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Hebrews 12

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-29

Exhortation to Endurance as Sons (12:1-29)

The Endurance of the Pioneer and Perfecter of Our Faith (12:1-2)

Hebrews now turns more particularly to the response required of its readers to the high-priestly work of the Son of God. The author thinks of the ancient heroes of faith as a great "cloud of witnesses" surrounding the contemporary generation of the Christian community. His words suggest that he has in mind the spectators in an amphitheater viewing the athletic games of the day, or those who have already run their part of the race. It is to be noted, however, that he does not ask his readers to keep their attention riveted upon this "cloud of witnesses." In point of fact, any athlete who did that would never win the race. The athlete keeps his attention upon the goal post or, alternatively, upon the runner who is at the head of the race. Similarly, the readers are exhorted to continue "looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." For it is clear that it is Jesus who sets the pace and determines the goal of the Christian race.

The worst impediment in the Christian race is the "sin which clings so closely" to every runner. The King James Version at this point translated, "the sin which doth so easily beset us," and as a result there is a popular conception among Christians that each person has a different "besetting sin." But this is certainly not the meaning of the author. There is nothing in the Greek to suggest a particularly besetting sin attaching to one Christian rather than another. The author is exhorting his readers to lay aside "every weight" deriving from background, experience, education, and contemporary culture, as well as the "sin" common to all mankind, in order that they may run without hindrance the race of the Christian life.

As has been said previously in more ways than one, "perseverance" is required in order that the race may be brought to a successful conclusion (see 3:6, 14; 10:36) . The Christian is not asked to run in a spectacular fashion, putting on now and again a spurt of speed with a view to making an impression upon spectators. It is rather a sort of dogged stick-to-it-iveness to which the author exhorts his readers. In so doing he is in line with other New Testament writers, notably with Paul (Romans 2:7; Romans 5:3; Romans 8:25; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Colossians 1:11), James ( 1:3-4) , II Peter (1:6), and Revelation (1:9;2:2; 3:10). This is not an exhaustive list, but it is sufficient to show that the New Testament writers considered "perseverance" ("endurance," "steadfastness," "patience") to be one of the primary "fruits of the Spirit" observable in the Christian life. And inasmuch as such endurance relates to every expression of the Christian faith, it would scarcely be too much to say that it is the all-inclusive fruitage of the Christian experience.

The description which Hebrews gives of Jesus in this passage as "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" is a notable one. Nowhere else in the New Testament is the term "perfecter" employed with regard to our Lord, and only the Book of Acts also speaks of him as "pioneer." In Acts 3:15 the Greek word is translated "Author" ("of life"), and the context suggests that Luke is impressed with the strange paradox that he who is "the Author of life" has himself been "killed" by unruly and ungodly men. At Acts 5:31, however, the same word is translated "Leader," and there it is combined with the term "Savior."

The expression "Leader and Savior" rather closely approximates that in the present passage. And it is notable that in 2:10 the author combines all three ideas of leadership, salvation, and perfection in one phrase relating to Jesus ("the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering"). Certainly, in the present imagery of the race course, "pioneer" is to be taken in the sense of "leader" of the race, that is, of the runner who is far ahead in the Christian way of life. It is toward such a one that the other runners in the Christian way may look for guidance, for leadership, for encouragement, and above all as the goal to be reached. In Ephesians 4:13 Paul expressed the same idea, but under an entirely different figure, in the words, "until we all attain ... to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."

This is not to say that as "pioneer and perfecter" of our faith Jesus is merely another runner in the Christian race. To be the leader, the one who sets out the course, is to be far above all others who come after and who follow his pattern. Of no other than the Leader of the faith may it be said that he has "endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Strangely enough, nowhere else does the author speak of either "the cross" or "the shame" of our Lord, but both ideas have constantly been before us.

Finally, in this passage "the race that is set before us" is paralleled with "the joy that was set before him." The expressions are exactly parallel in the Greek construction as in the English, and this can scarcely be without intention on the author’s part. The race stretches out before us even as the joy stretched out before Jesus as he looked to the goal which his Father had set before him in his human life (see 2:9). Probably the meaning, therefore, is that just as he "endured," so should we, both he and we having in mind at all times the high goal set before us by the Father.

Verses 3-11

The Place of Discipline in Christian Growth (12:3-11)

It is in the context of the idea of Jesus’ sufferings that a main theme of the letter is again taken up. The same theme appears in 2:5-18. There the point is made that it is fitting that God, "in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering" (Hebrews 2:10) . In the present passage the theme of sonship is elaborated in the same context of suffering (vs. 2). Jesus, whom the "sons" are to emulate, has "endured the cross, despising the shame." It is appropriate in such a context for the author to remind his readers that they "have not yet resisted to the point of shedding . . . blood" (vs. 4). Jesus has endured great "hostility against himself," no doubt of the type which the readers of the letter are now facing (vs. 3).

Obviously, neither the shame of the Cross in Jesus’ case nor the hostility now being directed against the readers is the direct work of God. Rather, it is clearly the work of "sinners" (vs. 3) in the case of Jesus; and it is the "sin" of the race against which the readers have to "struggle" (vs. 4). Ultimately the sin in both cases is that of man in his rebellion against God, his Anointed One, and God’s people.

And yet, viewed in the perspective of God’s redemptive purpose relative to man, both Jesus’ sufferings as the Son and those of the "sons" (vss. 5-11) must be thought of as somehow within the divine will and purpose. The author has already expressed the idea that God was behind the suffering of Jesus with a view to making "the pioneer of their salvation perfect" (Hebrews 2:10; see 2:17-18 and 5:8-10). In like manner, it is now to be observed that the "sons" are being asked to endure the "discipline" which will eventuate in their maturing. For such discipline in the end "yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (vs. 11).

It is significant that both in the present passage (see vs. 4) , and at 10:32-39, wherein the author refers to the persecutions suffered and about to be suffered by his readers, he makes it clear that none of them has as yet died for the faith. It is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that either of these persecutions, therefore, has reference to that suffered by the church at Rome under Nero, when, as Tacitus remarks, burning Christians ht up the gardens of that emperor.

It is perhaps also not without significance that Hebrews calls upon the Wisdom Literature (Proverbs 3:11-12) to substantiate his point with regard to God’s disciplining of the "sons." This passage is also quoted in Revelation 3:19 in connection with the chastisement about to be meted out to the church at Laodicea. The Wisdom Literature was particularly popular among the Hellenistic Jews from whom we believe the author and his readers to have emerged.

The central point of the passage is contained in verses 10 and 11 — discipline of his "sons" on God’s part leads to their sharing "his holiness" (vs. 10) or to "the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (vs. 11). As we have already observed, it was natural for our author, with his stress upon the high-priestly activity of our Lord, to view salvation in terms of sanctification or of the consecration of his people for the worship of God (see 2-11; 9:13-14; 10:10, 14, 29). The priestly writer in Leviticus 19:2, in much the same spirit, had reported God as saying, "You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy. ’ In view of his present discussion of the merits of discipline, it needs no proof that the author of Hebrews, too, is thinking of the "sons" sharing the moral "holiness" which is God’s. And we may conclude also, in view of the juxtaposition of verses 10 and 11, that the term "righteousness" is to be understood here as virtually a synonym for "holiness."

Verses 12-17

The Need of Direction in the Christian Life (12:12-17)

The sons are not to suppose that their share in the matter of acquiring salvation is a merely passive one. The author turns again to Proverbs 4:26 (in the Greek version) with a view to suggesting that the sons are to make straight paths for their feet (vs. 13). However, he now joins to this quotation another (vs. 12) from Isaiah 35:3, taken from a chapter devoted by the prophet to describing the glories of the restored land to which a repentant Israel should return, over a "highway" which the prophet calls "the Holy Way" (35:8). It would be only "the ransomed of the Lord" who would in this way return to Zion (35:10). These ransomed are variously described by Isaiah as "the blind," "the deaf," "the lame man," and "the dumb" (35:5-6), and among them are not included "the unclean" and "fools" (35:8-9). That the direction of the Christian way of which Hebrews is speaking leads, like Isaiah’s "Holy Way," up to Zion is the theme of the next section (vss. 18-24).

In the meantime, those traveling by the Holy Way are to "strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (vs. 14). The idea that peace between God and man and between man and his neighbor is an accompaniment of salvation is a commonplace in Hebrew prophetic thought (Psalms 85:10; Isaiah 57:19). The reference to "holiness" recalls what has been said above in verse 10. But it is likely that the background of the thought here is Psalms 24:4, where the psalmist declares that only those who have "clean hands and a pure heart" may have a share in the worship of the true and living God.

The reference to the "root of bitterness" and to the immorality or irreligious nature of one like Esau (vss. 15-16) recalls what has already been said in chapters 3 and 4 with regard to the rebellion of Israel against God at the time of the Exodus. It is essentially such rebellion or disobedience which our author accounts to be man’s chief sin (3:16-19). It is rebels who "fail to obtain the grace of God" (vs. 15), and it is against such sin that the sons need to be warned that they may maintain proper direction along the Christian way of life.

Verses 18-24

Mount Zion and the Christian Way (12:18-24)

The author now gives the ultimate reason why the Christian’s attitude is fundamentally different from that of a man like Esau. He has already suggested that the Christian should not be known for his "drooping hands" and "weak knees" (vs. 12), that his path always be made "straight" in order that the "lame" who accompany him might find it easy to walk in (vs. 13). This attitude, as we have seen, is contrasted with the "bitterness" which characterized Esau.

Justification for this exhortation lies in the fundamental difference of spirit characterizing the Old Covenant and the New. The Old Covenant had been given at Mount Sinai under most terrifying conditions. The description of those conditions in verses 18-21 actually employs many of the very words of the Greek translation of Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 4, 5. Little wonder that the incident brought fear to the hearts of the Israelites when even their leader remarked, "I tremble with fear" (vs. 21).

By contrast (vs. 22) the author places the New Covenant and its confirmation at another mountain (Zion) and the city associated with it (Jerusalem). The origin of this idea no doubt goes back to Isaiah 28:16:

"Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: ’He who believes will not be in haste.’ "

This thought and the accompanying one that the Messiah himself will appear upon Mount Zion, having ridden through the gates of the Holy City, is taken up in Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9. In turn, these become themes to be worked out in detail by various New Testament writers (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6; and Rev, 14:1). The adjective "heavenly" which is employed in connection with Jerusalem (vs. 22), however, makes it clear that the author, as so often, is employing figurative language (see 4:16; 10:22).

The Mount Zion and "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" at which Christians have arrived is none other than the "city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" to which Abraham looked forward (11:10). For Christians have arrived. In spirit they are already inhabitants of "the city of the living God" and their companions are the "innumerable angels" and the "assembly of the first-born," that is, all those who through the centuries have in one way and another been God’s true servants (vss. 22-23). "Assembly" is the ordinary Greek word for "church." It might very well be translated "congregation," for the reference is clearly to the people of God gathered together like a mighty congregation and including those who through the centuries have turned away from a spirit of "bitterness," accepting rather that fellowship which God holds out to man. The word translated "first-born" is one which the New Testament employs almost exclusively for Jesus Christ himself (Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15; Colossians 1:18; Hebrews 1:6; Revelation 1:5). Only in Luke 2:7 and Hebrews 11:28 is it used in the natural sense of the first child to be born into any human family. The present passage, therefore, stands by itself in New Testament usage and finds its meaning somewhere between the natural usage of the word and its special application to Jesus Christ. Christians are "first-born" in the sense that, reflecting the character of their Lord, they occupy a position of eminence among men; they are "just men made perfect," a really mature assemblage. This is the "communion of the saints" — the real people of God who know fellowship among themselves regardless of the barriers of time and place and rank, of color and race, which have separated men through the centuries.

Verses 25-29

The Christian’s Call to an Unshakable Kingdom (12:25-29)

And now Hebrews returns to the thought of "a heavenly call" as issued to the readers, along with those under the Old Covenant, which was discussed in 3:6b-4:16. As before, there are very solemn terms warning of the danger of refusing "him who is speaking" to the Christian community (vs. 25). The argument, "if they did not escape . . . much less shall we escape" (vs. 25), is essentially that which was employed at 2:2-3 and 10:28-29. The reference in "him who warned them on earth" is obviously to Moses (10:28), while as surely he "who warns from heaven" is Jesus Christ. The latter is not a priest "on earth" as Moses and the descendants of Aaron his brother were (Hebrews 8:4), but is rather "from heaven" since it is there that his ministry is accomplished (Hebrews 8:2; Hebrews 9:11-12). The quotation in verse 26 is from Haggai 2:6 and is evidently intended as a comprehensive statement, indicative of the universal and eternal character of the ministry of our Lord.

But the "kingdom" which Christians receive "cannot be shaken" (vs. 28). It is not transitory but eternal. The phraseology in the first part of this verse is striking for two reasons: first, because this is only the second reference to the "kingdom" to be found in the letter as a whole. The other appears at 1:8 in the quotation from Psalms 45:6-7. As we have seen, the major argument of Hebrews relates to the high priesthood of Jesus Christ. The present passage, however, linked as it is with the argument in 1:8, indicates that our Lord’s kingship is never far from the author’s mind. His high priesthood is based upon his sovereignty over the universe of which he is heir as Son (Hebrews 1:2). Second, the verse is significant because it speaks of Christians as "receiving" the kingdom, a term commonly employed in Judaism and carried over into the Christian Church. In Luke’s Gospel, in fact, our Lord remarks to his "little flock": "It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). This saying occurs in Luke alone, but it follows immediately after the exhortation to "seek his kingdom" (vs. 31), which is found also in Matthew 6:33. In all of these passages, including that immediately before us, the thought is that of accepting the sovereignty of God over one’s life. In this passage such acceptance of God’s sovereignty is a precondition to man’s offering "to God acceptable worship."

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Hebrews 12". "Layman's Bible Commentary".