Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 12

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

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Verses 1-29

Division V. Chaps. 12, 13 Life in Accordance with the Truth of the New Dispensation

Section A. Hebrews 12:1-17

Warning and Encouragement to Go On

As we enter upon the last division of the Epistle, we note that as in almost all of the apostolic letters it has to do with the practical outcome which should result from the apprehension of the truth set forth in the chapters that have gone before. For these Hebrews of old who had confessed the name of the Lord, it had indeed a special application calling them outside the camp of Judaism, with which they had been identified all too long after acknowledging the Messiahship and Saviourhood of the Lord Jesus. Judgment was soon to fall upon Jerusalem and those who were linked with the temple service. The time had come to separate completely from a system which God no longer recognized because His own Son had been rejected and crucified. All was now but empty form which once had been divinely appointed to typify the Person and work of Christ. To attempt to reform that system or to restore it to a place in the divine favor was vain. The only path for those who would be faithful to God was that of separation from it all, but separation to the rejected One.

Here then the apostle begins with the familiar “Let us” of grace, so different from the “Thou shalt” of law. He says, “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us 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 Finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” In considering these verses, the question arises at once as to just what the Spirit of God means us to understand by the opening exhortation. The “great cloud of witnesses” refers, there can scarcely be any question, to the heroes of faith already listed for us in chapter 11, and with whom are included, of course, all who in every age have walked in the same path of dependence on God. Are we to think of all these as spectators in an amphitheatre looking down upon those who were contestants in the arena below? It seems to me it is not so easy to decide this question as some have thought. Our English word “witness” can be used in two very distinct senses. It may mean to behold, or on the other hand simply to bear testimony. It would seem as though the original word here used has distinctly the latter sense, so that those of whom we have read in chap. 11 are really testimony-bearers to the power of faith. On the other hand, the apostle clearly seems to indicate that there is a sense in which we are surrounded by a great cloud of spectators who apparently are looking down upon us, while themselves witnessing to the grandeur of a life of faith. But in any case, it is intended to be a message of encouragement to those who are still in the place of testing. Such are exhorted to lay aside every weight and thus outdistance besetting sin. It is not some one particular sin, I take it, the same in all cases. But sin, as such, seeks to entangle each believer. The sin of unbelief is referred to particularly, no doubt, but this results in many forms of failure. There is no saint so holy but that he realizes he has certain tendencies, which if allowed to control him, would lead to the breakdown of his testimony. To escape besetting sin we are to lay aside every weight. A weight is not in itself a sin. It is simply a hindrance, something that impedes the racer. If we think of besetting sin as a savage beast, and the man of faith running his appointed race with this beast ever following hard after him, we can see at once the striking picture presented here. We who would out-run sin must not be loaded down with needless weights. Each knows for himself what these hindrances are. It is when they are cast aside that he is able to leave the fierce pursuer behind. But such an one must have an Object before him as well, in order to keep up his courage unto the end; and so the believer is bidden to look steadfastly upon Jesus, who Himself is the Leader and Completer of faith; not exactly “our faith,” as we have it in the Authorized Version, but of faith as such. His was the life of faith in all its perfection. In view of the joy set before Him, the joy of having His own redeemed ones with Him in the glory, He went through the bitter anguish of the cross, despising its shame, and now, in answer to all that, God the Father has seated Him as Man at His own right hand on the eternal throne. His victory is ours as we recognize our union with Him.

He then is to be the Object before the souls of His people. And so we read, “Consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (Hebrews 12:3). In the hour of discouragement when one feels inclined to cry with Jacob, “All these things are against me,” lift up your eyes, tempted one, and look upon Him who knew such grief as you shall never know, and yet who sits as Victor now in highest glory. Let Him be your heart’s Object. Let Him be your soul’s delight, and lifted above the cares and griefs of the present moment, you will be enabled to run unweariedly and without fainting, your appointed race.

And if at times you are tempted to think that no one else has ever been called upon to endure such trials as those to which you have been exposed, learn to think soberly in regard to this, for the fact of the matter is, many another has suffered unspeakable tortures, such as you have not known. “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4). It is not of Christ he speaks here, but of those who for Christ’s sake loved not their lives unto death, but chose death rather than any compromise with iniquity. To this great and final test manifestly no living saint has yet been called.

Then, too, it is so easy to forget what is implied in the exhortation, “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.” This is a quotation from Proverbs 3:11-12, and confirmed in Job 5:17 and Psalms 94:12. It tells us that chastening is for our good.

“Naught can come to us

But what His love allows.”

Every sorrow the children of God are permitted to endure is designed by God for blessing. Chastening is not necessarily punishment. It is rather instruction by discipline. It is the divine method used for our education. Notice that there are three attitudes we may take toward the Lord’s chastening. It is possible to despise it. He who does so but hardens himself against God and refuses to learn the lessons which the chastening is designed to teach him. “Who hath hardened himself against Him and prospered?” On the other hand, one may faint underlie chastening. There are shrinking timid souls who lose all courage when trouble comes. Like “Little-Faith” in “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” they are constantly cast down by the trials of the way. This too is to miss the blessing. But the eleventh verse gives the third alternative, and to that we shall come in due time.

“If ye endure chastening,” we are told, “God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.” God disciplines His own children. He reserves the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished. And in this way we may see the difference between a backsliding child of God and one who has never truly known the Lord, but has made a profession, and then turned back into the world. The first will ever be under the chastening hand of God, if going on in self-will. The latter may seem remarkably free from any evidence of the divine disfavor, but he only proclaims thereby the sad fact that he was never a regenerated person at all, but simply one who bore the name of son but had no rightful title to it.

As children in earthly families, we had fathers to correct us and we gave them reverence. Yet they were far from being infallible. They chastened us according to their own pleasure, that is, either as they thought best at the time, or because our behavior was such as to cause them discomfort. How much more ought we to revere Him who is the Father of spirits, who chastens only for our profit, ever desiring that we might be partakers of His holiness. He is never arbitrary in His dealings with us.

The trials to which we are exposed, in His infinite wisdom, do not for the moment give joy, but are often hard indeed to bear. “Nevertheless afterwards” the chastening will yield “the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” This then is the third attitude we may have toward chastening. If we are exercised by it, and judge ourselves In the presence of God, we shall find rich fruit in our lives as a result, which will be to the praise and glory of God. And so the section concludes with the exhortation of Hebrews 12:12-13 “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.” That is, let each believer walk carefully himself, considering those who are weaker, seeking to be rather an example than a hindrance, and endeavoring to recover any who have been ensnared and turned away from the path of faith.

There is perhaps no other truth along the lines of practical experience more salutary for us than that which these verses have emphasized. We are so likely to refer all our perplexities and difficulties merely to natural causes, and so fail to learn the lessons that they were designed to teach us by our ever patient God and Father. Or else we are likely to take everything of an adverse character as punishment, and thus become depressed in spirit because obsessed with the idea that we are constantly beaten with the rod on account of our failures. But neither view is a correct one. The truth lies in the golden mean. For the man of faith there should be no second causes. Everything will be taken as from the hand of God and even when one is called upon to share the afflictions through which the world in general is passing, the subject believer will recognize God’s hand back of it all. But His hand is not necessarily lifted in punishment. It is the mind of God that, as a result of the very circumstances through which His people are called upon to pass, they shall learn their own feebleness and the untrustworthiness of their own hearts, and thus be cast wholly upon Himself, He who is our strength as well as our salvation, and whose delight it is to manifest His Fatherly love and care to all who cleave to Him. We may be sure of this; when at last we stand in His presence we shall thank Him for every experience to which we have been subjected here on earth. We shall see how in all of these testing situations He was but making opportunities to display His wisdom and grace; but that in order to apprehend these aright, it was necessary that we should learn our own foolishness and the sinfulness of our hearts. These lessons learned, what blessed fruit there will be in lives of purity and righteousness. And we learn by these experiences, as we go through them in fellowship with God, to enter sympathetically into those of our brethren, and so we become helpers of their faith rather than hindrances and stumbling-blocks. No one can judge harshly of others, be unkind or unforgiving, who has learned his own unreliability and need of constant mercy, while walking the path of trial and testing under the discipline of the Lord. In the four verses with which this section closes an exhortation is combined with a most solemn warning. In Hebrews 12:14 we read, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” It is important to observe that in this verse we do not have the positive statement which people so often substitute for what is actually written: “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” This expression is capable of being utterly misconstrued, and has tormented many an earnest soul who was seeking to do the very thing that the verse rightly read commands. The teaching has been based upon it that holiness is an experience called by some the second blessing, or the second work of grace, and that those who do not obtain this experience, although regenerate, will eventually lose their souls and will never see the Lord. But this is far-fetched indeed, and finds no countenance whatever in the text itself. In fact, the very opposite is true. We follow that which is ever before us. When we attain it we no longer follow it. And so here we are exhorted to follow two things, one manward and the other Godward. First, we are to follow peace with all men. That is, we are to make that our object in our dealings with our fellow-men. Manifestly we shall never attain to this in the full sense. Even our blessed Lord Himself, though He came preaching peace, did not find all men ready to be at peace with Him. And the believer, however earnestly he pursues the ideal, will still find men who refuse to live peaceably. Godward, we are to follow holiness. This is to be the trend of our lives. We are ever to seek to become more and more like Him, the Holy One. Apart from this, no man, whatever his profession, shall see the Lord. And so the verses that follow make it clear that if there be in the Christian company any man, who despite his profession, fails of the grace of God in not following peace with men and holiness toward God, he thereby gives evidence that he is still a profane person; that is, he is still in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity. So we are bidden to take diligent heed lest this should be true of any of us and lest any root of bitterness should spring up through our means and thereby many be defiled. The reference is to Deuteronomy 29:18, where God warned Israel of the danger to the whole congregation if any individual, family, or tribe among them fell into idolatry. Such would prove to be “a root that beareth gall and wormwood,” bringing disaster upon the entire nation. “One sinner destroyeth much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18). For as we are told in the New Testament, “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” Such an one was the fornicator of 1 Corinthians 5:0, and in the Old Testament we have a similar example in Esau who, in spite of all his privileges, was a profane person, who thought more of personal, physical gratification than of future spiritual blessing. And though the day came when he bitterly repented his folly and sought to persuade his father to reverse his judgment and give him the blessing he had formerly despised, yet he found no place of repentance in the mind of Isaac, though he wept before him and pleaded so earnestly. It is not of course that Esau himself could not have repented of his folly, though the special blessing was lost for good and all; but that once the blessing was given to Jacob there could be no change, “for the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” The warning is a most solemn one, for there were no doubt many in that day, and there are many still who mingle with the people of God, who yet have never judged the flesh in the light of the cross of Christ. Numbers of them will awaken to a sense of their folly when it is too late to obtain the blessing that once seemed so valueless.

Section B. Hebrews 12:18-24

Vivid Contrasts of the Two Dispensations

In verses eighteen to twenty-four the Spirit of God places in vivid contrast the outstanding features of the two dispensations as connected with the old and new covenants. Two distinct circles are brought before us. In the first one are all those who still have their place on the ground of the Sinaitic Covenant, and hence are under the curse, as it is written, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.” In the second circle are found those who through grace have been brought into the blessing of the new covenant through faith in Christ and His finished work.

We read, “For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more” (Hebrews 12:18-19). Could stronger language be used to show that no lasting blessing can come to fallen man through the law? The very circumstances under which that fiery law was given should have impressed upon him his utter inability to meet its requirements, and thus have led him to cast himself upon the matchless grace of God, which alone can undertake for a sinner whose fallen nature is in opposition to the divine will. But Israel, even though they shrank in terror from the manifestations of divine power, self-confidently declared, “All that the Lord hath spoken will we do, and be obedient,” thus making themselves responsible to keep every commandment in order to enter into blessing. Yet we are told, “For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: and so terrible was the sight that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” (Hebrews 12:20-21). If even the lower creation, made subject to vanity because of man’s sin, would not be permitted to so much as touch the mount, and if Moses who might be considered the very best in all Israel, trembled at the thought of drawing nigh to God under such circumstances, what possible hope could there be of any ordinary man standing before Jehovah on the ground of legal righteousness?

But on the basis of the grace of the new covenant all those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ have come into an altogether different sphere, a marvelous circle of blessing based entirely upon the precious shed blood of Him who was made a curse for us that He might deliver us from the curse of the law. Note the various items that are mentioned in the next three verses.

First, “Ye are come unto mount Sion.” This speaks of God’s free electing grace. We read in Psalms 78:68, “He chose mount Zion which He loved.” When there had been a complete breakdown under the former order, God exalted David, the man after His own heart, to the position of king in Israel, and confirmed the promises to him and to his seed after him, and established his throne upon mount Zion, which cannot be removed forever (Psalms 125:1). “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.” From that sacred mount blessing goes forth to mankind, and eventually in the day of Jehovah’s power, “the Lord shall roar out of Zion,” “the law shall go forth from mount Zion,” when “the Deliverer shall come to Zion” and all God’s glorious promises be fulfilled, when “the Lord shall reign in mount Zion.” It will be the centre of new covenant blessing in that wondrous day. And for us at the present time, it speaks of pure grace superseding the legal covenant. It is not to mount Sinai then, the mount of law, but to Sion, the mount of grace, we have come.

Second, “Unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” This is not to be confounded with the earthly city of the great King, which will yet be the joy of the whole earth, for our portion is not to be in this world even when Christ Himself reigns, but we are to reign with Him from the heavenly Jerusalem above. This, of course, is the New Jerusalem, the Bride, the Lamb’s wife of Revelation 19:0 and 21. It embraces all the heavenly saints, that is, all those who have died in faith throughout the centuries, all who in every dispensation believed God and were therefore quickened by His Spirit. The heavenly Jerusalem is preeminently the Home of the Church and therefore is designated as the bridal city; but saints of all other dispensations who have passed through death and entered into resurrection life will, as one has expressed it, be upon its “Burgess roll.” This heavenly Jerusalem will be the throne seat of the entire universe of God.

Third, “We have come to an innumerable company of angels, a full gathering.” The expression translated “general assembly” undoubtedly refers to this angelic company and not to that which follows, and is better rendered “a full gathering.” We have come, in other words, into blessed association with the entire gathering of elect angels whose delight is to do the will of God, and who are themselves learning that will through His Church.

Fourth, we are now made members of “the Church of the firstborn which are written in Heaven.” Firstborn here is in the plural in the original. The reference is not to Christ personally, but the entire Church is called “the Church of the firstborn ones,” as distinguished from other saints to be called out and saved in a later day.

Fifth, “To God the Judge of all.” There is now no separating veil, no cloud of darkness hiding His face; but in the blessed consciousness of justification from all things, we stand unabashed in His holy presence knowing that for us the sin question has been forever settled, and His perfect love has cast out all fear.

Sixth, “To the spirits of just men made perfect.” These of course are the conscious spirits of saints of former dispensations. They are not sleeping, as some have imagined, all live unto Him. But until Christ’s death and resurrection they could not be spoken of as perfect, inasmuch as redemption had not yet been accomplished. They were saved, we may say, on credit, God having forgiven them on the basis of the work yet to be accomplished by His blessed Son. That work now having been completed, they with us are perfected in the sense that they rejoice in the complete settlement of the sin question.

Seventh, “To Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.” No fallible man this, such as Moses himself was, who because of his failure was debarred from entering the land of promise! Christ Jesus the Eternal Son of God, who became Man in order to take upon Himself our sin and blame, has met every claim of that violated law and now mediates the new covenant of free grace, into the blessing of which we have been brought.

Eighth, and lastly, “We have come to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” The blood of Abel, the first martyr, cried from the ground for vengeance, but,

“Jesus’ blood through earth and skies,

Mercy, free boundless mercy, cries.”

He died not merely as a martyr at the hand of guilty man, but He offered Himself an oblation upon the cross for our redemption. In instituting the Lord’s Supper, the memorial of this redemption, we read, “He took the cup, saying, This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” That precious blood speaks of His perfect spotless life poured out as a sacrifice on our behalf. In all the value then of His finished work, even the feeblest believer now stands before God and has come into this wonderful circle of blessing.

“And now we draw near to the throne of grace,

For His blood and the Priest are there;

And we joyfully seek God’s holy face,

With our censer of praise and prayer.

“The burning mount and the mystic veil,

With our terrors and guilt, are gone;

Our conscience has peace that can never fail,

Tis the Lamb on high on the throne.”

Section C. Hebrews 12:25-29

Intensive Warning lest the Present Truth be Refused

Based upon this proclamation of new covenant blessing we have the solemn warning with which the chapter closes. We have already noticed that throughout the entire Epistle, whenever any line of truth has been fully developed, a warning immediately follows concerning the danger of turning away from this revelation from Heaven. So to these Hebrews, who were familiar with the claims of the Lord Jesus, but some of whom might not really have received Him in their hearts, the Spirit says, “See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from Heaven” (Hebrews 12:25). The greater the privilege, the greater the sin of rejecting the message. If God sternly judged those who refused the revelation given in the old covenant, what will be His indignation with those who refuse His present grace in Christ? Of old at Sinai, His voice shook the earth, but now He speaks of a time when He will shake not the earth only, but also heaven. He quotes from Haggai 2:6: “For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land.”

The apostle draws special attention to the opening expression showing that a shaking is in view which up to that time had not taken place. “And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain” (Hebrews 12:27). May we not say that already that shaking has begun, and it will continue until all that man has gloried in will be broken to pieces, and he shall learn as Nebuchadnezzar of old that the Most High ruleth In the kingdom of men.

Already believers have entered in spirit into this, “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). It is not merely, as people often say, that God out of Christ is a consuming fire, or that He is a consuming fire to the unsaved alone, but it is His very nature that is in view. Consuming fire is holiness manifested in judgment, and God, who is light and love, must consume everything that is contrary to His holy will. For the believer, of course, this will mean eventually absolute conformity to Christ, when the last vestige of the flesh has been destroyed. Meantime we are to walk in grace, seeking to serve in newness of spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.