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Barclay's Daily Study Bible Daily Study Bible
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ dsb/ hebrews-12.html. 1956-1959.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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THE RACE AND THE GOAL ( Hebrews 12:1-2 )
12:1-2 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses enveloping us, let us strip off every weight and let us rid ourselves of the sin which so persistently surrounds us, and let us run with steadfast endurance the course that is marked out for us and, as we do so, let us keep our gaze fixed on Jesus who, in order to win the joy that was set before him, steadfastly endured the Cross, thinking nothing of its shame, and has now taken his seat at the right hand or the throne of God.
This is one of the great, moving passages of the New Testament; and in it the writer has given us a well-nigh perfect summary of the Christian life.
(i) In the Christian life we have a goal. The Christian is not an unconcerned stroller along the byways of life; he is a wayfarer on the high road. He is not a tourist, who returns each night to the place from which he starts; he is a pilgrim who is for ever on the way. The goal is nothing less than the likeness of Christ. The Christian life is going somewhere, and it would be well if, at each day's ending, we were to ask ourselves: "Am I any farther on?"
(ii) In the Christian life we have an inspiration. We have the thought of the unseen cloud of witnesses: and they are witnesses in a double sense. For they have witnessed their confession to Christ and they are now witnesses of our performance. The Christian is like a runner in some crowded stadium. As he presses on. the crowd looks down; and the crowd looking down are those who have already won the crown.
Longinus, in his great work On The Sublime, has a recipe for greatness in literary endeavour. "It is a good thing." he writes, "to form the question in our souls, How would Homer perhaps have said this? How would Plato or Demosthenes have lifted it up to sublimity? How would Thucydides have put it in his history? For when the faces of these people come before us in our emulation they will, as it were, illumine our road and will lift us up to those standards of perfection which we have imagined in our minds. It would be still better if we were to suggest this to our minds. 'What would this that I have said sound like to Homer, if he were standing by, or to Demosthenes, or how would they have reacted to it?' In truth it is a supreme test to imagine such a judgment court and theatre for our own private productions, and, in imagination, to submit an account of our writings to such heroes as judges."
An actor would act with double intensity if he knew that some famous dramatic master was sitting in the stalls watching him. An athlete would strive with double effort if he knew that a stadium of famous Olympic athletes was watching him. It is of the very essence of the Christian life that it is lived in the gaze of the heroes of the faith who lived, suffered and died in their day and generation. How can a man avoid the struggle for greatness with an audience like that looking down upon him?
(iii) In the Christian life we have a handicap. If we are encircled by the greatness of the past. We are also encircled by the handicap of our own sin. No man would seek to climb Mount Everest with a pantechnicon of lumber weighing him down. If we would travel far, we must travel light. There is in life an essential duty of discarding things. There may be habits, pleasures, self-indulgences, associations which hold us back. We must shed them as the athlete sheds his track suit when he goes to the starting-mark; and often we will need the help of Christ to enable us to do so.
(iv) In the Christian life we have a means. That means is steadfast endurance. The word is hupomone ( G5281) which does not mean the patience which sits down and accepts things but the patience which masters them. It is not some romantic thing which lends us wings to fly over the difficulties and the hard places. It is a determination, unhurrying and yet undelaying, which goes steadily on and refuses to be deflected. Obstacles do not daunt it and discouragements do not take its hope away. It is the steadfast endurance which carries on until in the end it gets there.
(v) In the Christian life we have an example. That example is Jesus himself. For the goal that was set before him, he endured all things; to win it meant the way of the Cross. The writer to the Hebrews has a flash of insight--despising the shame, he says. Jesus was sensitive; never had any person so sensitive a heart. A cross was a humiliating thing. It was for criminals, for those whom society regarded as the dregs of humanity--and yet he accepted it. St. Philip of Neri bids us "to despise the world, to despise ourselves, and to despise--the fact that we are despised" (spernere mundum, spernere te ipsum, spernere te sperni). If Jesus could endure like that, so must we.
(vi) In the Christian life we have a presence, the presence of Jesus. He is at once the goal of our journey and the companion of our way; at once the one whom we go to meet and the one with whom we travel. The wonder of the Christian life is that we press on surrounded by the saints, oblivious to everything but the glory of the goal and forever in the company of him who has already made the journey and reached the goal, and who waits to welcome us when we reach the end.
THE STANDARD OF COMPARISON ( Hebrews 12:3-4 )
12:3-4 Consider him who steadfastly endured such opposition at the hands of sinners, and compare your lives with his, so that you may not faint and grow weary in your souls. You have not yet had to resist to the point of blood in your struggle against sin.
The writer to the Hebrews uses two very vivid words when he speaks of fainting and growing weary. They are the words which Aristotle uses of an athlete who flings himself on the ground in collapse after he has surged past the winning post of the race. So Hebrews is in effect saying: "Don't give up too soon; don't collapse until the winning post is passed.
To urge them to that he uses two arguments.
(i) For them the struggle of Christianity has not yet become a mortal struggle. When he speaks of resisting to the point of blood, he uses the very phrase of the Maccabaean leaders when they called on their troops to fight to the death. When the writer to the Hebrews says that his people have not yet resisted to the point of blood, as Moffatt puts it, "he is not blaming them, he is shaming them." When they think of what the heroes of the past went through to make their faith possible, surely they cannot drift into lethargy or flinch from conflict.
(ii) He pleads with them to compare what they have to suffer with what Jesus suffered. He gave up the glory which was his; he came into all the narrowness of the life of humanity; he faced the hostility of men; in the end he had to die upon a cross. So the writer to the Hebrews in effect demands: "How can you compare what you have to go through with what he went through? He did all that for you--what are you going to do for him?"
These two verses stress the essential costliness of Christian faith. It cost the lives of the martyrs; it cost the life of him who was the Son of God. A thing which cost so much cannot be lightly discarded. A heritage like that is not something that a man can hand down tarnished. These two verses make the demand that comes to every Christian: "Show yourself worthy of the sacrifice that men and God have made for you."
THE DISCIPLINE OF GOD ( Hebrews 12:5-11 )
12:5-11 Have you forgotten the appeal, an appeal which reasons with you as sons?
"My son, do not treat lightly the discipline which the Lord sends; Never lose heart when you are put to the test by him; For the Lord disciplines the man whom he loves, and scourges every son whom he receives."
It is for the sake of discipline that you must endure. It is because he is treating us as sons that God sends these things upon us. What son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline--that discipline which everyone must share--then you are bastards and not sons. Surely it is true that we have human fathers who discipline us, and we pay heed to them. Surely we are still more bound to submit to the Father of the spirits of men, for that is the only way in which we can find real life. It was only for a short time that our human fathers disciplined us, and they did it as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our highest good and he does so to make us fit to share his own holiness. No discipline seems to be a thing of joy when we are actually undergoing it but afterwards it yields a fruit which is all to our highest welfare--the fruit of a righteous life--to those who are trained by it.
The writer to the Hebrews sets out still another reason why men should cheerfully bear affliction when it comes to them. He has urged them to bear it because the great saints of the past have borne it. He has urged them to bear it because anything they may have to bear is a little thing compared with what Jesus Christ had to bear. Now he says that they must bear hardship because it is sent as a discipline from God and no life can have any value apart from discipline.
A father always disciplines his child. It would not be a mark of love to let a son do what he likes and have nothing but an easy way; it would show that the father regarded the son as no better than an illegitimate child to whom he felt neither love nor responsibility. We submit to an earthly father's discipline which is imposed only for a short time, until we reach years of maturity, and which at best always contains an element of arbitrariness. The earthly father is he to whom we owe our bodily life; how much more should we submit to the discipline of God to whom we owe our immortal spirits and who, in his wisdom, seeks for nothing but our highest good.
There is a curious passage in Xenophon's Cyropaedia. There is an argument about whether the man who makes men laugh or makes them weep is of most use in the world. Aglaitidas says: "He that makes his friends laugh seems to me to do them much less service than he who makes them weep; and if you will look at it rightly, you, too, will find that I speak the truth. At any rate, fathers develop self-control in their sons by making them weep and teachers impress good lessons on their pupils in the same way, and laws, too, turn the citizens to justice by making them weep. But could you say that those who make us laugh either do good to our bodies or make our minds any more fitted for the management of our private business or the affairs of state?" It was the view of Aglaitidas that it was the man who exerted discipline who really did good to his fellow-men.
There is no doubt that this passage would come to those who heard it for the first time with a double impact, for all the world knew of that amazing thing the patria potestas, the father's power. A Roman father had by law absolute power over his family. If his son should marry, the father continued to have absolute power both over him and any grandchildren there might be. It began at the beginning. A Roman father could keep or discard his newborn child as he liked. He could bind or scourge his son; he could sell him into slavery; and he even had the right to execute him. True, when a father was about to take serious steps against a member of his family, he usually called a council of all its adult male members, but he did not need to. True, later on public opinion would not permit the execution of a son by a father, but it happened as late as the time of Augustus. Sallust, the Roman historian, tells us of an incident during the Catiline conspiracy. Catiline rebelled against Rome and amongst those who went out to join his forces was Aulus Fulvius, the son of a Roman senator. He was arrested and brought back, and his own father tried him and judged him and ordered him to be put to death. In regard to the patria potestas a Roman son never came of age. He might have engaged on a state career; he might be holding the highest magistracies; he might be held in honour by the whole country; all that did not matter; he was directly and completely under his father's power so long as his father survived. If ever a people knew what parental discipline was the Romans did; and when the writer to the Hebrews talked about the way in which an earthly father disciplined his son, his hearers well knew what he was talking about.
So, then, the writer insists that we must look on all the hardships of life as the discipline of God and as sent to work, not for our harm but for our ultimate and highest good. To prove his point he makes a quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12. There are many ways in which a man may look at the discipline which God sends him. .
(i) He may resignedly accept it. That is what the Stoics did. They held that nothing in this world happens outside the will of God; therefore, they argued, there is nothing to do but to accept it. To do anything else is simply to batter one's head against the walls of the universe. That is possibly the acceptance of supreme wisdom; but none the less it is the acceptance not of a father's love but of a father's power. It is not a willing but a defeated acceptance.
(ii) A man may accept discipline with the grim sense of getting it over as soon as possible. A certain famous Roman said: "I will let nothing interrupt my life." If a man accepts discipline like that he regards it as an infliction to be struggled through with defiance and certainly not with gratitude.
(iii) A man may accept discipline with the self-pity which leads in the end to collapse. Some people, when they are caught up in some difficult situation, give the impression that they are the only people in the world whom life ever hurt. They are lost in their self-pity.
(iv) A man may accept discipline as a punishment which he resents. It is strange that at this time the Romans saw in national and personal disasters nothing but the vengeance of the gods. Lucan wrote: "Happy were Rome indeed, and blessed citizens would she have, if the gods were as much concerned with caring for men as they are with exacting vengeance from them." Tacitus held that the disasters of the nation were proof that not men's safety but men's punishment was the interest of the gods. There are still people who regard God as vindictive. When something happens to them or to those whom they love their question is: "What did I do to deserve this?" And the question is asked in such a tone as to make it clear that they regard the whole matter as an unjust punishment from God. It never dawns upon them to ask: "What is God trying to teach me and to do with me through this experience?"
(v) So we come to the last attitude. A man may accept discipline as coming from a loving father. Jerome said a paradoxical but true thing: "The greatest anger of all is when God is no longer angry with us when we sin." He meant that the supreme punishment is when God lets us alone as unteachable. The Christian knows that "a father's hand will never cause his child a needless tear" and that everything can be utilised to make him a wiser and a better man. As Robert Browning wrote in Rabbi ben Ezra:
"Then welcome each rebuff
That turns earth's smoothness rough,
Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!
Be our joy three-parts pain!
Strive and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe!
For thence--a paradox
Which comforts while it mocks--
Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail;
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me.
A brute I might have been, but would not sink i' the scale."
We shall cease from self-pity, from resentment and from rebellious complaint if we remember that there is no discipline of God which does not take its source in love and is not aimed at good.
DUTIES, AIMS AND DANGERS ( Hebrews 12:12-17 )
12:12-17 So, then, lift up the slack hands. Strengthen the weak knees. And make straight the paths of your feet so that the bones of the lame may not be completely dislocated but rather may be cured. Make peace your aim--and do it all together--and aim at that holiness without which no one can see the Lord. Watch that no one misses the grace of God. Watch that no pernicious influence grows up to involve you in troubles. And watch that the main body of your people are not soiled by any such thing. Watch that no one falls into sexual impurity or turns to an unhallowed life, as Esau did, Esau who, for a single meal, gave away his birthright. For you are well aware of how when he afterwards wanted to claim the blessing he ought to have inherited, he was rejected--for he had no opportunity to change his mind--although he sought that blessing with tears.
With this passage the writer to the Hebrews comes to the problems of everyday Christian life and living. He knew that sometimes it is given to a man to mount up with wings as an eagle; he knew that sometimes a man is enabled to run and not be weary in the pursuit of some great moment of endeavour; but he also knew that of all things it is hardest to walk every day and not to faint. Here he is thinking of the daily struggle of the Christian way.
(i) He begins by reminding them of their duties. In every congregation and in every Christian society there are those who are weaker and more likely to go astray and to abandon the struggle. It is the duty of those who are stronger to put fresh vigour into listless hands and fresh strength into failing feet. The phrase used for stack hands is the same as is used to describe the children of Israel in the days when they wished to abandon the rigours of the journey across the wilderness and to return to the ease and the fleshpots of Egypt.
The Odes of Solomon (6: 14ff.) have a description of the work of those who are true servants and ministers:
"They have assuaged the dry lips,
And the will that fainted they have raised up...
And limbs that had fallen
They have straightened and set up."
One of life's greatest glories is to be an encourager of the man who is near to despair and a strengthener of the man whose strength is failing. To help these people we have to make their ways straight. A Christian has a double duty; he has a duty to God and a duty to his fellow men. The Testimony of Simeon (5: 2, 3) has an illuminating description of the duty of the good man. "Make your heart good in the sight of the Lord; and make your ways straight in the sight of men; so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord and of men."
To God a man must present a clean heart; to men he must present an upright life. To show a man the right way to walk, by personal example to keep him on the right road, to remove from the path something that would make him stumble, to make the journey easier for faltering and lagging feet, is a Christian duty. A man must offer his heart to God and his service and example to his fellow-men.
(ii) The writer to the Hebrews turns to the aims which must ever be before the Christian.
(a) He must aim at peace. In Hebrew thought and language peace was no negative thing; it was intensely positive. It was not simply freedom from trouble; it was two things.
First, it was everything which makes for a man's highest good. As the Hebrews saw it, that highest good was to be found in obedience to God. Proverbs says: "My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: for length of days and long life and peace shall they add unto thee." The Christian must aim at that complete obedience to God in which life finds its highest happiness, its greatest good, its perfect consummation, its peace. Second, peace meant right relationships between man and man. It meant a state when hatred was banished and each man sought nothing but his neighbour's good. Hebrews says: "Seek to live together as Christian men ought to live, in the real unity which comes from living in Christ."
The peace to be sought is that coming from obedience to God's will, which raises a man's life to its highest realization and enables him to live in and to produce right relationships between his fellow-men.
One thing remains to be noted--that kind of peace is to be pursued. It requires an effort; it is not something which just happens. It is the product of mental and spiritual toil and sweat. Rudyard Kipling wrote:
"Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:--'Oh, how beautiful!' and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working-lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives."
The gifts of God are given, but they are not given away; they have to be won, for they can be received only on God's conditions--and the supreme condition is obedience to himself
(b) He must aim at holiness (hagiasmos, G38) . Hagiasmos has in it the same root as the adjective hagios, which is usually translated holy. The root meaning is always difference and separation. Although he lives in the world, the man who is hagios ( G40) must always in one sense be different from it and separate from it. His standards are not the world's standards, nor his conduct the world's conduct. His aim is not to stand well with men but to stand well with God. Hagiasmos ( G38) , as Westcott finely put it, is "the preparation for the presence of God." The life of the Christian is dominated by the constant memory that its greatest aim is to enter into the presence of God.
(iii) The writer to the Hebrews goes on to point the dangers which threaten the Christian life:
(a) There is the danger of missing the grace of God. The word he uses might be paraphrased failing to keep up with the grace of God. The early Greek commentator Theophylact interprets this in terms of a journey of a band of travellers who every now and again check up, "Has anyone fallen out? Has anyone been left behind while the others have pressed on?" In Micah there is a vivid text ( Micah 4:6), "I will assemble the lame." Moffatt translates it: "I will collect the stragglers." It is easy to straggle away, to linger behind, to drift instead of to march, and so to miss the grace of God. There is no opportunity in this life which cannot be missed. The grace of God brings to us the opportunity to make ourselves and to make life what they are meant to be. A man may, in his lethargy, his thoughtlessness, his unawareness, his procrastination, miss the chances which grace brings to him. Against that we must ever be upon the watch.
(b) There is the danger of what the Revised Standard Version calls "a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit." The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 29:18; and there it describes the man who goes after strange gods and encourages others to do so, and who thereby becomes a pernicious influence on the life of the community. The writer to the Hebrews is warning against those who are a corrupting influence. There are always those who think the Christian standards unnecessarily strict and punctitious; there are always those who do not see why they should not accept the world's standards of life and conduct. This was specially so in the early Church. It was a little island of Christianity surrounded by a sea of paganism; its members were, at the most, only one generation away from heathenism. It was easy to relapse into the old standards. This is a warning against the infection of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously, spread within the Christian society.
(c) There is the danger of failing into immorality or relapsing into an unhallowed life. The word used for unhallowed is bebelos ( G952) . It has an illuminating background. It was used for ground that was profane in contradistinction to ground that was consecrated The ancient world had its religions into which only the initiated could come. Bebelos ( G952) was used for the person who was uninitiated and uninterested in contradistinction to the man who was devout. It was applied to such men as Antiochus Epiphanes who was pledged to wipe out all true religion; it was applied to Jews who had become apostates and had forsaken God. Westcott sums up this word by saying that it describes the man whose mind recognizes nothing higher than earth, for whom there is nothing sacred, who has no reverence for the unseen. An unhallowed life is a life without any awareness of or interest in God. In its thoughts, aims, pleasures, it is completely earthbound. We have to have a care lest we drift into a frame of mind and heart which has no horizon beyond this world, for that way inevitably lie the failure of chastity and the loss of honour.
To sum it all up, the writer to the Hebrews cites the example of Esau. He really puts two stories together-- Genesis 25:28-34 and Genesis 27:1-39. In the first Esau came in from the field ravenously hungry and sold his birthright to Jacob for a share of the food which he was preparing. The second story tells how Jacob subtly robbed Esau of his birthright by impersonating him when Isaac was old and blind and so gaining the blessing which belonged to Esau as the elder of the two sons. It was when Esau sought the blessing that Jacob had shrewdly obtained and learned he could not get it that he lifted up his voice and wept ( Genesis 27:38).
There is more to this than lies upon the surface. In Hebrew legend and in rabbinic elaboration Esau had come to be looked upon as the entirely sensual man, the man who put the needs of his body first. Hebrew legend says that while Jacob and Esau--they were twins--were still in their mother's womb, Jacob said to Esau: "My brother, there are two worlds before us, this world and the world to come. In this world men eat and drink and traffic and marry and bring up sons and daughters; but all this does not take place in the world to come. If you like, take this world and I will take the other." And Esau was well content to take this world, because he did not believe that there was any other. On that very day when Jacob's subterfuge gained him Isaac's blessing, legend said that Esau already had committed five sins--"he had worshipped with strange worship, he had shed innocent blood, he had pursued a betrothed damsel, he had denied the life of the world to come, and he had despised his birthright."
Hebrew interpretation saw Esau as the sensual man, the man who saw no pleasures beyond the crude pleasures of this world. Any man like that sells his birthright; for a man throws away his inheritance when he throws away eternity.
The writer to the Hebrews says, according to the King James Version, that Esau found no place for repentance. The Greek for repentance is metanoia ( G3341) , which literally means a change of mind. It is better to say that it was now impossible for Esau to change his mind. It is not that he was barred from the forgiveness of God. It is just the grim fact that there are certain choices which cannot be unmade and certain consequences which not even God can take away. To take a very simple example--if a young man loses his purity or a girl her virginity, nothing can ever bring it back. The choice has been made and it stands. God can and will forgive but he cannot turn back the clock.
We do well to remember that there is a certain finality in life. If, like Esau, we take the way of this world and make bodily things our final good, if we choose the pleasures of time in preference to the joys of eternity, God can and will still forgive but something has happened that can never be undone. There are certain things in which a man cannot change his mind but must abide for ever by the choice that he has made.
THE TERROR OF THE OLD AND THE GLORY OF THE NEW ( Hebrews 12:18-24 )
12:18-24 It is not to something that can be touched that you have come, to a flaming fire, to mist and gloom and stormblast, and to the blare of a trumpet, and to a voice which spoke such words that those who heard it begged that not another word should be further spoken unto them, for they could not bear the command: "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." So terrifying was the apparition that Moses said: "I am in utter fear and trembling." But you have come to Mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to ten thousands of angels gathered in glad assembly, to the assembly of the honoured ones whose names are in the registers of heaven, to that God who is judge of all, to the spirits of just men who have come to that goal for which they were created, and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, to the sprinkled blood which has a message greater than the blood of Abel.
This passage is a contrast between the old and the new. It is a contrast between the giving of the law on Mount Sinai and the new covenant of which Jesus is the mediator. Down to Hebrews 12:21 it has echo after echo of the story of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 4:11 describes that first law-giving: "And you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain; while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud and gloom. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire." Exodus 19:12-13 tells of the unapproachability of that awful mountain: "And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, 'Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain, or touch the border of it: whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned, or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live: When the trumpet sounds a long blast they shall come up to the mountain.'" Deuteronomy 5:23-27 tells how the people were so afraid to hear the voice of God for themselves that they asked Moses to go and to bring God's message to them. "If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die." Deuteronomy 9:19 tells of the terror of Moses, but the writer to the Hebrews has transferred these words to the giving of the law, although in the original story they were spoken by Moses when he came down from the mountain and found the people worshipping the golden calf. The whole passage down to Hebrews 12:21 is a pattern of reminiscences from the story of the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. All the terrifying things have been gathered together to stress the awfulness of that scene.
In the giving of the law at Mount Sinai three things are stressed. (i) The sheer majesty of God. The story stresses the shattering might of God and in it there is no love at all. (ii) The absolute unapproachability of God. So far from the way being open to God, he who tries to approach him meets death. (iii) The sheer terror of God. Here is nothing but an awe-stricken fear which is afraid to look and even to listen.
Then at Hebrews 12:22 comes the difference. The first section deals with all that man can expect under the old covenant, a God of lonely majesty, complete separation from man, and prostrating fear. But to the Christian there has come the new covenant and a new relationship with God.
Hebrews makes a kind of list of the new glories that await the Christian.
(i) The new Jerusalem awaits him. This world with all its impermanence, its fears, its mysteries, its separations goes and life for the Christian is made new.
(ii) The angels await him in joyful assembly. The word used for joyful assembly is paneguris ( G3831) which is the word for a joyful national assembly in honour of the gods. To the Greek it described a joyful holy day when all men rejoiced. For the Christian, the joy of heaven is such that it makes even the angels break into rejoicing.
(iii) There await him God's elected people. The writer to the Hebrews uses two words to describe them. He says literally that they are the first-born. Now the characteristic of the first-born son is that the inheritance and the honour are his. He says that they are those whose names are written in the registers of heaven. In ancient days kings kept a register of their faithful citizens. So there await the Christian all those whom God has honoured and all those whom God has reckoned amongst his faithful citizens.
(iv) There awaits him God the Judge. The writer to the Hebrews never forgot that, at the end, the Christian must stand the scrutiny of God. The glory is there; but the awe and the fear of God still remain. The New Testament is never in the slightest danger of sentimentalising the idea of God.
(v) There await him the spirits of all good men who have achieved their goal. Once they encircled him in the unseen cloud; now he will be one of them. He himself goes to join those whose names are on God's honour roll.
(vi) Finally the writer to the Hebrews says that it was Jesus who initiated this new covenant and made this new relationship with God possible. It was he, the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice, who made the unapproachable approachable and he did this at the cost of his blood. So the section ends with a curious contrast between the blood of Abel and the blood of Jesus. When Abel was slain, his blood upon the ground called for vengeance ( Genesis 4:10); but when Jesus was slain, his blood opened up the way of reconciliation. His sacrifice made it possible for man to be friends with God.
Once men were under the terror of the law; the relationship between them and God was one of unbridgeable distance and shuddering fear. But after Jesus came and lived and died, the God who was far distant was brought near and the way opened to his presence.
THE GREATER OBLIGATION ( Hebrews 12:25-29 )
12:25-29 See that you do not refuse to listen to his voice; for if they who refused to listen to the one who brought the oracles of God upon earth did not escape, how much more shall we not escape if we turn away from him who speaks from Heaven? Then his voice shook the earth but now the voice of the promise is: "Still once more I will shake not only the earth but heaven also." That phrase "still once more" signifies the removal of the things that are shaken, because they are merely created things, in order that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us give thanks because we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a kingdom in which we must worship God acceptably, with reverence and with fear, for our God, too, is a consuming fire.
Here the water begins with a contrast which is also a warning. Moses brought to earth the oracles of God. The word that he uses (chrematizein, G5537) implies that Moses was only the transmitter of these oracles, the mouthpiece through which God spoke; and yet the man who broke these commandments did not escape punishment. On the other hand there is Jesus. The word used of him (lalein, G2980) implies the direct speech of God. He was not merely the transmitter of God's voice, he was God's voice. If that be so, how much more will the man who refuses to obey him find punishment? If a man merits condemnation for neglecting the imperfect message of the law, how much more does he merit it for neglecting the perfect message of the gospel? Because the gospel is the full revelation of God, there is laid on the man who hears it a double and a terrible responsibility; and his condemnation must be all the more if he neglects it.
Hebrews goes on to draw out another thought. When the law was given, the earth was shaken. "And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly" ( Exodus 19:18). "Tremble, O earth at the presence of the Lord" ( Psalms 114:7). "The earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain at the presence of God" ( Psalms 68:8). "The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind; thy lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook" ( Psalms 77:18).
The writer to the Hebrews finds another reference to the shaking of the earth in Haggai 2:6. There the Greek version of the Old Testament says: "Once again, in a little while, (the Hebrew says, "very soon") I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land." The writer to the Hebrews takes this to be an announcement of the day when this earth shall pass away and the new age will begin. In that day everything that can be shaken will be destroyed; the only things to remain will be the things which can never be shaken; and chief among them is our relationship with God.
All things may pass away; the world as we know it may be uprooted; life as we experience it may come to an end; but one thing stands eternally sure--the relationship of the Christian to God.
If that be so there is a great obligation laid upon us. We must worship God with reverence and serve him with fear; for nothing must be allowed to disturb that relationship which will be our salvation when the world passes away. So the writer to the Hebrews finishes with one of those threatening quotations which he so often flings like a thunderbolt at his readers. It is a quotation from Deuteronomy 4:24. Moses is telling the people that they must never break their agreement with God and relapse into idolatry. For he is a jealous God. They must worship him alone or they will find him a consuming fire. It is as if the writer to the Hebrews was saying: "There is a choice before you. Remain steadfastly true to God, and in the day when the universe is shaken into destruction your relationship with him will stand safe and secure. Be false to him and that very God who might have been your salvation will be to you a consuming fire of destruction." It is a grim thought; but in it there is the eternal truth that, if a man is true to God, he gains everything and, if he is untrue to God, he loses everything. In time and in eternity nothing really matters save loyalty to God.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)