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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Hebrews 12



Other Authors


In this chapter the writer takes up again the exhortation of Hebrews 10:19-39, pointing to the example of Jesus, encouraging those who are in trial, warning against sin, and especially the sin of rejecting Him who speaks to us from heaven.

Verse 1

(1) Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about.—Rather, Therefore let us also—since we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses—having put away all encumbrance and the sin . . . run with patient endurance the race that is set before us, looking, &c. (In so difficult a verse as this we need an exactness of translation which might not otherwise be desirable.) It is plain that the chief thought is, “Let us run our race with patient endurance, looking unto Jesus the Author . . . of our faith;” so that here again we have the thought which the writer is never weary of enforcing, the need of faith and patience for all who would inherit the promises. The connection is chiefly with the last verses of Hebrews 11, which are, indeed, a summary of the whole chapter. The purpose of God has been that those who throughout the past ages obtained witness of Him through their faith should not reach their consummation apart from us. To that consummation, then, let us press forward. Present to us in the view of Christ’s accomplished sacrifice, it is all future in regard of personal attainment. As those who have preceded us reached the goal, each one for himself, by faith and patient endurance, so must we. The thought of persevering effort crowned by a recompence of reward (Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 6:18; Hebrews 10:35-39) very naturally suggested the imagery of the public games (by this time familiar even to Jews), to which St. Paul in his Epistles so frequently alludes. (See 1 Corinthians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:12-14; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 4:7-8; comp. Hebrews 10:32-33.) In these passages are called up the various associations of the great national festivals of Greece—the severe discipline of the competitors, the intenseness of the struggle, the rewards, “the righteous judge,” the crowd of spectators. Most of these thoughts are present here (Hebrews 12:1-2; Hebrews 12:4), and new joints of comparison are added, so that the scene is brought vividly before our eyes. It has been often supposed that the word “witnesses” is used in the sense of spectators of the race. To an English reader this idea is very natural (as “witnesses” may simply mean beholders), but there is no such ambiguity in the Greek word (martyres). The Greek fathers rightly understood it to signify those who bear witness, and the chief point of doubt seems to have been whether the sense is general, or whether the word bears its later meaning—martyrs, who have borne testimony with their blood. Those who thus encompass us, a countless “host (a “cloud” of witnesses), have had witness borne to them through their faith, and in turn stand forth as witnesses to faith, bearing testimony to its power and works. One and all ‘they offer encouragement to us in our own contest of faith, and for this reason they are mentioned here. That the idea of the presence of spectators may be contained in the other words, “compassed about with so great a cloud,” is very possible; but no interpretation must be allowed to interfere with the chief thought—that the runner’s steadfast gaze is fixed on Him who has Himself traversed the course before us, and is now the Judge and Rewarder.

Every weight.—The Greek word was sometimes used by Greek writers to denote the excessive size and weight of body which the athlete sought to reduce by means of training; but may also signify the encumbrance of any burden, unnecessary clothing, and the like. It is here best taken in a general sense, as denoting anything that encumbers, and thus renders the athlete less fitted for the race. In the interpretation we might perhaps, think of the pressure of earthly cares, were it not that the writer seems to have in mind the special dangers of the Hebrew Christians. The “divers and strange teachings” spoken of in Hebrews 13:9, in which would be included the Judaising practices which they were tempted to observe (such as St. Peter described as a “yoke” too heavy to be borne), will probably suit the figure best.

And the sin which doth so easily beset us.—The last six words are the translation of a single adjective, which does not occur elsewhere. The Greek commentators, from whom we might expect some light cm. the phrase, seem to be entirely reduced to conjecture. Chrysostom, for example, adopts in various places two altogether different meanings, “sin which easily (or, completely) surrounds us,” “sin which is easily overcome.” To these Theophylact adds a third, “sin through which man is easily brought into danger.” The prevailing opinion amongst modern writers appears to be that the word signifies well (or, easily) surrounding; and that the writer is comparing sin with a garment—either a loosely fitting garment by which the runner becomes entangled and tripped up, or one that clings closely to him and thus impedes his ease of movement. This view of the meaning is taken in our earlier English versions, which either follow the Latin (Wiclif, “that standeth about us;” Rhemish, “that compasseth us”), or render the words, the sin that hangeth on, or, that hangeth so fast on. The sense is excellent, but it is very doubtful whether the Greek will admit of such a rendering. Though the exact word is not found elsewhere, there are words closely allied as to the meaning of which there is no doubt Analogy clearly points to the signification much admired (literally, well surrounded by an admiring crowd). It is not impossible that even with this meaning the words “lay aside” or put away (often applied to putting off clothing) might still suggest a garment; if so, the allusion might be to a runner who refused to put off a garment which the crowd admired, though such an encumbrance must cause him to fail of the prize. It is more likely that the writer speaks of sin generally as an obstacle to the race, which must be put aside if the runner is to contend at all. If we look at the later exhortations of the Epistle, we shall find repeated mention of the reproach which the followers of Christ must bear. Even in the history of Moses (Hebrews 11:26) there are words which suggest the thought. (See also Hebrews 10:33; Hebrews 13:13). So in the next verse we read of the cross of Jesus and the shame which He despised. Over against this “reproach” is set the sin which is sure to win man’s favour and applause—the sin of which we have read in Hebrews 10:26 (comp. Hebrews 11:25), which, seemingly harmless in its first approaches, will end in a “falling away from the living God.” The rendering with which the Authorised version has made us familiar is full of interest, but cannot (at all events as it is commonly understood) be an expression of the sense intended. Whatever view be taken of the one peculiar word, it does not seem possible that the phrase can point to what is known as a “besetting sin,” the sin which in the case of any one of us is proved to possess especial power.

Verse 1-2

The Race Set before Us

Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a clo 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.—Hebrews 12:1-2.

1. There is no more brilliant turning of the flank of an opponent’s position in all controversy than that which we have in the preceding chapter—the eleventh. Throughout the Epistle the writer is reasoning with converts from Judaism who were threatening to go back. Their old Jewish position had powerful prejudices in its favour, and powerful arguments too. The first tide of their Christian enthusiasm had abated, and the pressure of persecution for Christ’s sake was telling against them, and driving them back to their old beliefs and positions. Point by point the writer reasoned the question out between the old religion and the new, showing in each particular how the new was better. There remained, however, one stronghold of the old creed which seemed impregnable. It had surely the great, the venerated, names of Jewish antiquity in its favour. “We have Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah on our side,” they said. It was an immense matter for a Jew to be certain that he had the Fathers on his side. They surely lived and died within the Mosaic dispensation, under the covenant of works. It was good enough for them; they found satisfaction and inspiration in it. “No,” says the writer; “in heart these men belonged to us—not to the Judaists. These all died in faith.” Though they lived under the forms of the old economy, they wrought with the inspiration of the new; and he shows that it was so. He claims all the immense force of the argument from antiquity for himself and for Christianity, whereas the drift of these Hebrews was towards traditionalism, sacerdotalism, externalism. Then he brings his argument to a close with a powerful appeal to his readers to endure as their great fathers did; and he directs their eyes to Jesus as at once the inspiration of faith and its most glorious example.

2. The figure that the writer employs is, of course, a reference to the famous Olympic games, with which all Greek-speaking people in his day, and for many generations before him, were perfectly familiar. No product of the Greek genius held a higher place in the interest and esteem of that remarkable people. To s gain a prize in the athletic contests at Olympia was one of the most cherished ambitions of youth. There games were celebrated every fifth year, and all persons of Hellenic blood, no matter to what particular nationality they happened to belong or from what corner of the earth they came, were eligible to compete. They must have presented an inspiring spectacle, watched as they were by huge concourses of people assembled tier on tier around the great amphitheatre. Veterans of bygone similar occasions were given places of honour from which to view the achievements of a younger generation, and it must have been no small glory to the victors in the several events to receive the applause of the renowned athletes who had preceded them in the same arena. This is the idea that the writer of Hebrews seizes hold of to illustrate our spiritual experience. Earth, he says, is the arena wherein great things are being wrought out from age to age by the sons of God.


A Race that All must Run

“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

1. Life is a race: an individual effort, not a fatality. Every man is what his life is; and his life is just how he has run his race. The road is his; the opportunity is his; the means and appliances are his; and if he fails, the fault is his. To all alike God gives the race, and gives to each the properties for success. Men are differently constituted and gifted, but all have gifts and talents committed to them whereby to run the race of life. To be humble as this world goes is no test of the capacities with which a man is qualified for running the race.

The coarsest reed that trembles in the marsh,

If Heaven select it for its instrument,

May shed celestial music on the breeze

As clearly as the pipe of virgin gold.

2. What do we see in a race? Muscles strained; veins like whipcords; beaded perspiration; strenuous, intense, earnest speed. The reality in the mental and spiritual man corresponding to these symbols in the physical man—that is our aim. The figure of the Olympian athlete means a life in earnest or it means nothing. Useful service in life, or duty well done—that is our goal. Temptation met and resisted and conquered—that is our goal. Power to love, to be just, to be pure, to be true, to control external life and internal life—that is our goal. Honest success in the vocation of life which we follow—that is our goal. The success of the Christian lawyer, of the Christian business man, of the Christian artificer, of the Christian scholar, is just so much power added to the personality which he consecrates to the cause of God and to the uplifting of humanity in the world. We should therefore look upon success in our daily vocation as a duty which we owe to God and man. We should push our business or our study, or our practice, or our manual toil until it has become a success. To reach success in every case will take hard work; but to do hard and healthful work is the purpose of God in bringing us into the world. Hard work has always been the condition of success in all the departments of life. No man ever became a Bunsen or a Faraday in the laboratory apart from endless experimenting with chemicals. No man or woman ever went up the way of the violin, or the way of the piano, or the way of the organ, or the way of the orchestra, except by labour. The Beethovens, the Mendelssohns, the Mozarts, the Haydns, and the Handels, who cheer human life with their sweetness of music, were all incarnated energy and ambition and push.

The end of Mozart’s life can be compared to nothing but a torch burning out rapidly in the wind. Unwearied alike as a composer and an artist, he kept pouring forth symphonies, sonatas, and operas, whilst disease could not shake his nerve as an executant, and the hand of death found him unwilling to relinquish the pen of the ready writer. In April, 1783, we find him playing at no less than twenty concerts. The year 1785 is marked by the six celebrated quartets dedicated to Haydn. In 1791 he entered upon his thirty-sixth and last year. Into it, amongst other works, were crowded La Clemenza di Tito, Il Flauto Magico, and the Requiem. His friends looked upon his wondrous career, as we have since looked upon Mendelssohn’s, with a certain sad and bewildered astonishment. That prodigious childhood—that spring mellow with all the fruits of autumn—that startling haste “as the rapid of life shoots to the fall”—we understand it now. He would constantly remain writing at the Requiem long after his dinner-hour. Neither fatigue nor hunger seemed to rouse him from his profound contemplation. At night he would sit brooding over the score until he not infrequently swooned in his chair.… One mild autumn morning his wife drove him out in an open carriage to some neighbouring woods. As he breathed the soft air, scented with the yellow leaves that lay thickly strewn around, he discovered to her the secret of the Requiem. “I am writing it,” he said, “for myself.” A few days of flattering hope followed, and then Mozart was carried to the bed from which he was never destined to rise. Vienna was at that time ringing with the fame of his last opera. They brought him the rich appointment of organist to the Cathedral of St. Stephen, for which he had been longing all his life. Managers besieged his doors with handfuls of gold, summoning him to compose something for them—too late. He lay with swollen limbs and burning head, awaiting another summons. On the night of December 5, 1791, his wife, his sister, Sophie Weber, and his friend Süsmayer, were with him. The score of the Requiem lay open upon his bed. As the last faintness stole over him, he turned to Süsmayer—his lips moved freely—he was trying to indicate a peculiar effect of kettle-drums in the score. It was the last act of expiring thought; his head sank gently back; he seemed to fall into a deep and tranquil sleep. In another hour he had ceased to breathe.1 [Note: H. R. Haweis, Music and Morals, 314.]

3. This race is appointed for the follower of Jesus. He also finds that he cannot choose his own way to the goal; the race is set before him, marked out for him, measured and staked in by a power not his own. His birth, his natural condition, temperament, and talents, his opportunities, the vicissitudes of fortune he encounters are all arranged for him—that is the course set before him, and he must win the prize by running in it. He may not leap the ropes, and try a short cut; he may not demand some softer course, some more elastic turf; he may not ask that the sand be lifted and a hard beaten surface prepared for him; he may not require that the ascents be levelled and the rough places made smooth; he must take the course as he finds it. In other words, he must not wait till things are made easier for him; he must not refuse to run because the course is not all he could wish; he must recognize that the difficulties of his position in life are the race set before him. The Christian must open his eyes to the fact that it is in the familiar surroundings of the life we now actually lead that God calls us to run; in the callings we have chosen, amid the annoyances we daily experience, where we are, and as we are, from the very position we this day occupy, our race is set before us.

Stewart closely resembled his hero Livingstone in his unfailing reliance upon God and prayer and the Bible in his hours of need. Converse with God in African solitudes had fostered his piety, his self-knowledge, and self-reliance. Under the depression of fever he used to calm his mind by prayer, and so restore it to a quiet confidence in God. In one of his journeys he was deserted by many of his carriers who took with them some articles which he needed, and which he could not replace. He thought that he must turn back at once. But on that day he was reading Hebrews 12:1 : “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with patience (endurance, holding on and holding out) the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus.” The words came to him as on angels’ wings: he marched right on and reached his goal. From the very first he bore himself as a hero of the Dark Continent. In the originality of his career, in tenacity of purpose, in his habit of never quailing before difficulties, in splendid audacity of programme, in energy, in sanctified common sense, and in his inexhaustible faith in the elevation of the African, Stewart set an inspiring example to missionary pioneers.1 [Note: J. Wells, Stewart of Lovedale, 92.]

4. We must not suppose that the race is a very distinguished and splendid career of Christian enterprise, which only some apostle or missionary or reformer might be thought able to undertake. The people to whom the author writes were ordinary Christians, poor Jewish converts, most probably people of less than average means and pretensions. They had no resources at their command. Their names are unknown. They were mere Hebrews. Their career and influence, whatever it was, must have been confined to the narrowest limits. And though the writer speaks somewhat grandly of what was set before them, and brings them into connexion with Jesus, and the great forefathers of their race who subdued kingdoms and wrought righteousness, they were probably very pitiable persons, so far as the world’s judgment would go; and some of us might have been rather shy of associating much with them. Therefore the race set before them cannot have had anything very extraordinary in it.

Nevertheless, it was the same race as that run by the Lord Himself—the race of faith. In His case it was faith in God, the God of salvation; the faith of One conscious of being the Messiah, the Redeemer, entering with the Father into the great and merciful purpose of salvation, which He could accomplish in no other way than by coming down into the family of men, and running this race of faith as their forerunner and the leader of their salvation. In the case of the Hebrews it was faith in God the Saviour, and in His Son the Redeemer, as the leader of salvation, and the author and finisher of the faith. Even the faith of Jesus, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, was not the isolated faith of a mere individual out of connexion with other men. It was the faith of the Messiah, one with men, the leader of their salvation conscious of His relations to men, their forerunner, the author and finisher of the faith. And thus the course of the Hebrews, though nothing but the ordinary believing life of very mean persons, becomes to the writer’s mind something great, and even one with the life of the Lord Himself.

It is not because, like many others, Jesus is a moral example to us, but because He represents something more—the impassioned struggle of humanity after the impossible, after that which the moral law only tells us of, but does not show us how to attain—the spiritual, imaginative, and fine perfection we shall become when the bitter struggle of life for righteousness and joy is closed in victory. In realizing that ideal for us, in giving inspiration to our souls, in His inward support of the battle by which we press forward towards the mark as men to a city encompassed with a host of foes, He is dearer to us than He is as our moral example.1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke.]


The Conditions of Successful Running

“Let us … lay aside every weight.”

1. We are to lay aside every “weight.” This term means that which is superfluous, that which exceeds the proper extent or mass of anything; in the case of a runner, it would refer to unnecessary clothing or undue fleshiness of body. These impede the runner; and as the athlete in the race wears the scantiest clothing, and, if he be in training, keeps his body under, and submits cheerfully to the trainer’s rules, denying himself even the little indulgences which other men allow themselves, so here the Christian is exhorted to lay aside every weight, everything that would be a hindrance in running the race set before him. He must not carry an ounce of unnecessary weight. He will need all his spirit, all his vigour, all his dash, all his buoyancy for this enterprise. If he handicaps himself by putting weights in his pockets, or sewing them into his garments, he has no prospect of prominence in the race. He may still, of course, struggle stolidly on, but anything like a brilliant effort will be effectually discouraged. Wherefore, first and foremost, let us lay aside every encumbrance.

Pleasures, friendships, occupations, habits, may be in themselves innocent enough, but if they hinder our running well they must be given up. Carlyle once said, “Thou must go without, go without; that is the everlasting song which every hour all our life, though hoarsely, sings to us”; and those words are true of the Christian life.1 [Note: G. S. Barrett, Musings for Quiet Hours, 57.]

(1) There are certain weights that are a help and not a hindrance to our progress. They impart a certain momentum to the character, and carry a man through obstacles victoriously. There are men who by nature are light-weights, with little chance, in this hard world, of prospering, and God has to steady them with burdens sometimes, if they are to run with patience the race that is set before them.

I should not like to travel in a train if I were told that it was light as matchwood. I should not like to put to sea in a great steamer if I were informed there was no ballast in her. When there are curves to be taken or storms to be encountered, when the way is beset with obstacles or perils, you need a certain weight to ensure safety, and you need a certain weight to give you speed. I have no doubt that this is the explanation of many of the weights that we must carry. They steady and ballast us; they give us our momentum as we drive ahead through the tempestuous sea. Life might be lighter and gayer if we lacked them; but, after all, there are better things than gaiety. It is a real weight to a young man, sometimes, that he has to support an aged relative. There is much that he craves for which he can never get so long as that burden at home is on his shoulders. But has not that burden made a man of him—made him strenuous and serious and earnest? He might have run his race with brilliance otherwise, but he runs it with patience now, and that is better.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Wings of the Morning, 321.]

(2) Sometimes the things that we call weights are of the most insignificant and trifling kind. They are like the weights beside a chemist’s scales, so tiny as hardly to be visible. What would a thorn turn the scale at? There would be a good many thousands to the pound. Caught in the fleece of a sheep upon the hills, it would not hinder it from freest movement. But plunged in the flesh of a great saint like St. Paul, it hampers and retards at every turn, till even the thorn for St. Paul becomes a weight, and drives him in entreaty to the Throne. There are few things sadder in the world than the trifling nature of much that hinders men. There are thousands who would run well if it were not for only one thing between them and freedom. And that is often such a little thing that the pity is that a man should be so near and yet, from the triumph of it all, so far.

2. “The sin which doth so easily beset us” has to be laid aside. There is some doubt as to the exact meaning of the Greek word translated in our Version by “doth so easily beset us,” for it is found only here in the New Testament. It may mean what our translation gives as its rendering, or it may be as the margin of the Revised Version gives it—sin which “doth closely cling to us,” or sin which “is admired of many,” popular sin, as it may be called.

Whichever rendering we may take, the lesson is the same. We have not only to put on one side all those weights which, sinless in themselves, would hinder our running, but we have also to lay aside every sin, however closely it clings to us, and whatever may be the struggle it costs to free ourselves from it. We cannot run at all if we are cumbered with conscious sin. We cannot turn to God unless we turn away from sin. Coming to Christ always means leaving something behind, and that something always includes sin. Many are not saved, and never begin to run the heavenly race, because they are afraid of this condition, giving up sin. And yet they must make the choice; they must give up sin, or they will have to give up Christ.

One of the New Testament Revisers has told me that in order to get at the literal meaning of this word we shall have to invent an almost grotesque expression; he says the only words which represent the idea in his mind are these, “Let us lay aside the well-stood-arounded sin”; that is to say, the popular sin. There is the sin, and round it there is a band of admirers, and round that band there is another, and around that band there is a third cordon; and so the throng swells and extends, and this sin becomes the well-stood-arounded sin, the sin that everybody likes, praises, cheers.1 [Note: Joseph Parker, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, 122.]

It is said that the electric current, though invisible and to our senses inappreciable, when passed through a wire or substance, disposes every one of its particles differently from what they were before. It is wholly altered, though to the eye the same. And the subtle influence of sin, even when unknown, gives a new disposition to the powers of the mind, puts it into a frame incompatible with that other frame which is faith in Christ. The two cannot exist together. And, therefore, in order to faith, sin must be laid aside.2 [Note: A. B. Davidson, Waiting upon God, 312.]

3. We are to run with patience. The ancients had their virtue—fortitude. It was more active than passive, for the standpoint of ancient ethics was self-sufficingness. In the Christian idea of patience, the passive element of it is as prominent as the active; even more prominent, for first, the life we live on earth is often a life of suffering; and secondly, the idea of humility—wholly foreign to antiquity—is one of the roots of Christian ethics.

The very pace of the runner is itself the foe of patience. It calls, seemingly, for impetuosity, and the more impetuous the runner, we are accustomed to think, the better. Its certain effect is to heat the blood and fire the nerves. Behold the athlete with every muscle taut, every line of his face hard-set, his eye intense and eager, the applauding crowd urging him on! How can he be poiseful and self-controlled? Indeed, patience would seem impossible, and impatience the very price of the prize. And yet every athletic man knows that this is the talk of a novice. If there is anything the runner needs it is self-control, to be able “to keep his head,” as we say, to command his nerves, to hold his strength in check at the first and let it out toward the finish, to keep from being unnerved by the shouts of the crowd, to be equal to any unforeseen turn the race may take or any condition before unreckoned with that may appear. And does it not always turn out that a running match is at bottom chiefly a question of self-command—muscle, wind, nerve, mind, and even heart—and the winner ever found to be the one who has run the race with the greatest patience?

Self-control may be developed in precisely the same manner as we tone up a weak muscle—by little exercises day by day. Let us each day do, as mere exercises of discipline in moral gymnastics, a few acts that are disagreeable to us, the doing of which will help us in instant action in our hour of need. These daily exercises in moral discipline will have a wondrous tonic effect on man’s whole moral nature. The individual can attain self-control in great things only through self-control in little things. He must study himself to discover what is the weak point in his armour, what is the element within him that ever keeps him from his fullest success. This is the characteristic upon which he should begin his exercise in self-control. Is it selfishness, vanity, cowardice, morbidness, temper, laziness, worry, mind-wandering, lack of purpose?—whatever form human weakness assumes in the masquerade of life he must discover. He must then live each day as if his whole existence were telescoped down to the single day before him. With no useless regret for the past, no useless worry for the future, he should live that day as if it were his only day—the only day left for him to assert all that is best in him, the only day for him to conquer all that is worst in him. He should master the weak element within him at each slight manifestation from moment to moment. Each moment then must be a victory for it or for him. Will he be King, or will he be slave?—the answer rests with him.1 [Note: W. G. Jordan, The Kingship of Self-Control, 11.]

Have you ever thought, my friend,

As you daily toil and plod

In the noisy paths of men,

How still are the ways of God?

Have you ever paused in the din

Of traffic’s insistent cry,

To think of the calm in the cloud

Of the peace in your glimpse of the sky?

Go out in the quiet fields,

That quietly yield you meat,

And let them rebuke your noise,

Whose patience is still and sweet.


The Cloud of Witnesses

“Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.”

1. The word “witness” has two meanings in our language, and out of that double meaning has come some confusion, and a misunderstanding of the text. The word means one who looks on and sees—a spectator; it also means one who gives his evidence. It is easy to see how the word came to have the double meaning. He who gives evidence must have some personal knowledge of the matter, and that personal knowledge comes mostly by seeing. But the Greek word which is used here has but one meaning, and that is clear and unmistakable. The word itself has been adopted into our language—“martyr”: seeing we are compassed about by so great a cloud of martyrs—confessors, witnesses who have borne their testimony to the power of faith in their own lives. The word runs through the eleventh chapter, variously translated—witness, testimony, testifying, evidence. The author of the Epistle puts Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and these other great saints into the witness-box, and they tell us what faith has done for them. Then he turns to us as the jury as if to say, “Sirs, you have heard what these have said, these, who have come as near to a true and worthy life as any that ever lived. I have a great many other witnesses who are all prepared to give similar testimony if time permitted. Wherefore, then, seeing that we are compassed about with so great a cloud of those who have shown us what faith has done for them, let us turn to ourselves and run the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith.”

When immortal Bunyan makes his picture of the persecuting passions bringing in their verdict of guilty, who pities Faithful? That is a rare and blessed lot which some greatest men have not attained, to know ourselves guiltless before a condemning crowd—to be sure that what we are denounced for is solely the good in us. The pitiable lot is that of the man who could not call himself a martyr even though he were to persuade himself that the men who stoned him were but ugly passions incarnate—who knows that he is stoned, not for professing the Eight, but for not being the man he professed to be.1 [Note: George Eliot, Middlemarch.]

2. To what do they witness?

(1) They are witnesses to a Divine, invisible, eternal life; witnesses to something that many of us do not see at all, to something that most of us see only vaguely, dimly, occasionally. They are witnesses to a great truth in the faith of which they walk, by which they were inspired, which perhaps we fail to see, or see only at special times and on special occasions.

Walking along the street, you see a group of men standing, looking up into the heavens; and you are pretty sure they see something, and you wonder what it is, and stop and look where they are looking. So we see men gathered in monasteries, gathered in closets, gathered in houses of worship, drawn together by a vision, looking up into the heavens at something invisible to most of us in the dust and darkness of life. And because these men are looking we are sure there is something they see. A man without any love of music may come into a concert-room, and the music which is sounding out from the platform may mean nothing to him, but surely he cannot look upon this audience rapt in attention and not know that there is something in music, whether he appreciates it or not? So it is impossible for any man to look out upon the great worshipping congregations of all ages and all times, seeing men stirred not only with a momentary passion, a temporary enthusiasm, but lifted up into a higher, nobler, and grander life, and not feel sure that there is a truth, a reality, in spiritual life.1 [Note: Lyman Abbott.]

(2) They are by their very lives witnesses to the power that inspired them. They are witnesses to what God can make out of common men and women. In the sculptor’s studio you see the form shaped by his skilful hands, and your heart is touched, your soul is lifted up; you receive through the clay, but not from the clay, a new thought or a new emotion. You see what a great sculptor can make out of common clay. Put a violin in the hands of a poor player, and you will put your fingers in your ears to keep out the dissonance. Put the same instrument in the hands of a skilful player, and you will feel the soul breathing through the instrument. It is the player that makes the difference. Look all along the line of human history, and you may see what kind of figures God can make out of clay like yours; you may hear what kind of music He can play on instruments such as you are. The great and good men of the world are witnesses to the power, not ourselves, but which is in ourselves—to the power that makes men great.

The writing-master sits down at the desk, and says to the child, “See how I hold my pen,” and shows his pupil how to place the fingers on the penholder, and with what freedom and flexibility, and yet with what steadiness, the letters are formed; and then he says, “Now you sit down and try.” And the boy sits down, and takes the pen, and the teacher stands and looks over his shoulder to see how well he has learned his lesson. So the sainted father or mother or pastor or friend sits down at our side, and says, “I will show you what life means.” Or, rather, God in them sits before us, saying, “I will show you what life means.” And then, having given us a momentary glimpse of life, they step on one side, and look over our shoulder, to see whether we have learned the lesson well or not.2 [Note: Ibid.]

The Force that had been lent my Father he honourably expended in manful well-doing: a portion of this Planet bears beneficent traces of his strong Hand and strong Head; nothing that he undertook to do but he did it faithfully and like a true man. I shall look on the Houses he built with a certain proud interest: they stand firm and sound to the heart, all over his little district: no one that comes after him will ever say, Here was the finger of a hollow Eye-servant. They are little texts, for me, of the Gospel of man’s free-will. Nor will his Deeds and Sayings, in any case, be found unworthy, not false and barren, but genuine and fit. Nay, am not I also the humble James Carlyle’s work? I owe him much more than existence; I owe him a noble inspiring example (now that I can read it in that rustic character); it was he exclusively that determined on educating me, that from his small, hard-earned funds sent me to School and College; and made me whatever I am or may become. Let me not mourn for my Father; let me do worthily of him; so shall he still live, even Here, in me; and his worth plant itself honourably forth into new generations.1 [Note: Carlyle, Reminiscences, i. 3.]


The Supreme and Inspiring Example

“Looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of faith.”

1. The “author of faith,” says the writer. It is the same word as is translated “the Prince of life” in the Acts of the Apostles, and, in another part of this letter, “the Captain of salvation.” It means literally one who makes a beginning, or who leads on a series or succession of events or of men. And when we read of the “author of faith” (for the word “our” in the Authorized Version is a very unfortunate supplement), we are not to take the writer as intending to say that Christ gives to men the faith by which they grasp Him—for that is neither a Scriptural doctrine nor would it be relevant to the present context—but to regard him as meaning that Jesus Christ is, as it were, the Captain of the great army that has been deployed before us in the preceding chapter. He came first in order of time, yet, like other commanders-in-chief, He rides in the centre of the march; and He is the first that ever lived a life of perfect and unbroken faith. So He is the Leader of the army, and in the true sense of the name, which is usurped by a very unworthy earthly monarch, is the “Commander of the Faithful.”

The term “Captain” (rather than “Author”) suggests one who goes before us and cripples the common enemy and makes a way for His followers through the thick of the fight. It suggests one who fights from the same level and by His superior strength wins victory for Himself and others; the strong swimmer who carries the rope ashore, and so not only secures His own position but makes rescue for all who will follow; the daring man who goes first and treads down the drifted snow, leaving a lane for the weaker to walk in; the originator of salvation to all, by Himself leading the way from the present actual life of men in this world to the glory beyond. There is only one path by which any one in human nature can reach his destiny, and that lies through temptation and the suffering which temptation brings. Christ being leader must take this way. He was human and obliged to make growth in human righteousness, made under the law, subject to human conditions and exposed to all human temptations, finding His strength not in Himself but in another even as we, needing faith as we need faith.1 [Note: Marcus Dods, Christ and Man, 63.]

2. We are to run while ever “looking unto Jesus.” The Greek expression is most peculiar, for it includes the idea of looking away from everything else and fastening the soul’s gaze upon the Lord alone. We are all tempted to look at the things behind; to consider the difficulties, the trials, the sorrows, the sins of life thus far prosecuted. Remorse bids us catalogue our crimes. Discouragement bids us remember the past obstacles. Unbelief constrains us to believe every tale of all the embarrassment which in the life of faith and the labour of love we have met. The writer commands us to look away from the things that are past. “Forgetting those things which are behind … press toward the mark for the prize of our high calling in God in Christ Jesus.” There is nothing religious in the remembrance of past sins or past sorrows. It clothes the soul with sadness, it deprives it of strength, it disqualifies it for energy and action. From all—no matter how dense has been the darkness through which we have passed, no matter how deep the sloughs of despond through which we have stumbled, no matter how high the mountains of our’ divisions that we have already crossed—we are to look away. The life that God has given us from His own glory is to accomplish the purposes for which we are sent.

Just as the modern conqueror of the air trusts to a power that surpasses human strength, so is it with the man who would rise above a purely mundane existence. “I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me,” says St. Paul. He finds that the motor-power of the Spirit of God is sufficient to raise him far above the levels of the old life. Looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith, he finds that the frail craft of his life is borne aloft, and so strong is the unseen motor-force impelling it that it is no longer buffeted about by every wind of doctrine, but is carried steadily forward against the many gusts that threaten to upset its equilibrium.1 [Note: M. G. Archibald, Sundays at the Royal Military College, 261.]

3. The joy of victory lies in front. The man bent upon reaching the Pole spends no pity on himself; the martyr, bent upon establishing some new republic of virtue and truth, has neither the desire nor the instinct to recount his wounds. They move with a sort of ecstasy towards that goal which they have set before them. They know a solemn exaltation of spirit which makes them indifferent to wounds and death. It may almost be said that they scarcely feel what to another would be dreadful pain; spirit has so far conquered sense that the very edge of pain is blunted. No one who reads the story of martyrdom can doubt that the martyr often reached a condition of sublime ecstasy, in which the ideal he loved had become so real to him that the real had almost ceased to be a part of himself. And it was so with Jesus. The joy set before Him was so real and vivid that He endured the cross and despised the shame—the tragic and the agonizing being swallowed up in the triumphant.

When I was at a public school, we used to have a great system of paper-chases, especially in the Easter term, when there was not quite so much football. I used to be very fond of running in these. They were generally rather long and tiring, and you needed to be in very good training for them. One custom we always had was, when we were a mile or two from the college, to form up in a line and race home; and very hard and exhausting work it was. But I well remember one thing about those “runs in,” as we called them, and that was how wonderfully you seemed to forget fatigue and exhaustion the moment the college towers came in sight. We saw our goal clear before us, and it seemed to put new life into us. It was a real help, just when we most wanted it. It helped one to keep going strongly and make a good finish.2 [Note: F. S. Horan, A Call to Seamen, 128.]

Why those fears? behold, ’tis Jesus

Holds the helm and guides the ship;

Spread the sails, and catch the breezes

Sent to waft us o’er the deep

To the regions

Where the mourners cease to weep.

Could we stay when death was hov’ring,

Could we rest on such a shore?

No, the awful truth discov’ring,

We could linger there no more:

We forsake it,

Leaving all we loved before.

Though the shore we hope to land on

Only by report is known,

Yet we freely all abandon

Led by that report alone:

And with Jesus

Through the trackless deep move on.

Render’d safe by His protection,

We shall pass the wat’ry waste;

Trusting to His wise direction,

We shall gain the port at last,

And with wonder

Think on toils and dangers past.

The Race Set before Us


Archibald (M. G.), Sundays at the Royal Military College, 253.

Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 55.

Brooke (S. A.), Short Sermons, 166.

Brown (C), The Message of God, 272.

Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, ii. 346.

Dale (R. W.), The Jewish Temple and the Christian Church, 242.

Davidson (A. B.), Waiting upon God, 305.

Dawson (W. J.), The Reproach of Christ, 194.

Dods (M.), Christ and Man, 61.

Ewing (J. F.), The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, 20.

Fairweather (D.), Bound in the Spirit, 195.

Fürst (A.), True Nobility of Character, 315.

Gregg (D.), Our Best Moods, 159.

Hamilton (J.), Faith in God, 262.

Horne (C. S.), The Rock of Ages, 233.

Houchin (J. W.), The Vision of God, 92.

Howatt (J. R.), A Year’s Addresses to the Young, 41.

Hull (E. L.), Sermons, iii. 144.

Jenkins (E. E.), Life and Christ, 297.

Lidgett (J. S.), Apostolic Ministry, 73.

Love (J. C), Talks to Children, 121.

Macfarlane (W. H.), Redemptive Service, 297.

Maclaren (A.), The Victor’s Crowns, 93.

Morrison (G. H.), The Wings of the Morning, 319.

Parker (J.), The Gospel of Jesus Christ, 117.

Pearse (M. G.), The Gospel for the Day, 18.

Ryle (J. C), The Christian Race, 154.

Selby (T. G.), The Strenuous Gospel, 160.

Stephen (R.), Divine and Human Influence, ii. 191.

Christian Commonwealth, xxxi. (1911) 589 (R. J. Campbell).

Christian World Pulpit, xxxvi. 216 (M. Dods); xl. 353 (G. C. Morgan); xlix. 325 (C. Gore); lxxiii. 74 (L. Abbott); lxxv. 216 (M. Dods); lxxxiv. 209 (A. F. W. Ingram).

Guardian, lxviii. (1913) 1226 (A. F. W. Ingram).

Presbyterian, Dec. 12, 1912 (J. Kelman).

Verse 2

(2) Looking unto Jesus.—As in Hebrews 2:9, the description precedes the mention of the name, “Looking unto the Author and Perfecter of (our) faith, Jesus.” The first word is very similar to that of Hebrews 11:26; the runner looks away from all other objects and fixes his gaze on One. Jesus is not directly spoken of as the Judge (2 Timothy 4:8); but, as the next words show, He has Himself reached the goal, and His presence marks the point at which the race will close. As the last verse spoke of our “patient endurance,” this speaks of our faith, and of this Jesus is the Author and the Perfecter. The former word has occurred before, in Hebrews 2:10; and here, as there, origination is the principal thought. There the idea of leading the way was also present; but here “Author” stands in contrast with “Perfecter,” and the example of our Lord is the subject of the clause which follows. Because it is He who begins and brings to perfection our faith, we must run the race with our eye fixed upon Him: in Him is the beginning, in Him the completion of the promises (2 Corinthians 1:20); and in the steady and trustful dependence upon Him which this figure describes consists our faith.

Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.—The literal meaning is very forcible, endured a cross, despising shame; the shame of such a death being set over against the joy that lay before Him. Here again we have the thought of Hebrews 2:9 (Philippians 2:9-10); the joy of His accomplished purpose (Isaiah 53:11; Matthew 25:21; Luke 10:21-22) and the glory with which He was crowned (John 17:1; 1 Peter 1:11) being the reward for His “obedience even unto death.” The whole form of the expression (comp. especially Hebrews 6:18, “the hope set before us”) shows that Jesus is presented to us as an example not of endurance only, but also of faith (Hebrews 2:12). On the last words of the verse see Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 1:13; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 10:12-13; there is here a slight change in the Greek, which requires the rendering, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Verse 3

(3) The figure of the race is still continued, “For unless ye thus look unto Jesus ye will grow weary.”

Consider.—Literally, compare; place your sufferings by the side of His.

Him that endured such contradiction.—Rather, Him that hath endured such gainsaying from sinners against themselves. The word “gainsaying,” (Hebrews 6:16; Hebrews 7:7) is so frequently used in the LXX. for the rebelliousness of the people of Israel, that we need not here limit it to contradiction in words. The change of “Himself” into “themselves” (the reading of the oldest MSS.) is important, but it is not easy to say with what the last two words should be joined; for the meaning may be either “sinners against themselves” (comp. Numbers 16:38), or “gainsaying against themselves,” In either case the force of the words will be that the sin or the opposition manifested against Him was really against themselves, since it was for their salvation that He came upon earth. To all His other sorrows were added the pain of their ingratitude and His grief over their aggravated guilt.

And faint.—Rather, fainting in your souls.

Verse 4

(4) Ye have not yet resisted unto blood.—Still the general figure is retained, but for the footrace is substituted the contest of the pugilists. In Hebrews 12:1 sin was the hindrance which must be put aside; here it is the antagonist who must be subdued. It is interesting to note exactly the same transition in 1 Corinthians 9:26. (See Note.) The contest has been maintained but feebly, for no blood has flowed in their struggle with temptation and sin; they have not deserted the arena, but have shrunk from the suffering which a determined struggle would have caused. It is possible that the writer goes beyond the figure in these words, and that the price of their resistance might indeed have been their “blood.”

Verse 5

(5) In this cowardly avoidance of trouble and persecution they have been shrinking from that chastening which every son receives from the Lord.

Which speaketh unto you.—Better, which holds converse (or, reasoneth) with you as with sons. The words which follow are taken from Proverbs 3:11-12, and agree with the text of the LXX., except that for “son” we have “my son,” and for “reproveth” (Hebrews 12:6) “chasteneth.” In the original passage Solomon is the speaker, and it is the second verse only that speaks of God’s fatherly love. It may be so here also, but the exhortation of the Scripture seems to be quoted as if spoken directly by God Himself to His sons.

Despise.—Better, think not lightly of. In the next clause the Hebrew (“and loathe not His correction”) denotes rather a spirit that rejects and chafes under divine discipline. As the words are found here, they point to losing heart and hope.

Verse 6

(6) And scourgeth.—As the words stand in our Hebrew text, the meaning is “even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” A very slight change in one word, however, will yield the sense in which the clause was understood by the Greek translators, and which is here retained. For the purpose of this quotation the difference between the two renderings is not material.

Verse 7

(7) If ye endure chastening.—The whole weight of ancient evidence is in favour of a change in the first Greek word. Two translations are then possible: (1) “It is for chastening that ye endure:” the troubles that come upon you are for discipline—are not sent in anger, but in fatherly love. (2) “Endure for chastening:” bear the trial, instead of seeking to avoid it by unworthy and dangerous concession; endure it, that it may effect its merciful purpose.

What son is he.—Or, what son is there whom his father chasteneth not?

Verse 8

(8) Whereof all are partakers.—Better, whereof all (God’s children) have been made partakers. Were it possible that they have never known this fatherly “chastening,” it must be that they are not sons whom a father acknowledges, and for whose training he has care.

Verse 9

(9) Furthermore we have had fathers.—Rather, Furthermore we had the fathers of our flesh as chasteners (i.e., to chasten us). The thought of the former verses has been, “He chastens as a lather.” From likeness we here pass to contrast. The contrast drawn is between our natural parents and “the Father of spirits” (comp. Numbers 16:22; Numbers 27:16; Zechariah 12:1)—the Creator of all spirits, who is the Giver of life to all, who knows the spirit which He has made (see Psalms 94:9-10) and can discipline it by His chastening.

And live.—Since the life of the spirit subsists only in union with Him.

Verse 10

(10) After their own pleasure.—Rather, as seemed good unto them. The contrast is continued here between human liability to mistake and the perfect knowledge of our heavenly Father, who seeks our profit, and cannot err in the means which He employs. There is a general resemblance between this verse and the last, the “few days” corresponding to the “fathers of our flesh;” and the last clause here, “that we may be partakers of His holiness,” to the words which close Hebrews 12:9, “and live.” To the “few days” no contrast is directly expressed in the second member of the verse; none was needed, because the last words so clearly imply the permanence of the result.

Verse 11

(11) Now no chastening . . .—Better (the reading being slightly changed), All chastening seemeth for the present time to be not joyous, but grievous. The language, so far, would seem to be perfectly general, relating to all chastening, whether human or divine. The following clause may seem to confine our thought to the latter; but, with a lower sense of “righteousness,” the maxim is true of the wise discipline of earthly parents.

The peaceable fruit of righteousness.—Better, peaceful fruit, (fruit) of righteousness, to them that have been trained thereby. The “peaceful” fruit stands in contrast with the unrest and trouble which have preceded during the time of “chastening.” But there is more than rest after conflict, for the object of the conflict is attained; the fruit consists in righteousness. (Comp. Isaiah 32:17; Proverbs 11:30; James 3:17; Philippians 1:11.) It has been sometimes supposed that in the word “trained” the writer returns to the figure of Hebrews 12:4; but this is not probable.

Verse 12

(12) Wherefore.—As in Hebrews 10:24, the writer passes from the thought of personal risk and duty, to speak (in Hebrews 12:12-17) of that which is binding on all members of a community. “Wherefore”—since the trouble which has brought discouragement should rather call forth thankfulness—“strengthen (literally, make straight again, restore to a right state) the weakened hands and the palsied knees.” The words are almost a reproduction of Isaiah 35:3, where those who have lost heart and hope (compared to men whose limbs are palsy-stricken) are encouraged by the promise of the coming of their God bringing recompense and salvation. (See Hebrews 10:36-37.)

Verse 13

(13) And make straight paths.—Quoted with some slight changes from the Greek translation of Proverbs 4:26, “ponder” (or, more probably, make even) “the path of thy feet.”

Be turned out of the way.—The difficulty in these words is concealed to some extent when they are separated from the following clause, as in the Authorised version; this separation, however, the Greek will not allow. If the words be rendered, “that what is lame may not be turned out of the way, but may rather be healed,” we cannot but feel that the two members are somewhat incongruous. It is probable, therefore, that the first verb here bears the meaning which it not unfrequently has in medical writers, be put out of joint. Let the paths (or tracks) which you follow be straight, for crooked and uneven paths will make the limbs which are lame more helpless still; should nothing aggravate the hurt that has been received, it may soon be healed. In the application, the words are a warning against the shifting courses of men who are ready to turn aside from strict duty when persecution threatens, and seek to avert the danger by compliance with what they do not in heart approve. Whatever may be the result in the case of “the strong” (Romans 14:1; 1 Corinthians 8), the example brings destruction on “the weak.”

Verse 14

(14) Follow peace.—More clearly (as our word “follow” is somewhat ambiguous), follow after peace. There is a manifest allusion to Psalms 34:14 (quoted also in 1 Peter 3:11). This charge is general (Romans 12:18), and must not be limited to peace with fellow Christians (Romans 14:19). The two admonitions of this verse were admirably suited to a period of persecution. Let all make peace their aim, yet not so as to sacrifice purity. (Comp. James 3:17.)

And holiness.—Better, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord. In Hebrews 9:28 we have the promise that “Christ . . . shall be seen” by them that wait for Him: hence it might be supposed (especially as in the next verse we read of “the grace of God”) that “the Lord” is here, as in Hebrews 2:3, a designation of our Saviour. As, however, this Epistle especially brings Him before us as the Sanctifier (Hebrews 2:11; Hebrews 13:12), who leads us into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19), we must rather look on these words as akin to Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Revelation 22:4).

Verse 15

(15) Lest any man fail.—Rather, whether any one be falling back from the grace of God. The defection of one member of the community brings loss and danger to the whole body. The last words of Hebrews 10:26 will show what is implied in this “falling back from the grace of God.”

Any root of bitterness.—It is clear that Deuteronomy 29:18, though not formally quoted, is before the writer’s mind. In that chapter Moses had again brought before the people the covenant which, nearly forty years before, had been made and ratified “in Horeb” (see Hebrews 9:18-20). With especial solemnity he sets before them the sin and terrible punishment of idolatry, “Lest there should be among you man or woman . . . whose heart turneth away this day from the Lord our God, to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” The marginal note on the last words (“poisonful herb”) explains their true meaning—that which springs from the root is not merely bitter, it is also poisonous. Again, therefore (see Hebrews 10:27-28; Hebrews 10:30), the apostasy to which the Hebrew Christians were tempted is compared with the sin committed by those who by idolatry fell away from God’s ancient covenant; and as one idol-worshipper in a community might bring into it a root of bitter poison, so one apostate from the Christian faith would bring trouble and defilement on the Church. In Acts 8:23 St. Peter makes reference to the same chapter of Deuteronomy as he speaks to Simon Magus, who, above all other men, proved a root of bitter poison in the early Church.

Many.—Rather, the many (according to the best reading)—i.e., the whole community.

Verse 16

(16) Lest there be.—Better (as in the last verse), whether there be. Though Jewish tradition (see, for example, the Targum of Palestine on Genesis 25:29) affirms that Esau was a man of impure life, it is not probable that he is so represented in this verse. Here he is mentioned as a type of “the profane,” who care not for divine things, but only for the gains and pleasures of this world.

Who for one morsel of meat.—Better, who for one meal sold his own birthright (Genesis 25:29-34). We cannot suppose that the writer has in thought the material rights of the firstborn, such as his claim on pre-eminence and, possibly (see Deuteronomy 21:17), on a larger share of his father’s possessions. Tradition relates that, up to the time of Aaron, priestly functions were discharged by each firstborn son (comp. Numbers 3:5-12); and to the line of the firstborn would seem to belong that “blessing of Abraham” (Genesis 28:4) which every one who shared Abraham’s faith would earnestly desire to possess.

Verse 17

(17) For ye know how that afterward . . .—The meaning of the verse will be seen more clearly if one clause be placed in a parenthesis: “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 earnestly with tears.” The blessing of Jacob related in Genesis 27 is here viewed (apart from all attendant circumstances) as a necessary consequence of Esau’s “profane” scorn of his birthright. Notwithstanding Esau’s piteous entreaty, Isaac cannot but ratify (Genesis 27:33) the blessing which he has pronounced; though his son sought the blessing earnestly with tears (Genesis 27:38), he was rejected. He “found no place of repentance;” that first act (Genesis 25:33) could not be recalled, but brought with it a loss which nothing could retrieve.

(It is right to add that other interpretations of the verse have been given, which seem, however, much less probable. Thus, the last clause has been understood to mean that Esau earnestly sought repentance; and the preceding words, which we have placed in a parenthesis, that he could not bring his father to a change of purpose.)

Verses 18-29

(18-29) The exhortation to faithfulness is most impressively enforced by means of a comparison between the earlier revelation and that which is given in Christ.

The mount that might be touched.—It appears certain that the word “mount” has no place in the true Greek text. Had this word been in the sentence as originally written, its absence from all our more ancient authorities would be inexplicable; whilst, on the other hand, the contrast with Hebrews 12:22, and the recollection of Deuteronomy 4:11, from which the last words in this verse are taken, would very naturally lead a transcriber to supply this word, which he might suppose to have accidentally dropped out of the text. If, however, the writer did not make use of the word here, though the contrast of Hebrews 12:22 was already before his mind, it seems certain that the word was not in his thought; and hence we have no right to introduce it in the explanation of the verse. The true translation, in all probability, is as follows: For ye are not come unto a material (literally, a palpable) and kindled fire, and unto gloom and darkness and tempest. The object of the writer is to set forth the terrors which accompanied the giving of the Law,—that which the awe-stricken people saw and heard. Not the mount, but the terrible fire was that which met their gaze. Thus again and again in Deuteronomy we find reference to the voice and the fire alone (Deuteronomy 4:33; Deuteronomy 4:36; Deuteronomy 5:4; Deuteronomy 5:25-26; Deuteronomy 18:16). Shortly before “the day of the assembly” in Horeb Israel had been led by “a pillar of fire” (Exodus 13:21); in Hebrews 12:29 of this chapter the figure of “a consuming fire” is applied to God Himself. To avoid such associations as these, and vividly to represent what then was shown to the Israelites, he speaks of “a material and kindled fire.” The metaphor in “palpable” as applied to fire is hardly more remarkable than that involved in “a darkness which may be felt” (Exodus 10:21, where the word used in the LXX. is almost the same as that which we have here).

Verse 19

(19) See Exodus 19:19 (“the voice of the trumpet”), Deuteronomy 4:12 (“the voice of the words”).

Intreated.—“If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die” (Deuteronomy 5:25; Exodus 20:19). Though God drew near to Israel, to reveal Himself, so terrible was His voice to them, so awful the penalties which fenced round their approach to Him, that they shrank back from hearing His words.

Verse 20

(20) There is no sufficient reason for enclosing this verse and the next in a parenthesis.

And if so much as.—Better, If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned (Exodus 19:12-13). The next clause, “or thrust through with a dart,” is absent from our best authorities; and has accidentally found its way into the text from Exodus 19:13.

Verse 21

(21) And so terrible was the sight that. . . .—Better, And (so fearful was the appearance) Moses said, I exceedingly fear and tremble. Deuteronomy 9:19, as it stands in the Greek translation, contains these words in part (“I exceedingly fear”); there, however, they belong to a later time, when Moses was “afraid of the anger and hot displeasure” of the Lord against the worshippers of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Various Jewish traditions speak of the terror of Moses as upon Mount Sinai he beheld the wonders of the heavenly world (see Hebrews 2:2); but no saying that has been preserved throws additional light on the words before us.

Verse 22

(22) Unto mount Sion.—Literally (and in these difficult verses it is unusually important to follow the literal rendering of the Greek), Ye are come unto Zion (the) mountain and city of a Living God, a heavenly Jerusalem. The thought of a celestial city which should be the exact counterpart of the earthly Jerusalem is often dwelt upon in Jewish writings: hence the writer is using familiar words, but with a new and spiritual meaning. The same imagery has been employed in Hebrews 11:10; Hebrews 11:13-16, for this is the city “that hath the foundations, whose Architect and Maker is God.” (See also Revelation 21:2, et seq.; Galatians 4:26.) This “heavenly Jerusalem” is “Zion, mountain and city of a Living God.” Mount Zion is mentioned first, because the contrast with Mount Sinai is throughout present in thought. The name recalls many passages of the Old Testament, especially of the Psalter, as far back as the time when David chose the place for the Ark of the Covenant. Here God desired to dwell (Psalms 68:16); in this holy hill He set His anointed King (Psalms 2:6). (See also Psalms 48:2; Psalms 48:11; Psalms 78:68; Psalms 110:2; Psalms 132:13.) Zion is not only the mount of God, His dwelling place; it is also “the city of God,” whose gates the Lord loveth (Psalms 87:2). (See Psalms 48:12-13, et al.) In Hebrews 8:2 we find associated the place of the special manifestation of the glory of God and the resort of His worshipping people; so here the heavenly sanctuary and the city inhabited by “the ransomed of the Lord” (Isaiah 35:10). In Horeb Israel intreated that they might not hear the voice of “the living God” (Deuteronomy 5:26). In this spiritual commonwealth we all “have drawn nigh” to Him.

In the first member of these three verses (Hebrews 12:22-24), therefore, there is very little that is open to question; the difficulties lie in the words which follow, “and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn which are written in heaven.” Four or five different arrangements of these words are allowed by the Greek, and every one of these has been adopted and defended by writers of eminence. Here the discussion must be very brief. On a careful examination of the whole passage, it seems in the highest degree probable that the writer introduces by” and” each successive member of the sentence, and that groups of words not so introduced serve as appositions, explaining what precedes them. If this be so, the arrangement of the Authorised version is not tenable. We believe that the choice must lie between two renderings: (1) “And to myriads of angels, a festal assembly and congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven.” (2) “And to myriads, a festal assembly of angels and a congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven.” In the first of these renderings angels are the subject throughout; in the second, “the myriads” to whom we have come nigh are divided into two companies—the festal host of angels, the church of the firstborn. Let us look at the latter interpretation first. By it the “firstborn” are sought amongst. men; either those who are already inhabitants of the heavenly world, or men still living upon earth, though enrolled as citizens of heaven (Luke 10:20). Some have understood the words to relate to those who hold precedency, either in rank or in time, among men to whom God has given the name of sons; as, saints of preeminent piety, “the noble army of martyrs,” the faithful under the Old Covenant, Enoch and Elijah, the Apostles, the first generations of Christians, or the believers of the later as distinguished from those of the earlier dispensation. A far more probable explanation is that which makes the word here “equivalent to heirs of the kingdom, all faithful Christians being ipso facto ‘firstborn,’ because all are kings” (Dr. Lightfoot on Colossians 1:15). See Hebrews 1:6; also, “as instances of the figurative use of firstborn in the Old Testament, where the idea of priority of birth is overshadowed by and lost in the idea of pre-eminence,” Job 18:13; Isaiah 14:30. If this be the true interpretation, 1 Peter 2:9 unites the two thoughts which this figure suggests, “Ye are . . . a royal priesthood” (see above, Hebrews 12:16); and the whole of that verse. especially as compared with Exodus 4:22, well illustrates the position here assigned to the company of the faithful upon earth. The word which we have here rendered congregation, moreover, is that which is regularly applied to the Church of Christ. There is, therefore, very much to be said on behalf of this interpretation, which is in every way attractive. And yet, full of interest as is such an explanation of the special words, it seems certainly unsuitable to the passage as a whole. It is not easy to believe that the words “and to myriads” are to be taken by themselves. It is still more difficult to explain the introduction of the living Church on earth in this position—between angels and the “God of all,” whilst “the spirits of just men made perfect” are mentioned later, in an association from which the Church on earth cannot be severed—with “Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant and the blood of sprinkling.” For these reasons especially it seems necessary to adopt the first-mentioned arrangement of the words: “ye have come near . . . to myriads of angels, a festal assembly and congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven.” Two passages of the Old Testament seem to have been chiefly in the writer’s mind (Deuteronomy 33:2, and Daniel 7:10); in each of these the Lord appears attended by “myriads of angels,” who stand before Him and minister to Him (Psalms 103:20). We who by means of the “better hope draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:19) are led to this “holy hill” and city, and through the hosts of “ministering spirits” into the very presence of the “God of all.” The descriptive words which follow are borrowed from the history of Israel. The first (Ezekiel 46:11; Hosea 2:11; Hosea 9:5; Amos 5:21; Isaiah 66:10) is the general and joyous gathering for the feasts of the Lord; the second is the word used throughout for the “church in the wilderness,” the “congregation” of Israel. The latter points to the united body of the servants of God, the former to the joyful gathering for His service. The second word is so commonly used of Israel and of the Christian Church that it has been denied that any other application is ever made; but there is certainly an exception in Psalms 89:7 (a Psalm which, as we have seen, was much in the writer’s thoughts), “God is greatly to be feared in the congregation of the saints.” How fitly angels—who in Job 1:6; Job 2:1; Job 38:7 (comp. Psalms 29:1, et al.), are called “sons of God,” are here spoken of as “firstborn,” needs no explanation; they are the enrolled citizens of heaven, whose assembly we are permitted to join (Revelation 5:11; comp. Luke 20:36).

Verses 22-24

(22-24) “What it was to which Israel in the time of the Old Covenant drew nigh, we have now heard. Their drawing nigh was at the same time a standing afar off; the mount of the revelation might not be approached by them; the voice of God was too terrible to be borne; and yet it was only tangible material nature in which God at once manifested and concealed Himself. The true and inner communion with God had not yet been revealed: first must the Law lead to the painful consciousness that sin prevents such communion, and intensify the longing that sin may be taken out of the way. Under the New Covenant, no longer is a tangible mountain the place of a divine revelation made from afar; but heaven is thrown open, and a new super-sensuous world in which God is enthroned is opened to admit us, opened through the Mediator of the New Covenant, accessible in virtue of His atoning blood” (Delitzsch).

Verse 23

(23) And to God the Judge of all.—The order of the Greek seems to require the rendering, and to a Judge (who is) God of all. Up to this point our thought has rested on the heavenly world and those who from the time of their creation have been its inhabitants. Men who have passed through this earthly life have no essential right to citizenship in the “heavenly Jerusalem.” They come before a Judge (comp. Hebrews 9:27). “The Lord shall judge His people” (Hebrews 10:30), severing between His servants and His foes (Malachi 3:18; Malachi 4:1), condemning the wicked, and receiving the righteous to His own dwelling-place. This Judge is “God of all”—of angels and of righteous souls (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1), and of Christian men who “draw nigh” to the celestial city. How characteristic of the writer and his theme is the introduction of these solemn words into the midst of this description of Christian privilege and blessing.

And to the spirits of just men made perfect.—The last verses of Hebrews 11 are at once called before the mind by these words. The “righteous” men have “by faith” run their course (Hebrews 10:38; Hebrews 11:4; Hebrews 11:7; Philippians 3:12); they have obtained the promises (Hebrews 6:15; Hebrews 11:1). The analogy of Scripture forbids us to consider their present state as the full consummation; for that, these “spirits” and we who are yet “in the body” await the day of the resurrection. These words, however, do not refer to the period of the Old Covenant only; indeed they do not in strictness belong to that period at all. The spirits of the righteous servants of Christ join the same fellowship; and only when Christ was manifested does the state to which the name “perfection” is thus given seem to have begun. What was received by those “spirits of the righteous” when they saw the day of Christ, we cannot tell; but. the teaching of Scripture seems to be that they were raised to some higher state of blessedness. These are the new inhabitants of the world above; they have come into the presence of God by means of the blood of sprinkling, through Jesus.

Verse 24

(24) And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.—Rather, a new covenant. There is another change in the Greek which it is not easy to-express. In all other places in which we read of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:8; Hebrews 8:13; Hebrews 9:15; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6) a word is used which implies newness of kind and quality; here it is a covenant which is newly made—literally “young,” having all the freshness of youth in comparison with that which long since was waxing old (Hebrews 8:13). Here also if we follow the order of the original (see Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 3:1; Hebrews 12:2, et al.), the description precedes, and the name “Jesus” follows, thus standing between the words which describe His covenant and those which speak of His blood.

And to the blood of sprinkling.—Rather, and to blood of sprinkling that speaketh better (or, more powerfully) than Abel. Jesus is Mediator of a new covenant (Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:15) through the shedding of His blood (Hebrews 9:15-17; Hebrews 10:29). This is “blood of sprinkling,” blood which cleanseth the conscience from dead works to serve a living God (Hebrews 9:14): it was typified by the blood of the covenant with which Moses sprinkled all the people (Hebrews 9:19-20). Abel being dead yet speaketh (Hebrews 11:4), for his. blood crieth for vengeance. This blood speaks with greater power, and speaks not for wrath but for purification and atonement. 1 John 2:1-2, completes the contrast: God was the Avenger of “righteous Abel,” but Jesus Christ the righteous is our Advocate with the Father, and He is the propitiation for our sins.

It does not seem probable that the writer designs a detailed contrast between the several particulars of these verses and of Hebrews 12:18-21. The number in each case is the same (six), and in the case of the first and last some analogy may be traced; but this is all that can be said with safety. If our interpretation of these verses is correct, there is no mention of the Church on earth. But can we wonder at this? It is to that living Church that the words themselves are from age to age addressed. They describe the blessed heavenly fellowship to which each servant of Christ now toiling on earth is joined: when he has run the race set before him, he will, through the blood of sprinkling and through Jesus the Mediator, reach the company of the just made perfect, and stand before the “God of all.”

Verse 25

(25) Refuse not.—In Hebrews 12:19 we have read that the Israelites entreated that they might no more hear the voice of God (literally, deprecated the speaking of more words). Twice in this verse the same word is used in the sense of declining to listen, with clear reference to the earlier verse.

Him that speaketh.—God speaking to us from heaven (Hebrews 1:1-2). See below.

For if they escaped not who refused.—Rather (according to the better reading of the Greek), For if they escaped not when they refused on earth Him that warned. The terrors which accompanied the giving of the Law were designed to impress all hearts with the fearful peril of disobedience. In shrinking from* the voice of Him that warned they could not escape the declaration of the Law or the terrible penalties which awaited all transgressors.

If we turn away.—Rather, who turn away from Him that (warneth) from heaven. The argument is similar to that of Hebrews 2:2-3, where the same word “escape” is found. He from whom they turned aside on earth is He who now speaks to us; but then His voice was heard amidst earthly terrors, now His revelation comes through His Son who is exalted in heaven. If we do not hearken to the word of life and promise that is ever coming to us from God through His Son, it will be because we deliberately “turn away,” for the excuse of the panic-stricken Israelites cannot be ours. The voice that speaks on earth fell on the outward ear, but He who speaks from heaven makes His voice heard in the inner conscience; the one may fail to be heard and understood, the other will find us out, and is neglected only through stubbornness of will. Much less, then, shall we escape if we turn away from Him who warns from heaven.

Verse 26

(26) Shook the earth.—Exodus 19:18-19; Judges 5:4-5. The terrors of Sinai were, moreover, a type of a more terrible revelation of judgment, when not only shall the earth tremble, but the earth and the heaven shall be moved, and all that is transitory and mutable shall pass away. The words of Haggai 2:6 are taken as a prophecy of this consummation. The reference of the prediction of which this forms part to the first coming of the Messiah is passed over; it is only as bearing upon the last days that the words are quoted here.

Now he hath promised.—This whole time of waiting is included in the “now.” It is as if the words were: “now we have this promise, and are looking for its fulfilment.”

I shake.—Rather (according to the better reading), I will move (or, make to tremble).

Verse 27

(27) This word, “Yet once more,” is equivalent to once more only; and the words “once more only will I move the heaven and the earth” must of necessity point to the final change, which issues in the removal of all that can pass away.

Which cannot be shaken.—Literally, which are not shaken. The great difficulty of the verse is to ascertain on what word this clause depends. (1) If upon “removing,” the sense will be: This word . . . signifieth the removing of the things made (as being created things), that the things not shaken may remain. The next verse throws light on the writer’s meaning; there that which “cannot be shaken” is the kingdom which we receive: he is not speaking of that which belongs to a material creation. (2) The other view can only be briefly mentioned: This word . . . signifieth the removing of the things shaken, as of things that have been made in order that the things not shaken may remain. The idea is striking—that created things were made for the very purpose of giving place to what shall abide; but the other view seems to give the more probable meaning of the verse.

Verse 28

(28) Receiving a kingdom.—These words clearly contain a reference to Daniel 7:18, “The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom.” Nor can it well be doubted that the closing verses of Haggai 2 are also before the writer’s mind; after Hebrews 12:21, which repeats the words of Hebrews 12:6, quoted above, the prophet declares the overthrow of earthly kingdoms, and continues to His servant Zerubbabel the Messianic promise. Christ has made His people kings; and when heaven and earth have passed away, they shall be found heirs of a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 2:5-9).

Let us have grace.—Many render the last word thankfulness, but the ordinary translation is preferable. There is for us a “throne of grace” to which we may draw near and “find grace” (Hebrews 4:16). The characteristic of our Christian state is that we “have grace,” and have not “fallen back from the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:15). Let us continue in this state and thus be enabled to offer our priestly service unto God (Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 13:15).

Acceptably.—Literally, well-pleasing. (See Hebrews 11:5; Hebrews 13:16.)

With reverence and godly fear.—According to the true reading of the Greek, the meaning is with reverent fear and awe. The former word is that which occupies so important a place in Hebrews 5:7. (See Note.) The tone of the whole chapter—we might rather say, the whole Epistle—is presented in this combination of “grace” and acceptable service with awe and reverent fear. The last thought connects itself closely with the following verse.

Verse 29

(29) A quotation from Deuteronomy 4:24. There these words follow a solemn warning against idolatry. This passage then belongs to the same class as Hebrews 10:27-28; Hebrews 10:30. (See the Notes.)


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Hebrews 12:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 25th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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