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Bible Commentaries
Hebrews 12

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

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Verses 1-29

Hebrews 12:1 . Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses. Confessors and martyrs of the ancient church are here supposed to be the spectators of our course, and we are here called upon to follow these veterans of the faith. Their number is such that they are said to be a cloud, like the assembled multitudes seen on special occasions to witness some extraordinary spectacle. Nor is it the celestial host only that are interested in this contest; we are also compassed about with a cloud of enemies from earth and hell, who with eagerness observe the manner in which we acquit ourselves. All feel some sort of interest in our failure or success.

Let us lay aside every weight, a word which comprises all the impediments in our course. The fear of man, which holds the conscience in bondage. The cares of this life, by which we are in danger of being laden as with thick clay, instead of living by faith and trusting the Lord. The love of riches, and resting in created good, is also an impediment in our course. All these must be laid aside, with every other hindrance, if we would so run as to obtain.

And the sin which doth so easily beset us. Ευτεριστατον is difficult to translate. Montanus reads, απεριστατον , circumstans peccatum, the sin which surrounds us. Erasmus favours the English reading, the sin which easily circumvents us. The Mons version reads, Des liens du peché qui nous serre si ettroittement, the bonds of sin which so closely beset us. This sin may be best discovered by reading over the book of conscience, to detect concupiscence in all its forms; the passions in all their characters, pride, anger, unholy desire, intemperance, and habits injurious to piety.

Let us run with patience the race that is set before us. Whatever is done for God must be done according to his will. It is not mere exertion that is required, but such as is well directed; not mere running, but running according to rule, or the faster we go the farther we shall be from the mark. The course is laid out, and “set before us,” and we must keep within the prescribed limits. In matters of faith we are not left to human conjecture, nor to our own speculations, but must be guided implicitly by the oracles of God. In practical religion we are not to devise means of our own for pleasing God, nor prescribe modes of worship or of discipline in his church, but strictly conform ourselves to his requirements. In all our enquiries after truth, and in all holy obedience, the sacred scriptures must be our only rule. Those who take reason alone as their guide, or make that the standard of truth, are in a fair way of running into error, and of being finally lost. The most fatal heresies have at all times been introduced by setting up human reason in opposition to revelation, and judging of things, not by the written word, but according to our own conceptions of fitness and propriety. He that would run the christian race with success must make the word of God the test and the standard of all he is to believe and do, it must be the light unto his feet and the lamp unto his path.

In commencing this race it is of great importance to see that we begin right; the starting point must be repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the two constituent parts of all true religion. Depending alone on the blood of the cross for salvation is the way that God has marked out, to the exclusion of every other; and during the whole of our course we must be looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. No righteousness of our own, no exertions, no diligence will do without this; we shall either grow tired in our race and draw back, or if we persevere in a mere profession it will end in disappointment.

So many difficulties and dangers are in the way that we must run with patience the race that is set before us. Many difficulties present themselves at the commencement, but they are not all over as soon as we set out; new trials will attend on every step we take. We may have to begin our course alone, and to go on alone, while those of our own house may rise up against us, but we are to stop for no difficulties; the path to glory has alway been strewed with thorns, and it is through much tribulation we must enter the kingdom. We may meet with worldly losses, with adverse providences, and dire reproach; but we must not go out of our way to avoid them, but take up our cross and follow Jesus. Our race will soon be ended, and faith and patience will enable us to finish it with joy.

Hebrews 12:2 . Looking unto Jesus. In this race we have not only the example of old-testament saints, who by a sublime figure of the apostle’s are summoned from their seats in glory to be witnesses of our conflict, but we have also the example of Christ himself to stimulate us in our course. He entered on his work under every possible discouragement, but suffered nothing to hinder him till he had fully completed it, and is now set down at the right hand of God. Christ however is not only set before us as our example, he is also the fountain from whence all our strength and sufficiency is to be derived. We are therefore to look to his grace to support us, and to his example to stimulate us. He was encouraged in his great and arduous career by looking at the joy that was set before him; there is also a joy set before us, which we may hope to obtain by looking unto Jesus.

This does not intend any distinct or particular act, but the constant exercise of faith in him. It is a looking off from other objects, so as not to have our attention fixed, or our course impeded by them, like a traveller who pursues his journey, and passes by innumerable objects comparatively unobserved. We are apt to be discouraged by the difficulties of the way, but we must not look at them, but unto Jesus, to be constantly replenished from his fulness. In seasons of darkness, when providence seems to be against us, when without are fightings and within are fears, let us wait upon the Lord, and be of good courage, and he will strengthen our hearts. When overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and unworthiness, surrounded with temptations, and full of innumerable wants, let us still look to Jesus, who is able to supply them all, and to his atoning blood, which can cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In the use of appointed means let us look to him for success, and keep a steady eye on his sacrifice and mediation. Turning away from him, or losing a sight of his cross, all our energies will fail; there is no heart in religion, no spiritual strength in its professors, unless he is made the centre and the life of all. We shall neither run the race, nor win the prize.

Hebrews 12:3 . Lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Such are the unhappy effects of human depravity that we are ever prone to depart from God, to grow weary in welldoing, and faint in our minds. After having enjoyed communion with God, been more assiduous in searching his word, more constant and fervent in holy duties, more decided in the exercise of self- denial, and after enjoying a full sense of pardoning mercy, there is still a danger of declining in spirituality, and in the ardour of our love. In the performance of public duties we too soon grow weary. Those who preach the word are apt to be discouraged, if they labour without apparent success. Such was the case with Isaiah, who cried out despondingly, Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?

Jeremiah also was so disheartened that he was ready to say he would speak no more in the name of the Lord. In hearing the word, when we are not comforted, we are apt, like the Hebrews, to become dull of hearing. In prayer, when no answer is given, or the blessing seems to be withheld, it is the same. So difficult is it to walk by faith, and live by faith, and keep up a close communion with God. Under persecutions and reproaches, worldly losses or the loss of friends, we are apt to sink and die; many indeed have fainted under such circumstances, and walked the ways of God no more.

The only remedy is still to be looking unto Jesus, and consider how he endured the contradiction of sinners against himself, made higher than the heavens, a series of contradictions which heightened the obloquy and the shame of the cross. He was derided by Herod, reviled and mocked by the jews, smitten by the rabble, scourged by Pilate, and crucified on Calvary. Yet he threatened not, but was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep dumb before its shearers, so he opened not his mouth. All this he endured for our sakes, and for ours only. Let us not faint therefore under the light afflictions we may meet with by the way, but be willing to endure all things for his sake, nor count our lives dear unto us that we may finish our course with joy.

Hebrews 12:4 . Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, alluding to the cest, where the combatants fought with mufflers in their hands, and sometimes gave a deadly blow. Therefore, oh Hebrews, do not give up the contest; you are not yet killed, only fight on, and the victory and the crown are yours for ever.

Hebrews 12:5 . Despise not the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him. This quotation from Proverbs 3:11, though chiefly intended to encourage the desponding Hebrews, conveyed at the same time a tacit reproof, as they had “forgotten the exhortation which spoke to them as children.” Not having the word of truth dwelling in us richly is oftentimes the reason why we sink under troubles, and are not prepared to meet them. There are two extremes against which we are here guarded, that of despising divine chastisement, and that of fainting under it.

We may be said to despise or make light of our troubles when we overlook the hand of God in them, or consider them merely as the effect of second causes. The prophet complained of this, saying, “when thy hand is lifted up, they will not see.” Also when the end and design of affliction is not duly considered, we may be said to despise the chastening of the Lord. All afflictions are sent as rebukes, as a refiner’s fire to take away the dross of sin. Joseph’s brethren are brought into distress to remind them of their former cruelty. Shimei was sent to curse David, to bring his sin and transgression to remembrance. To be unaffected and unmoved by affliction, is another way of despising God’s correcting hand, which is intended to soften the heart, and bow our will in deep subjection under it, like David when he went up weeping to mount Olivet with his head uncovered. 2 Samuel 15:30. Or like good Hezekiah, who mourned as a dove, while his eyes failed with looking upward. Isaiah 38:14. Wicked men are like Judah, of whom the prophet says, Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved. Jeremiah 5:3.

On the other hand, we are equally in danger of fainting in the day of adversity, because our strength is small. Proverbs 24:10. Under accumulated sorrows Job himself was ready to faint. Jonah wished in himself to die: and Rebekah exclaimed, what good shall my life do me. To this state of mind we are to oppose the considerations suggested by the apostle to the Hebrews, that if we believe in Christ all our afflictions are the chastenings of a Father’s hand, that he deals with us as with sons, that we may not be condemned with the world. That all his children endure chastisement; he rebuketh every son whom he receiveth into his family, not for his own pleasure, but that we may be made partakers of his holiness.

Hebrews 12:12 . Lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees. Among the believing Hebrews there were some that stood fast and walked well, and who were able to strengthen and comfort their weaker brethren. The hanging down of the hands, and the trembling knees, were signs of great feebleness, but of nothing more. They walked very lamely, tottering and ready to fall; but the apostle, instead of overlooking or neglecting them, bespeaks the compassion of others on their behalf. How much like his blessed Lord, who would not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. Social religion, properly understood, possesses all the characters of true benevolence; its object is not to censure and condemn, but to commend and approve; not to scatter the flock, but to seek that which is gone astray, to bind up the broken, and heal that which is sick.

The only salutary discipline for weak and wavering christians is to exhibit the exceeding great and precious promises, and the faithfulness of God in their performance; to assure them of the fulness and freeness of his salvation, of the ability of Christ to save all that come to God by him, and the pledge he has given, that whosoever cometh he will in nowise cast out. That the heirs of promise are those who have fled for refuge, to lay hold upon the hope set before us in the gospel, those who feel their need of Christ, and have found their way to the foot of his cross. Hebrews 6:18. It is this alone that can comfort the feeble minded, and lift up the hands that hang down; and indeed it is the only ground of hope to the most eminent believer, and so Paul himself found it in the immediate prospect of death and martyrdom. 1 Timothy 1:15.

Hebrews 12:14 . Follow peace and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. Holiness implies a being cleansed from the defilement of the flesh and of the spirit, 2 Corinthians 7:1; and is the restoration of the soul to the image of God. It is a new creation in Christ Jesus, attained by looking unto him; for all we, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image. There is a moral connection between the heart and the objects with which it converses. By looking up to heaven, we become heavenly-minded. By looking at glory, we become glorious within.

And let us never forget, that without holiness no man shall see the Lord. The beatific vision is promised to the pure in heart. Matthew 5:8. Admission into the presence of royalty is the highest favour accorded to those who have executed the commands of their sovereign. But oh the felicity in beholding the glory of the Uncreated; to see him in his only- begotten Son, our adored Lord and Redeemer. Oh suffering Hebrews, forget not that word, “His servants shall see his face.” Yea more: “we know that we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Unless we bear his image, we cannot endure his presence, but must dread his appearance.

Hebrews 12:15-16 . Looking diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God, since none but the sanctified can see God. Lest there be any root of bitterness, a root, as Moses says, bearing wormwood and gall; erroneous doctrine, and fornication, like Esau in his marriages. The difficulty of restoring old and hardened professors, is similar to that of healing chronic diseases, and bad ulcerous wounds. Who could restore the old prophet at Bethel to the simplicity and love of his former years? Old habits of sinning render conversion difficult, if not hopeless.

Hebrews 12:17 . When he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place of repentance. The English version is here uncouth. When he was desirous to inherit the blessing, he found no place of repentance. The margin reads, “no way to change his mind.” Meaning, probably, Isaac’s mind. This is better than the text. Beausobre reads, parcequ’il ne put oblige Isaac à se retract.

Hebrews 12:22 . But ye are come to mount Zion the heavenly Jerusalem, as explained in Isaiah 28:16; Isaiah 60:1; Isaiah 60:20. Micah 4:1; Micah 4:6. Galatians 4:26. The new-testament church is now the only temple, a habitation of God through the Spirit.

To an innumerable company of angels. It was the glory of the old- testament church to be frequently visited by the celestial host, who seemed to make a part of their society. The law was given through the ministry of angels. Prophets were often furnished with messages by their agency, and supported by them under various discouragements. This honour put upon the jewish church seems to have stumbled the Hebrew converts, who on not beholding the christian church invested with it, were for drawing back to the ancient glory. Paul however reminds them, that though the gospel was not introduced by the ministry of angels, it “first began to be spoken by the Lord,” who was infinitely their superior, and was afterwards confirmed by divers signs and miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost: Hebrews 2:3-4. And though there is now no visible appearance of the holy angels, yet our fellowship with them is not suspended, nor have their kind offices ceased. “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?”

They are not only about the church, as the chariots of fire were round about the prophet on the mount, but are in the church and of the church, members of the same mystical body of which Christ is the head; and by coming to him we are brought into contact with their society. Previous to the fall there was but one family in heaven and earth: when man sinned, and joined the rebel hosts in revolt, the holy angels, the friends of God’s righteous government, suspended all intercourse with apostate man, and left a world of traitors from loyalty to the supreme Sovereign. Through the mediation of Christ the friendship is renewed, the harmony is restored. Having made peace through the blood of his cross, all things are reconciled, “whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven:” all things in him are gathered together in one, “both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in him.” Colossians 1:20. Ephesians 1:10.

This accounts for the angels’ song at the Nativity, Luke 2:14, and for all their kind offices towards the church in every succeeding age. Christ’s little ones are taken under their protection, Matthew 18:10; and when a saint dies, he is conveyed to Abraham’s bosom by the ministry of angels. Luke 16:22. What a delightful prospect, that we shall not go alone into the invisible world, nor be strangers in heaven when we come there, but shall be associated with those happy spirits who have been our fellow- servants, and our brethren in the kingdom and patience of Christ Jesus. Revelation 19:10.

Hebrews 12:23 . Ye are come to the church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven. The cities of Asia had the names of citizens enrolled; and if any one committed a crime, his name was erased from the record. Ye are come to God, the Judge of all, who shall rejudge the judges, and reverse their sentences against his saints.

To the spirits of just men made perfect. The doctrine of an intermediate state is here plainly asserted, not as a doctrine peculiar to christianity, but as common to revealed religion, and believed by all who have died in the faith in all ages. Isa 57:1-2 , 2 Corinthians 5:8. The spirits of just men departed are here said to be made perfect, not however so perfect as to be incapable of any encrease, for their happiness will be greatly augmented at the resurrection, when each shall be clothed with his own body. Yet they are so perfect as to be freed from all sin, and from all misery; sorrow and sighing are fled away. They were just men, while in this world, but here they had their defects and infirmities; now they exist no more. The best idea we can form of the heavenly state is, that it consists in the entire absence of all those evils which attend us in the present life; there is no more pain, no more sorrow, no more death. Its positive felicity surpasses all understanding.

Our knowledge of departed spirits is very limited, like our knowledge of the holy angels, yet we still have a kind of fellowship with them, as we have with good men of different ages and in distant parts of the earth, whom we have never seen, but have only heard of them by the hearing of the ear, or a perusal of their works. So spiritual, so elevated and refined, is the sublimated genius of christianity.

We may be said to come to this general assembly, from the moment that we believe in Christ, and in virtue of our union with him. Henceforth our conversation is in heaven, and we already enjoy in some humble degree the happiness of those in heaven, drinking at the same fountain, and of the rivers of God’s pleasure, which are at his right hand for evermore. They enjoy the presence of Christ, and so do we; to them is given the bright and morning star, and its light has shined into our hearts. It is but a thin veil that separates the family in heaven and on earth, and soon it will be drawn aside to give us full admission into the society above.

Hebrews 12:24 . To the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. The shedding of Abel’s blood repelled Cain from the family altar; but now by the blood of Christ we are brought nigh to God, and are adopted into his family. See on Genesis 4:0.

Hebrews 12:25-26 . See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. The Lord Christ, the Messiah, whose voice once shook mount Sinai. But now he hath promised, saying, yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. The kingdom of Christ shook the rebel jews, destroyed their city and temple, and scattered them. It also shook the Roman power to pieces, and shall finally put down antichrist in all its forms. It shall overwhelm the infidels with the fiery vengeance of an angry God.

Hebrews 12:28-29 . Wherefore we receiving a kingdom that cannot be moved. Christianity has hitherto weathered all storms of war and tumult, guarded by a God of consuming fire; therefore, oh Hebrews, leave not your lovely Jerusalem for a temple stained with blood, and about to be burned; but take courage and confess the Lord, like the ancient cloud of witnesses, for the day of his coming is at hand.


The Greek and Roman nations assembled in great multitudes to see their fights, their shows, and their courses; and more than once their theatres have fallen down and crushed the people. The inhabitants of heaven do not evince less concern for the christian in his race, and in his fight. The patriarchs, the prophets, and the noble army of martyrs look on to see this race for eternal life, and this fight for a crown that fadeth not away: yes, and all those hallowed spectators have themselves both run and fought in their day. Let us therefore lay aside every weight of worldly inordinate affection, especially those besetting, those circumventing sins of fleshly lusts, and all manner of concupiscence. The latter are false steps, throwing us down in our course, and exposing us to great peril and shame. Three of these are named in this chapter fainting when we are chastened, and sins of appetite, as Esau’s, who sold his birthright for one mess of pottage. Fornication also, and every shade of impurity, as Esau’s lawless marriages with the daughters of Heth. Ah, how many are ensnared and thrown down with these sins, and sell their peace for a worldly portion. And what could better support the Hebrew christians than the idea of the Saviour’s sufferings on Calvary with glory in his view.

Crosses and chastisements are marks of God’s paternal love. We are pilgrims, and need trials from the world, lest our hearts should rest on earth. We need afflictions, lest we should linger here, but pain makes us groan for a house not made with hands. Besides, it is reproachful to faint, as we have not yet suffered much. We have not like the martyrs resisted unto blood, striving against sin; and when the cross is borne in a proper spirit, it yields the highest and most grateful satisfaction to the mind.

If the patriarchs and martyrs fainted not, their children have less cause to faint, because they are under a better covenant, and come to mount Zion which is above, and the mother of us all. And who would forfeit his rank among angels, prophets and martyrs, and the church of the firstborn, for a bare existence upon earth; for a disgraced and branded character, and the bitter reproaches of his own heart. Who would forfeit his rank among this heavenly host, to live under the scorn of a Jezebel, the cruelty of a Nero, a Caligula, and the contempt of bloody men. Rather let us look to the great Captain of our salvation, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, and is now set down at God’s right hand. Rather let us hear his voice which once shook Sinai, but shortly shall shake and remove the nations, and all power which opposes his almighty sway. Happy is that man whose heart in all the vicissitudes of life remains steadfast with his God. He shall shortly hear the plaudit, Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/hebrews-12.html. 1835.
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