawn asunder in extreme old age by the order of Manasseh. Others were burnt(319) by Antiochus Epiphanes. Elijah had no settled abode, but went from place to place clad in a garment of hair, the skin of sheep or goat. It ought not to be a matter of surprise that these men of God had no dwelling-place, but were, like the Apostles after them, buffeted, persecuted, defamed, and made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things. For the world was not worthy of them. The world crucified their Lord, and they would be ashamed of accepting better treatment than He received. By the world is meant the life of those who know not Christ. The men of faith were driven out of the cities into the desert, out of homes into prisons. But their faith was an assurance of things hoped for and, therefore, a solvent of fear. Their proving of things not seen rendered the prison, as Tertullian says,(320) a place of retirement, and the desert a welcome escape from the abominations that met their eyes wherever the world had set up its vanity fair.

All these sturdy men of faith have had witness borne to them in Scripture. This honour they won from time to time, as the Spirit of Christ, which was in the prophets, saw fit to encourage the people of God on earth by their example. Are we forbidden to suppose that this witness to their faith gladdened their own glorified spirits, and calmed their eager expectation of the day when the promise would be fulfilled? For, after all, their reward was not the testimony of Scripture, but their own perfection. Now this perfection is described through out the Epistle as a priestly consecration. It expresses fitness for entering into immediate communion with God. This was the final fulfilment of the promise. This was the blessing which the saints under the old covenant had not obtained. The way of the holiest had not yet been opened.(321) Consequently their faith consisted essentially in endurance. "None of these received the promise," but patiently waited. This is inferred concerning them from the testimony of Scripture that they believed. Their faith must have manifested itself in this form,--endurance. To us, at length, the promise has been fulfilled. God has spoken unto us in His Son. We have a great High-priest, Who has passed through the heavens. The Son, as High-priest, has been perfected for evermore; that is, He is endowed with fitness to enter into the true holiest place. He has perfected also for ever them that are sanctified: freed from guilt as worshippers, they enter the holiest through a priestly consecration. The new and living way has been dedicated through the veil.

But the important point is that the fulfilment of the promise has not dispensed with the necessity for faith. We saw, in an earlier chapter, that the revelation of the Sabbath advances from lower forms of rest to higher and more spiritual. The more stubborn the unbelief of men became, the more fully the revelation of God's promise opened up. The thought is somewhat similar in the present passage. The final form which God's promise assumes is an advance on any fulfilment vouchsafed to the saints of the old covenant during their earthly life. It now includes perfection, or fitness to enter into the holiest through the blood of Christ. It means immediate communion with God. Far from dispensing with faith, this form of the promise demands the exercise of a still better faith than the fathers had. They endured by faith; we through faith enter the holiest. To them, as well as to us, faith is an assurance of things hoped for and a proving of things not seen; but our assurance must incite us to draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, to draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. This is the better faith which is not once ascribed in the eleventh chapter to the saints of the Old Testament. On the contrary, we are given to understand(322) that they, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. But Christ has abolished death. For we enter into the presence of God, not through death, but through faith.

In accordance with this, the Apostle says that "God provided some better thing concerning us."(323) These words cannot mean that God provided some better thing for us than He had provided for the fathers. Such a notion would not be true. The promise was made to Abraham, and is now fulfilled to all the heirs alike; that is, to those who are of the faith of Abraham. The author says "concerning,"(324) not "for." The idea is that God foresaw we would, and provided (for the word implies both things) that we should, manifest a better kind of faith than it was possible for the fathers to show, better in so far as power to enter the holiest place is better than endurance.

But the author adds another thought. Through the exercise of the better faith by us, the fathers also enter with us into the holiest place. "Apart from us they could not be made perfect." The priestly consecration becomes theirs through us. Such is the unity of the Church, and such the power of faith, that those who could not believe, or could not believe in a certain way, for themselves, receive the fulness of the blessing through the faith of others. Nothing less will do justice to the Apostle's words than the notion that the saints of the old covenant have, through the faith of the Christian Church, entered into more immediate and intimate communion with God than they had before, though in heaven.

We now understand why they take so deep an interest in the running of the Christian athletes on earth. They surround their course, like a great cloud. They know that they will enter into the holiest if we win the race. For every new victory of faith on earth, there is a new revelation of God in heaven. Even the angels, the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, learn, says St. Paul, through the Church the manifold wisdom of God.(325) How much more will the saints, members of the Church, brethren of Christ, be better able to apprehend the love and power of God, Who makes weak, sinful men conquerors over death and its fear.

The word "witnesses"(326) does not itself refer to their looking on, as spectators of the race. Another word would almost certainly have been used to express this notion, which is moreover contained in the phrase "having so great a cloud surrounding(327) us." The thought seems to be that the men to whose faith the Spirit of Christ in Scripture bare witness were themselves witnesses for God in a godless world, in the same sense in which Christ tells His disciples that they were His witnesses, and Ananias tells Saul that he would be a witness for Christ.(328) Every one who confessed Christ before men, him did Christ also confess before His Church which is on earth, and does now confess before His Father in heaven, by leading him into God's immediate presence.

FOOTNOTES:


Verses 1-17

CHAPTER XIV.

CONFLICT.

"Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against themselves, that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin: and ye have forgotten the exhortation, which reasoneth with you as with sons,

My son, regard not lightly the chastening of the Lord, Nor faint when thou art reproved of Him; For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, And scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us as seemed good to them; but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous, but grievous: yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness. Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees; and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned out of the way, but rather be healed. Follow after peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord: looking carefully lest there be any man that falleth short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby the many be defiled; lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one mess of meat sold his own birthright. For ye know that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected (for he found no place of repentance), though he sought it diligently with tears."-- Hebrews 12:1-17 (R.V.).

The author has told his readers that they have need of endurance;(329) but when he connects this endurance with faith, he describes faith, not as an enduring of present evils, but as an assurance of things hoped for in the future. His meaning undoubtedly is that assurance of the future gives strength to endure the present. These are two distinct aspects of faith. In the eleventh chapter both sides of faith are illustrated in the long catalogue of believers under the Old Testament. Examples of men waiting for the promise and having an assurance of things hoped for come first. They are Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. In some measure these witnesses of God suffered; but the more prominent feature of their faith was expectation of a future blessing. Moses is next mentioned. He marks a transition. In him the two qualities of faith appear to strive for the pre-eminence. He chooses to be evil entreated with the people of God, because he knows that the enjoyment of sin is short-lived; he suffers the reproach of Christ, and looks away from it to the recompense of reward. After him conflict and endurance are more prominent in the history of believers than assurance of the future. Many of these later heroes of faith had a more or less dim vision of the unseen; and in the case of those of whose faith nothing is said in the Old Testament except that they endured, the other phase of this spiritual power is not wanting. For the Church is one through the ages, and the clear eye of an earlier period cannot be disconnected from the strong arm of a later time.

In the twelfth chapter the two aspects of faith exemplified in the saints of the Old Testament are urged on the Hebrew Christians. Now practically for the first time in the Epistle the writer addresses himself to the difficulties and discouragements of a state of conflict. In the earlier chapters he exhorted his readers to hold fast their own individual confession of Christ. In the later portions he exhorted them to quicken the faith of their brethren in the Church assemblies. But his account of the worthies of the Old Testament in the previous chapter has revealed a special adaptedness in faith to meet the actual condition of his readers. We gather from the tenor of the passage that the Church had to contend against evil men. Who they were we do not know. They were "the sinners." Our author is claiming for the Christian Church the right to speak of the men outside in the language used by Jews concerning the heathen; and it is not at all unlikely that the unbelieving Jews themselves are here meant. His readers had to endure the gainsaying of sinners, who poured contempt on Christianity, as they had also covered Christ Himself with shame. The Church might have to resist unto blood in striving against the encompassing sin. Peace is to be sought and followed after with all men, but not to the injury of that sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord.(330) The true people of God must go forth unto Jesus without the camp of Judaism, bearing His reproach.(331)

This is an advance in the thought. Our author does not exhort his readers individually to steadfastness, nor the Church collectively to mutual oversight. He has before his eyes the conflict of the Church against wicked men, whether in sheep's clothing or without the fold. The purport of the passage may be thus stated: Faith as a hope of the future is a faith to endure in the present conflict against men. The reverse of this is equally true and important: that faith as a strength to endure the gainsaying of men is the faith that presses on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

The connecting link between these two representations of faith is to be found in the illustration with which the chapter opens. A race implies both a hope and a contest.

The hope of faith is simple and well understood. It has been made abundantly clear in the Epistle. It is to obtain the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham and renewed to other believers time after time under the old covenant. "For we who believe do enter into God's rest."(332) "They that have been called receive the promise of the eternal inheritance."(333) "We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus."(334) In the latter part of the chapter the writer speaks of his readers as having already attained. They have come to God, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant. In the first verse he urges them to run the race, so as to secure for themselves the blessing. He points them to Jesus, Who has run the race before them and won the crown, Who sits on the right hand of God, with authority to reward all who reach the goal. Both representations are perfectly consistent. Men do enter into immediate communion with God on earth; but they attain it by effort of faith.

Such is the aim of faith. The conflict is more complex and difficult to explain. There is, first of all, a conflict in the preparatory training, and this is twofold. We have to strive against ourselves and against the world. We must put away our own grossness,(335) as athletes rid themselves by severe training of all superfluous flesh. Then we must also put away from us the sin that surrounds us, that quite besets us, on all sides,(336) whether in the world or in the Church, as runners must have the course cleared and the crowd of onlookers that press around removed far enough to give them the sense of breathing freely and running unimpeded in a large space. The word "besetting" does not refer to the special sin to which every individual is most prone. No thoughtful man but has felt himself encompassed by sin, not merely as a temptation, but much more as an overpowering force, silent, passive, closing in upon him on all sides,--a constant pressure from which there is no escape. The sin and misery of the world has staggered reason and left men utterly powerless to resist or to alleviate the infinite evil. Faith alone surmounts these preliminary difficulties of the Christian life. Faith delivers us from grossness of spirit, from lethargy, earthliness, stupor. Faith will also lift us above the terrible pressure of the world's sin. Faith has the heart that still hopes, and the hand that still saves. Faith resolutely puts away from her whatever threatens to overwhelm and impede, and makes for herself a large room to move freely in.

Then comes the actual contest. Our author says "contest."(337) For the conflict is against evil men. Yet it is, in a true and vital sense, not a contest of the kind which the word naturally suggests. Here the effort is not to be first at the goal. We run the race "through endurance." Mental suffering is of the essence of the conflict. Our success in winning the prize does not mean the failure of others. The failure of our rivals does not imply that we attain the mark. In fact, the Christian life is not the competition of rivals, but the enduring of shame at the hands of evil men, which endurance is a discipline. Maybe we do not sufficiently lay to heart that the discipline of life consists mainly in overcoming rightly and well the antagonism of men. The one bitterness in the life of our Lord Himself was the malice of the wicked. Apart from that unrelenting hatred we may regard His short life as serenely happy. The warning which He addressed to His disciples was that they should beware of men. But, though wisdom is necessary, the conflict must not be shunned. When it is over, nothing will more astonish the man of faith than that he should have been afraid, so weak did malice prove to be.

To run our course successfully, we must keep our eyes steadily fixed on Jesus.(338) It is true we are compassed about with a cloud of God's faithful witnesses. But they are a cloud. The word signifies not merely that they are a large multitude, but also that we cannot distinguish individuals in the immense gathering of those who have gone before. The Church has always cherished a hope that the saints of heaven are near us, perhaps seeing our efforts to follow their glorious example. Beyond this we dare not go. Personal communion is possible to the believer on earth with One only of the inhabitants of the spiritual world. That One is Jesus Christ. Even faith cannot discern the individual saints that compose the cloud. But it can look away from all of them to Jesus. It looks unto Jesus as He is and as He was: as He is for help; as He was for a perfect example.

1. Faith regards Jesus as He is,--the "Leader and Perfecter." The words are an allusion to what the writer has already told us in the Epistle concerning Jesus. He is "the Captain or Leader of our salvation,"(339) and "by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified."(340) He leads onward our faith till we attain the goal, and for every advance we make in the course He strengthens, sustains, and in the end completes our faith. The runner, when he seizes the crown, will not be found to have been exhausted by his efforts. High attainments demand a correspondingly great faith.

Many expositors think the words which we have rendered "Leader" and "Perfecter" refer to Christ's own faith. But the words will hardly admit of this meaning. Others think they are intended to convey the notion that Christ is the Author of our faith in its weak beginnings and the Finisher of it when it attains perfection. But the use which the Apostle has made of the words "Leader of salvation" in Hebrews 2:1-18 : seems to prove that here also he understands by "Leader" One Who will bring our faith onward safely to the end of the course. The distinction is rather between rendering us certain of winning the crown and making our faith large and noble enough to be worthy of wearing it.

2. Faith regards Jesus as He was on earth, the perfect example of victory through endurance. He has acquired His power to lead onward and to make perfect our faith by His own exercise of faith. He is "Leader" because He is "Forerunner;"(341) He is "Perfecter" because He Himself has been perfected.(342) He endured a cross. The author leaves it to his readers to imagine all that is implied in the awful word. More is involved in the Cross than shame. For the shame of the Cross He could afford to despise. But there was in the Cross what He did not despise; yea, what drew tears and strong cries from Him in the agony of His soul. Concerning this, whatever it was, the author is here silent, because it was peculiar to Christ, and could never become an example to others, except indeed in the faith that enabled Him to endure it.

Even in the gainsaying of men there was an element which He did not despise, but endured. He understood that their gainsaying was against themselves.(343) It would end, not merely in putting Him to an open shame, but in their own destruction. This caused keen suffering to His holy and loving spirit. But He endured it, as He endured the Cross itself in all its mysterious import. He did not permit the sin and perdition of the world to overwhelm Him. His faith resolutely put away from Him the deadly pressure. On the one hand, He did not despise sin; on the other, He was not crushed by its weight. He calmly endured.

But He endured through faith, as an assurance of things hoped for and the proving of things not seen. He hoped to attain the joy which was set before Him as the prize to be won. The connection of the thought with the general subject of the whole passage satisfies us that the words translated "for the joy set before Him" are correctly so rendered, and do not mean that Christ chose the suffering and shame of the Cross in preference to the enjoyment of sin. This also is perfectly true, and more true of Christ than it was even of Moses. But the Apostle's main idea throughout is that faith in the form of assurance and faith in the form of enduring go together. Jesus endured because He looked for a future joy as His recompense of reward; He attained the joy through His endurance.

But, as more than shame was involved in His Cross, more also than joy was reserved for Him in reward. Through His Cross He became "the Leader and Perfecter" of our faith. He was exalted to be the Sanctifier of His people. "He has sat down on the right hand of God."

Our author proceeds: Weigh this in the balance.(344) Compare this quality of faith with your own. Consider who He was and what you are. When you have well understood the difference, remember that He endured, as you endure, by faith. He put His trust in God.(345) He was faithful to Him Who had constituted Him what He became through His assumption of flesh and blood.(346) He offered prayers and supplications to Him Who was able to save Him out of death, yet piously committed Himself to the hands of God. The gainsaying of men brought Him to the bloody death of the Cross. You also are marshalled in battle array, in the conflict against the sin of the world. But the Leader only has shed His blood--as yet. Your hour may be drawing nigh! Therefore be not weary in striving to reach the goal! Faint not in enduring the conflict! The two sides of faith are still in the author's thoughts.

It would naturally occur to the readers of the Epistle to ask why they might not end their difficulties by shunning the conflict. Why might they not enter into fellowship with God without coming into conflict with men? But this cannot be. Communion with God requires personal fitness of character, and manifests itself in inward peace. This fitness, again, is the result of discipline, and the discipline implies endurance. "It is for discipline that ye endure."(347)

The word translated "discipline" suggests the notion of a child with his father. But it is noteworthy that the Apostle does not use the word "children" in his illustration, but the word "sons." This was occasioned partly by the fact that the citation from the Book of Proverbs speaks of "sons." But, in addition to this, the author's mind seems to be still lingering with the remembrance of Him Who was Son of God. For discipline is the lot and privilege of all sons. Who is a son whom his father does not discipline? There might have been One. But even He humbled Himself to learn obedience through sufferings. Absolutely every son undergoes discipline.

Furthermore, the fathers of our bodies kept us under discipline, and we not only submitted, but even gave them reverence, though their discipline was not intended to have effect for more than the few days of our pupilage, and though in that short time they were liable to error in their treatment of us. How much more shall we subject ourselves to the discipline of God! He is not only the God of all spirits and of all flesh,(348) but also the Father of our spirits; that is, He has created our spirit after His own likeness, and made it capable, through discipline, of partaking in His own holiness, which will be our true and everlasting life. The gardener breaks the hard ground, uproots weeds, lops off branches; but the consequence of his rough treatment is that the fruit at last hangs on the bough. We are God's tillage. Our conflict with men and their sin is watched and guided by a Father, The fruit consists in the calm after the storm, the peace of a good conscience, the silencing of accusers, the putting wicked men to shame, the reverence which righteousness extorts even from enemies. In the same book from which our author has cited far-reaching instruction, we are told that "when a man's ways please the Lord, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him."(349)

Here, again, the Apostle addresses his readers as members of the Church in its conflict with men. He tells them that, in doing what is incumbent upon them as a Church towards different classes of men, they secure for themselves individually the discipline of sons and may hope to reap the fruit of that discipline in peace and righteousness. The Church has a duty to perform towards the weaker brethren, towards the enemy at the gate, and towards the Esaus whose worldliness imperils the purity of others.

1. There were among them weaker brethren, the nerves of whose hands and knees were unstrung. They could neither combat a foe nor run the race. It was for the Church to smooth the ruggedness of the road before its feet, that the lame things(350) (for so, with something of contempt, he names the waverers) might not be turned out of the course by the pressure of the other runners. Rather than permit this, let the Church lift up their drooping hands and sustain their palsied knees, that they may be healed of their lameness.

2. As to enemies and persecutors, it is the duty of the Church to follow after peace with all men, as much as in her lies. Christians may sacrifice almost anything for peace, but not their own priestly consecration, without which no man shall see the Lord Jesus at His appearing. He will be seen only by those who eagerly expect Him unto salvation.(351)

3. The consecration of the Church is maintained by watchfulness(352) against every tendency to alienation from the grace of God, to bitterness against God and the brethren, to sensuality and profane worldliness. All must watch over themselves and over all the brethren. The danger, too, increases if it is neglected. It begins in withdrawing from(353) the Church assemblies, where the influences of grace are manifested. It grows into the poisonous plant of a bitter spirit, which, "like a root that beareth gall and wormwood," spreads through "a family or tribe,"(354) and turns away their heart from the Lord to go and serve the gods of the nations. "The many are defiled." The Church as a whole becomes infected. But bitterness of spirit is not the only fruit of selfishness. On the same tree sensuality grows, which God will punish when the Church cannot detect its presence.(355)

From the stem of selfishness, which will not brook the restraints of Church communion, springs, last and most dangerous of all, the profane, worldly spirit, which denies and mocks the very idea of consecration. It is the spirit of Esau, who bartered the right of the first-born to the promise of the covenant for one mess of pottage. The author calls attention to the incident, as it displays Esau's contempt of the promise made to Abraham and his own father Isaac. His thoughts never rose above the earth. "What profit shall this birthright do to me?"(356) We must distinguish between the birthright and the blessing. The former carried with it the great promise given to Abraham with an oath on Moriah: "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."(357) Possession of it did not depend on Isaac's fond blessing. It belonged to Esau by right of birth till he sold it to Jacob. But Isaac's blessing, which he intended for Esau because he loved him, meant more especially lordship over his brethren. Esau plainly distinguishes the two things: "Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright, and behold, now he hath taken away my blessing."(358) When he found that Jacob had supplanted him a second time, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and sought diligently, not the birthright, which was of a religious nature, but the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine, and the homage of his mother's sons. But he had sold the greater good and, by doing so, forfeited the lesser. The Apostle recognises, beyond the subtilty of Jacob and behind the blessing of Isaac, the Divine retribution. His selling the birthright was not the merely rash act of a sorely tempted youth. He continued to despise the covenant. When he was forty years old, he took wives of the daughters of the Canaanites. Abraham had made his servant swear that he would go to the city of Nahor to take a wife unto Isaac; and Rebekah, true to the instinct of faith, was weary of her life because of the daughters of Heth. But Esau cared for none of these things. The day on which Jacob took away the blessing marks the crisis in Esau's life. He still despised the covenant and sought only worldly lordship and plenty. For this profane scorn of the spiritual promise made to Abraham and Isaac, Esau not only lost the blessing which he sought, but was himself rejected. The Apostle reminds his readers that they know it to have been so from Esau's subsequent history. They would not fail to see in him an example of the terrible doom described by the Apostle himself in a previous chapter. Esau was like the earth that brings forth thorns and thistles and is "rejected."(359) The grace of repentance was denied him.(360)

FOOTNOTES:


Verses 18-29

CHAPTER XV.

MOUNT ZION.

"For ye are not come unto a mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard entreated that no word more should be spoken unto them: for they could not endure that which was enjoined, If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned; and so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake: but ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and Church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaketh better than that of Abel. See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not, when they refused him that warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape, who turn away from Him that warneth from heaven: whose voice then shook the earth: but now He hath promised, saying, Yet once more will I make to tremble not the earth only, but also the heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain. Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire."-- Hebrews 12:18-29 (R.V.).

Mutual oversight is the lesson of the foregoing verses. The author urges his readers to look carefully that no member of the Church withdraws from the grace of God, that no prison of bitterness troubles and defiles the Church as a whole, that sensuality and worldliness are put away. In the paragraph that comes next he still has the idea of Church fellowship in his mind. But his advice to his readers to exercise supervision over one another yields to the still more urgent warning to watch themselves, and especially to shun the most dangerous even of these evils, which is worldliness of spirit. Esau was rejected; see that ye yourselves refuse not Him that speaketh.

That the passage is thus closely connected with what immediately precedes may be admitted. But it must be also connected with the entire argument of the Epistle. It is the final exhortation directly based on the general idea that the new covenant excels the former one. As such it may be compared with the earlier exhortation, given before the allegory of Melchizedek introduced the notion that the old covenant had passed away, and with the warning in the tenth chapter which precedes the glorious record of faith's heroes from Abel to Jesus. As early as the second chapter he warns the Hebrew Christians not to drift away and neglect a salvation revealed in One Who is greater than the angels, through whom the Law had been given. In the later exhortations he adds the notion of the blood of the covenant, and insists, not merely on the greatness, but also on the finality, of the revelation. But in the concluding passage, which now opens before us, he makes the daring announcement that all the blessings of the new covenant have already been fulfilled, and that in perfect completeness and grandeur. We have come unto Mount Zion; we have received a kingdom which cannot be shaken. The passage must, therefore, be considered as the practical result of the whole Epistle.

Our author began with the fact of a revelation of God in a Son. But a thoughtful reader will not fail to have observed that this great subject seldom comes to the front in the course of the argument. Reading the Epistle, we seem for a time to forget the thought of a revelation given in the Son. Our minds are mastered by the author's powerful reasoning. We think of nothing but the surpassing excellence of the new covenant and its Mediator. The greatness of Jesus as High-priest makes us oblivious of His greatness as the Revealer of God. But this is only the glamour cast over us by a master mind. After all, to know God is the highest glory and perfection of man. Apart from a revelation of God in His Son, all other truths are negative; and their value to us depends on their connection with this self-manifestation of the Father. Religion, theology, priesthood, covenant, atonement, salvation, and the Incarnation itself, do not attain a worthy and final purpose except as means of revealing God. It would be a serious misapprehension to suppose that our author had forgotten this fundamental conception. His aim has been to show that the economy of the new covenant is the perfect revelation. God has spoken, not through, but in, the Son. The Divine personality, the human nature, the eternal priesthood, the infinite sacrifice, of the Son are the final revelation of God.

In the sublime contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion the two thoughts are brought together. We have had frequent occasion to point out that the central fact of the new covenant is direct communion with God. Access to God is now open to all men in Christ. We are invited to draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace.(361) Jesus has entered as a Forerunner for us within the veil.(362) We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.(363) Yea, we have already actually entered. We are come unto Mount Zion. Death has been annihilated. We are now where Christ is. The writer of our Epistle has advanced beyond the perplexity that, in his hour of loneliness, troubled St. Paul, who was in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.(364) We are come to Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant. That great city the heavenly Jerusalem has descended out of heaven from God.(365) The angels pass to and fro as ministering spirits. The names of the first-born are registered in heaven, as possessing already the privilege of citizenship. We must not say that the spirits of the righteous have departed from us; let us rather say that we, by being made righteous, have come to them. We stand now before the tribunal of God, the Judge of all. Jesus has fulfilled His promise to come and receive us unto Himself, that where He is, there we may be also.(366)

All these things are contained in access unto God. The Apostle explains their meaning and unfolds their glory by contrasting them with the revelation of God on Sinai. We might perhaps have expected him to institute a comparison between them and the incidents of the day of atonement, inasmuch as he has described Christ's ascension to the right hand of God as the entering of the High-priest into the true holiest place. But the day of atonement was not a revelation of God. The propitiation required antecedently to a revelation was indeed offered. But, as the propitiation was unreal, the full revelation, to which it was intended to lead, was never given. Nothing is said in the books of Moses concerning the people's state of mind during the time when the high-priest stood in God's presence. The transaction was so purely ceremonial that the people do not seem to have taken any part in it, beyond gathering perhaps around the tabernacle to witness the ingress and egress of the high-priest. Moreover, no words were spoken either by the high-priest before God, or by God to the high-priest or to the people. No prayer was uttered, no revelation vouchsafed. For these reasons the Apostle goes back to the revelation on Sinai, which indeed instituted the rites of the covenant. With the revelation that preceded the sacrifices of the Law he compares the revelation that is founded upon the sacrifice of Christ. This is the fundamental difference between Sinai and Zion. The revelation on Sinai precedes the sacrifices of the tabernacle; the revelation on Zion follows the sacrifice of the Cross. Under the old covenant the revelation demanded sacrifices; under the new covenant the sacrifice demands a revelation.

From this essential difference in the nature of the revelations a twofold contrast is apparent in the phenomena of Sinai and Zion. Sinai revealed the terrible side of God's character, Zion the peaceful tenderness of His love. The revelation on Sinai was earthly; that on Zion is spiritual.

There can be no question that the Apostle intends to contrast the terrible appearances on Sinai with the calm serenity of Zion. The very rhythm of his language expresses it. But the key to his description of the one and the other is to be found in the distinction already mentioned. On Sinai the unappeased wrath of God is revealed. Sacrifices are instituted, which, however, when established, evoke no response from the offended majesty of Heaven. Of the holiest place of the old covenant the best thing we can say is that the lightning and thunders of Sinai slumbered therein. The author's beautiful description of the sunny steep of Zion is framed, on the other hand, in accordance with his frequent and emphatic declaration that Christ has entered the true holiest place, having obtained for us eternal redemption. All that the Apostle says concerning Sinai and Zion gathers around the two conceptions of sin and forgiveness.

The Lord spake on Sinai out of the midst of the palpable, enkindled fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice. All the people heard the voice. They saw "that God doth talk with man, and he liveth." They begin to hope. But immediately they bethink them that, if they hear the voice of the Lord any more, they will die. Thus does a guilty conscience contradict itself! Again, the people are invited to come up into the mount when the trumpet shall sound long. Yet, when the voice of the trumpet sounds long and waxes louder and louder, they are charged not to come up unto the Lord, lest He break forth upon them. All this appearance of inconsistency is intended to symbolize that the people's desire to come to God struggled in vain against their sense of guilt, and that God's purpose of revealing Himself to them was contending in vain with the hindrances that arose from their sins. The whole assembly heard the voice of the Lord proclaiming the Ten Commandments. Conscience-smitten, they could not endure to hear more. They gat them into their tents, and Moses alone stood on the mountain with God, to receive at His mouth all the statutes and judgments which they should do and observe in the land which He would give them to possess. The Apostle singles out for remark the command that, if a beast touched the mountain, it should be stoned to death. The people, he says, could not endure this command. Why not this? It connected the terrors of Sinai with man's guilt. According to the Old Testament idea of Divine retribution, the beasts of the earth fall under the curse due to man. When God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the days of Noah, He said, "I will destroy both man and beast."(367) When, again, He blessed Noah after the waters were dried up, He said, "I, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you."(368) Similarly, the command to put to death any beast that might haply touch the mountain revealed to the people that God was dealing with them as sinners. Moses himself, the mediator of the covenant, who aspired to behold the glory of God, feared exceedingly. But his fear came upon him when he looked and beheld that the people had sinned against the Lord their God(369) and made them a molten calf. His fear was not the prostration of nervous terror. Remembering, when he had descended, the awful sights and sounds witnessed on the mountain, he was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure of God against the people, who had done wickedly in the sight of the Lord. Almost every word the Apostle has here written bears closely upon the moral relation between a guilty people and the angry God.

If we turn to the other picture, we at once perceive that the thoughts radiate from the holiest place as from a centre. The passage is, in fact, an expansion of what is said in the ninth chapter, that Christ has entered in once for all into the holiest place, through the greater and more perfect tabernacle. The holiest has widened its boundaries. The veil has been removed, so that the entire sanctuary now forms part of the holy of holies. It is true that the Apostle begins, in the passage under consideration, not with the holiest place, but with Mount Zion. He does so because the immediate contrast is between the two mountains, and he has already stated that Christ entered through a larger tabernacle. The holiest place includes, therefore, the whole mountain of Zion, on which the tabernacle was erected; yea, all Jerusalem is within the precincts. If we extend the range of our survey, we behold the earth sanctified by the presence of the first-born sons of God, who are the Church, and of His myriads, the other sons of God, who also have, not indeed the birthright, but a blessing, even the joyful multitude of the heavenly host.(370) The Apostle describes the angels as keeping festal holiday, for joy to witness the coming of the first-born sons. They are the friends of the Bridegroom, who stand and hear Him, and rejoice greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice. If, again, we attempt to soar above this world of trials, we find ourselves at once before the judgment-seat of God. But even here a change has taken place. For we are come to a Judge Who is God of all,(371) and not merely to a God Who is Judge of all. Thus the promise of the new covenant has been fulfilled, "I will be to them a God."(372) If in imagination we pass the tribunal and consider the condition of men in the world of spirits, we recognise there the spirits of the righteous dead, and are given to understand that they have already attained the perfection(373) which they could not have received before the Christian Church had exercised a greater faith than some had found possible to themselves on earth.(374) If we ascend still higher, we are in the presence of Jesus Himself. But He is on the right hand of the Majesty on high, not simply as Son of God, but as Mediator of the new covenant. His blood is sprinkled on the mercy-seat, and speaks to God, but not for vengeance on those who shed it on the Cross, some of whom possibly were now among the readers of the Apostle's piercing words. What an immeasurable distance between the first man of faith, mentioned in the eleventh chapter, and Jesus, with Whom his list closes! The very first blood of man shed to the earth cried from the ground to God for vengeance. The blood of Jesus sprinkled in heaven speaks a better thing. What the better thing is, we are not told. Men may give it a name; but it is addressed to God, and God alone knows its infinite meaning.

From all this we infer that the comparison here made between Sinai and Zion is intended to depict the difference (seen, as it were, in another Bunyan's dream) between a revelation given before Christ offered Himself as a propitiation for sin and the revelation which God gives us of Himself after the sacrifice of Christ has been presented in the true holiest place.

The Apostle's account of Mount Zion is followed by a most incisive warning, introduced with a sudden solemnity, as if the thunder of Sinai itself were heard remote. The passage is beset with difficulties, some of which it would be inconsistent with the design of the present volume to discuss. One question has scarcely been touched upon by the expositors. But it enters into the very pith of the subject. The exhortation which the author addresses to his readers does not at first appear to be based on a correct application of the narrative. For the Israelites at the foot of Sinai are not said to have refused Him that spake to them on the mount. No doubt God, not Moses, is meant; for it was the voice of God that shook the earth. The people were terrified. They were afraid that the fire would consume them. But they had understood also that their God was the living God, and therefore not to be approached by man. They wished Moses to intervene, not because they rejected God, but because they acknowledged the awful greatness of His living personality. Far from rejecting Him, they said to Moses, "Speak thou unto us all that the Lord our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it and do it."(375) God Himself commended their words: "They have well said all that they have spoken." Can we suppose, therefore, that the Apostle in the present passage represents them as actually rebelling, and "refusing Him that spake"? The word here translated "refuse"(376) does not express the notion of rejecting with contempt. It means "to deprecate," to shrink in fear from a person. Again, the word "escape," in its reference to the children of Israel at Sinai, cannot signify "to avoid being punished," which is its meaning in the second chapter of this Epistle.(377) The meaning is that they could not flee from His presence, though Moses mediated between Him and the people. They could not escape Him. His word "found(378) them" when they cowered in their tents as truly as if they had climbed with Moses the heights of Sinai. For the word of God was then also a living word, and there was no creature that was not manifest in His sight. Yet it was right in the people to deprecate, and desire Moses to speak to them rather than God. This was the befitting spirit under the old covenant. It expresses very precisely the difference between the bondage of that covenant and the liberty of the new. In Christ only is the veil taken away. Where the Spirit of the Lord Jesus is, there is liberty. But, for this reason, what was praiseworthy in the people who were kept at a distance from the bounds placed around Sinai is unworthy and censurable in those who have come to Mount Zion. See, therefore, that ye do not ask Him that speaketh to withdraw into the thick darkness and terrible silence. For us to deprecate is tantamount to rejection of God. We are actually turning away from Him. But to ignore and shun His presence is now impossible to us. The revelation is from heaven. He Who brought it descended Himself from above. Because He is from heaven, the Son of God is a life-giving Spirit. He surrounds us, like the ambient air. The sin of the world is not the only "besetting" element of our life. The ever-present, besetting God woos our spirit. He speaks. That His words are kind and forgiving we know. For He speaks to us from heaven, because the blood sprinkled in heaven speaks better before God than the blood of Abel spoke from the ground. The revelation of God to us in His Son preceded, it is true, the entrance of the Son into the holiest place; but it has acquired a new meaning and a new force in virtue of the Son's appearing before God for us. This new force of the revelation is represented by the mission and activity of the Spirit.

The author's thoughts glide almost imperceptibly into another channel. We can refuse Him that speaketh, and turn away from Him in unbelief. But let us beware. It is the final revelation. His voice on Sinai shook the earth. The meaning is not that it terrified the people. The writer has passed from that thought. He now speaks of the effect of God's voice on the material world, the power of revelation over created nature. This is a truth that frequently meets us in Scripture. Revelation is accompanied by miracle. When the Ten Commandments were spoken by the lips of God to the people, "the whole mount quaked greatly."(379) But the prophet Haggai predicts the glory of the second house in words which recall to our author the trembling of Mount Sinai: "For thus saith the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desirable things of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts."(380) It is very characteristic of the writer of this Epistle to fasten on a few salient points in the prophet's words. He seems to think that Haggai had the scenes that occurred on Sinai in his mind. Two expressions connect the narrative in Exodus with the prophecy. When God spoke on Sinai, His voice shook the earth. Haggai declares that God will, at some future time, shake the heaven. Again, the prophet has used the words "yet once more." Therefore, when the greater glory of the second house will have come to pass, the last shaking of earth and of heaven will take place. The inference is that the word "yet once more" signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken. The whole fabric of nature will perish in its present material form, and the Apostle connects this universal catastrophe with the revelation of God in His Son.

Many very excellent expositors think that our author refers, not to the final dissolution of nature, but to the abrogation of the Jewish economy. It is true that the Epistle has declared the old covenant a thing of the past. But there are two considerations that lead us to adopt the other view of this passage. In the first place, this Epistle does not describe the abrogation of the old covenant as a violent catastrophe, but rather as the passing away of what had grown old and decayed. In the second place, the coming of the Lord is elsewhere, in writings of that age, spoken of as accompanied by a great convulsion of nature. The two notions go together in the thoughts of the time. "The day of the Lord will come as a thief, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up."(381)

We connect the words "as things that have been made" with the next clause: "that those things which are not shaken may remain." It is not because they have been made that the earth and the heaven are removed; and their place will not be occupied by uncreated things only, but also by things made. The meaning is that nature will be dissolved when it has answered its purpose, and not till then. Earth and heaven have been made, not for their own sakes, but in order that out of them a new world may be created, which will never be removed or shaken. This new world is the kingdom of which the King-Priest is eternal Monarch.(382) As we partake in His priesthood, we share also in His kingship. We enter into the holiest place and stand before the mercy-seat, but our absolution is announced and confirmed to us by the Divine summons to sit down with Christ in His throne, as He has sat down with His Father in His throne.(383)

Let us therefore accept the kingdom. But beware of your peculiar danger, which is self-righteous pride, worldliness, and the evil heart of unbelief. Rather let us seek and get that grace from God which will make our royal state a humble service of worshipping priests.(384) The grace which the Apostle exhorts his reader to possess is much more than thankfulness. It includes all that Christianity bestows to counteract and vanquish the special dangers of self-righteousness. Such priestly service will be well-pleasing to God. Offer it with pious resignation to His sovereign will, with awe in the presence of His holiness. For, whilst our God proclaims forgiveness from the mercy-seat as the worshippers stand before it, He is also a consuming fire. Upon the mercy-seat itself rests the Shechinah.

FOOTNOTES:

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Hebrews 12:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/hebrews-12.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
ADVERTISEMENT
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology