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Tuesday, June 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 12

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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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 alsosince we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesseshaving 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 11:0, 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 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 8:0; 1 Corinthians 8:0), 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 27:0 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 32:0). 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 (Wis. 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 11:0 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 2:0 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.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/hebrews-12.html. 1905.
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