Chapter 12 But We See Jesus
But now, says the writer, we who are now alive have seen the coming of Jesus, the One in Whom has come the fulfilment of the promises of God. We have therefore entered on a great long-distance race with Jesus as our front-runner and sustainer, and these witnesses crowd the sidelines giving us their witness as to the necessity and value of faith, and yelling their encouragement.
If we then look back on these great men and women as witnesses, how much more should we look to Him in faith and press on faithfully, choosing not to be impeded by anything that would hinder us. And when we do suffer persecution and tribulation, we should recognise that that is not surprising. It is because God loves us and is treating us like a father does his son, by chastening us for our good so that we might produce the fruit of righteousness. Thus will we become, through faith, more and more God’s righteous ones in reality as well as by imputation. Let us therefore take note of this and consider our ways so that we may be sure to inherit God’s blessing.
For we do not face God under the old way of management (dispensation) as at Sinai, where all was awesome and remote, where men were kept far off, and were filled with fear, but we have come under the new way of management where all is glorious and heavenly, and where we have the new covenant under the mediation of Jesus, with its better promises.
Let us then beware lest we refuse the One Who now speaks to us. For He no longer speaks from a mountain on earth with a voice that shook the earth, but from Heaven itself, with glorious things that cannot be shaken. Let us therefore respond to His grace that we may be well-pleasing to God (compare Hebrews 10:38; Hebrews 11:5-6), serving Him in awe and reverence. For in it all and beyond it all we too must remember that our God is still a consuming fire.
Let Us Look To Those Who Have Gone Before, Who Are Now Our Witnesses, and To Jesus Our Perfect Coach, Front-Runner And Trainer (Hebrews 12:1-4)
‘Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud (nephos) of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.’
At first sight this verse, (the ‘therefore’ referring back to the previous chapter’s list of witnesses and heroes of faith), appears simply to refer to them as watching our manner of life and our life’s venture. It may appear to be telling us that we have to make our preparations for running, and then run on tirelessly to the end, having in mind that they are watching and cheering us on. And there is some truth in that. But that is not all. For we must not lose sight of the fact that they cheer us on as witnesses, as those who can bear testimony to the fact that they themselves having partaken in the race, and have won through. They are not just spectators, but are there to encourage, as those who have gone before, declaring the certainty and the worthwhileness of the race, and its certain victory.
The word used for cloud (nephos - used only here in the New Testament) is used extra-Biblically to refer to a compact numberless crowd, which fits well here, (although it never does so in LXX). We should note that it is not used of the cloud at the Exodus in LXX, which would appear to exclude that as a possible interpretation. Thus the thought here would seem to be of a large number of the witnesses as described in chapter 11, acting as a part of the crowd at the games, cheering on the contestants yelling their encouragement because of what they too have experienced and endured. But they are not just by-standers, they are those who have endured as we now should, a proof that we can succeed.
The word ‘witnesses’ never elsewhere refers to a crowd of spectators. It does not mean those who look on. Rather it always means someone who bears witness, someone who bears testimony. The thought behind the reference therefore is that of the contestants being aware of this specialist crowd of experts in the field who have already proved themselves, in order that they might receive strength from their example and guidance as they prepare for and run their race.
They see those heroes and heroines of the faith in chapter 11, those great witnesses to the living God, in the way that is described in Scripture, and they learn from them how they should behave.
The lesson to be learned from their advice as witnesses is clear. They must follow their example. Like them they must lay aside every weight, and anything that would cling to them and prevent them running well, (besets them), anything that would be a hindrance to them. And they must then run with patient endurance the race set before them. The race being a long-distance race this patient endurance will be very necessary, and will especially apply in the latter part of the race when special determination and grit will be required, as it once was for those heroes and heroines themselves.
Thus they must throw aside anything that would affect their performance, whether the pull of the world with its offer of fame and glory, or of the flesh with its offer of ever growing sinful pleasures, or of the Devil with his intent to deceive the mind, or whether simply the laziness and carelessness which can prevent them achieving their best. And they must especially cast off ‘the sin’, sin seen as a whole, that is, sin of all kinds, sin in its many forms (compare Hebrews 9:26), which is the constant enemy of the faithful, which besets them, and clings to them and slows them down. And they must run well the race of life with patient endurance, running with all their might so as to obtain the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). ‘The sin’ probably summarises the idea of all sin, sin as a mass seeking to hinder them and prevent them from running satisfactorily (compare 1 John 1:8 with 10), rather than signifying one particular sin, although some see it as the sin of apostasy which they should specifically lay aside.
So in the presence of those experienced witnesses, who bear witness to what they should be, nothing is to be allowed to remain that hinders, or which would cause the witnesses to be ashamed of them. No encumbrance must be allowed to burden them. In all their ways and in all their choices their one question must be, ‘what will enable me to be the very best that I can be for the Lord? What will enable me to achieve heavenly success’ And their encouragement and help is to be seen as lying in the word of God, and its testimony as witnessed to by the men and women of faith of the past, for that is what these witnesses testify to.
‘Lay aside every weight.’ Some have seen the ‘weight’ as signifying unnecessary, surplus fat that can only prevent us achieving our best. Others have referred to weights which athletes used in training, or even carried so as to give them impetus at the start of the race by flinging them backwards, as we would use starting blocks. But the essential point is that we should not be carrying excess baggage when we run. Nothing must be allowed to hinder our full fitness and ability to run. Once the race has begun all that could hinder must have been left behind.
‘And the sin which does so easily beset us (or ‘cling to us’).’ The thought here is probably of sin clinging like loose clothing and slowing us down. Running in robes was especially difficult (that was why men had to ‘gird their loins’, that is, lift up their robes and tie them round the waist). So anything which would make us less efficient must be cast off. Indeed the ancient Greek athletes cast off everything. The race was all. And so should we cast off everything that could possibly hinder us. We must cast off excessive nationalism, and racism (two of the sins in this case), unbelief, sloth, covetousness, greed, pride, envy, overmuch ambition for anything other than God’s will, lack of self-control, the deceitfulness of riches, and all lustful desires. We must retain only that which will enable us to be successful in the race.
‘And let us run with patience the race that is set before us.’ This is no sprint they are engaged in. It is an endurance race in which fitness and perseverance, and willingness to suffer, are all part of the event. As we look at the faces of the long-distance runners in the second part of any race we get some idea of the effort God requires of us, as they patiently and enduringly press on because they have the final tape in mind. So too must we press on, even when the going is difficult and we feel exhausted, and that we just cannot run any more, because our eyes are on the final prize.
‘Looking off to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy which was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’
But although we may heed the crowd and learn from their witness, we must remember that there is One especially to Whom we should look off in the course of the race, both as our great example and as the One Who can actively aid us in the race, which none of the others can do (compare Hebrews 2:3; Hebrews 2:9; Hebrews 3:1). For He has not only already run the race, but also runs along with us now. We must consider the One Who is the Greatest of all, Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith in all who truly believe, as He brings us to glory and triumph (Hebrews 2:10-11; Hebrews 5:9). For He is our perfect pacemaker from start to finish, our perfect coach, our perfect encourager, our perfect companion, the One who runs alongside us and within us, Who having called us through faith, and led us off in faith, will now perfect that faith, and present us perfect in faith before God (Ephesians 4:12-13; Philippians 3:12; 1 Peter 5:10).
‘The author and perfecter of faith.’ In the context of the race He is the One Who brought us to the starting line and implanted faith within us, and Who runs with us in order constantly to maintain our faith until it reaches full perfection. The whole context demands that ‘faith’ is referred back to the faith of the men and women of faith in chapter 11 and to the faith of all who follow Him. He was then its source and its sustainer, and He is still. But it also includes within it the thought that He revealed faith in all its perfection. As the One Who was the source and exemplar of a perfect faith, He is able to establish that faith in others.
And let us consider His qualifications. He too set His eye on the prize, on the joy and triumph that was set before Him, and He thus endured as no other had endured, enduring the cross (see Hebrews 2:9), with its burdens beyond the understanding of mortal men, and despising the shame that was heaped on Him as a result, in order to finally receive that joy to the full, and having taken the victor’s crown He took His place and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God, having accomplished all that He had been sent to do. He had run well and received the prize.
‘Endured the cross, despising shame.’ All who heard these words knew and had witnessed the awfulness and tearing pain of the cross, for it was a regularly used instrument of death, and they had watched the slow, agonising death of those who had undergone it, with death as a sweet relief. And to add to it all, to a Jew, one who hung on a cross was cursed by God. So it was not only a most distressing form of execution but it bore a stigma all its own that tore its way to a man’s heart and made him bow his head in deepest shame. Outwardly it meant that He was on display as rejected by God. But this was in terms of what men could understand. And while that was terrible enough, what none could see was the dreadful burden of the sin of the world and of the ages, the horror of the divine in being made sin for us, and the darkness and blackness that engulfed His soul which came on Him as its result. None could see the awesome and terrible battle with the forces of darkness as He fought them inch by inch through that terrible day until their ultimate defeat when He finally bowed His head and cried, ‘It is finished’. Thus did Jesus take suffering and shame to the full in order to fulfil His work of salvation. He endured the cross once for all (Aorist tense). And he won, and gained the prize.
So having such a One, with such qualifications and such abilities, One Who has endured so much for us, and Who through it has achieved such a victory, we should look constantly off to Him, so that He might provide us with all that we need so as to successfully complete the race. We must allow Him to work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13), and to sustain us along the way (Hebrews 2:10-11), and heed His constant urgings and comfort (Luke 22:31-32). And if we do that we will never fail or be afraid.
‘For the joy that was set before Him.’ Some see this as referring to the glory and authority that He was to receive on His exaltation as glorified Man, as Messiah and as King (Acts 2:36; Philippians 2:9-11; Ephesians 1:20-23; Colossians 3:1), and as High Priest (Hebrews 4:14; Hebrews 6:20; Hebrews 7:24; Hebrews 7:28; Hebrews 10:12-13), as He was restored to His former glory (Hebrews 1:3; John 17:5). Others consider that it refers to His joy in being able to save sinners, to save those whom He had chosen as His own. Both are surely included, for both are part of the same whole. As He ‘ran the race’ He joyed in the thought of being able to fulfil all that the Godhead required of Him, in being the restorer of lost Manhood, and in the glory that had been His and would be so again. He joyed in His own restoration and glorification (John 17:5) and in being able to be the Restorer for all Who are His, their Kinsman Redeemer.
‘Has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ He has taken His seat and is there to this day (perfect tense). His work accomplished He shares His Father’s throne. And from there He acts on our behalf on the basis of His perfect work.
‘For consider him who has endured such gainsaying of sinners against themselves (or ‘against himself’ - see note below), that you wax not weary, fainting in your souls. You have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.’
Indeed we must firstly constantly fix our minds on Him both as He was in His manhood, and as He now is as our great High Priest Who makes intercession for us (Hebrews 2:17-18; Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 5:9; Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 7:27; Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 9:24; Hebrews 10:13-14). We must remember how He suffered. We must follow in His steps.
We must consider how He was constantly beset around, how He was constantly attacked and criticised, how He was constantly accused of inconstancy, of how He was constantly faulted for not being religious enough, of how He was charged with failing in His duty, with blaspheming God, with failing to accept the latest findings of modern thought, even though, unlike Him, those who spoke against Him were sinners themselves. For this last fact did not cause them to withhold anything from the attack. Indeed the more they gained the uneasy feeling that they might be wrong, the more fierce their attacks on Him became.
And we must consider His perseverance and constancy even in the face of His last days when all Hell was thrown at Him, when His suffering and humiliation was such as no man had ever known or could know (for we must remember to Whom it happened). And we must remember all this lest we become weary and faint in our inner hearts because of the pressures that will come upon us too, lest we begin to grow faint within the depths of our very being. Remembering what He suffered and was willing to suffer, yes, voluntarily came to suffer, will help us to remain constant there too.
For we must recognise that most of us have as yet, unlike many of those heroes of the past, and unlike Jesus Himself, not had to face the ultimate sacrifice. We have not yet had to ‘resist unto blood’, facing torture and severe beatings and death, in our striving against the sinfulness of the world, and against our own sin. We have still not had to pay the ultimate price. We have therefore, in view of our light afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17), no real excuse for not going on.
Some, however, see ‘resisted unto blood’ as simply meaning ‘resisted hard’, and see it as a rebuke for half-heartedness. There may here be a reference to boxing at the games, where boxers wore studded leather on arms and hands which resulted in plenty of blood and gore and where to carry on fighting required extremes of effort and courage. But whichever way it is they are being reminded how much more others have suffered than they have.
‘Against Himself.’ This rendering fits the context, and firmly plants the ‘contra-speaking of sinners’ as being against Him. However, in spite of this, ‘against themselves’ is almost certainly the correct reading. The idea then is that in opposing Jesus and speaking against Him they were acting in all their folly against themselves and unconsciously doing themselves great harm (see Mark 3:22-30). Compare where the idea is used at a critical time in Israel’s history in Numbers 16:38 LXX (in LXX see Numbers 17:3) where those who sinned against themselves by their own actions are spoken of. Thus by their very opposition to Christ they were destroying themselves.
Note On ‘Against Himself (or ‘themselves’).’
The strongest manuscript evidence is in fact undoubtedly for ‘against themselves’. This is supported by p13, p46, Aleph, D2, Alephc, and 33, with B being a non-witness as not containing this section of Hebrews. These are both widespread and ancient witnesses, coming mainly from around 3rd and 4th century AD. Indeed of the most ancient and valued manuscripts only A (5th century AD) and D2c support ‘against Himself’, the latter a correction.
Admittedly the readings are slightly varied, either eautous (Aleph, D2) or autous (p13, p46, Alephc, 33). But this must be seen as strong evidence and it is certainly the more difficult reading (and therefore more likely to be original). And the variations are slight and may simply reflect style. ‘Against Himself’ (eauton/auton) is found in A D2c P K L. Apart from A (fifth century AD) and possibly D2correction these are lesser manuscripts. They just do not compare. And it is interesting that they follow both the variations in the earlier manuscripts, with them having become singular. Furthermore it is hard to see how at least two scribes could have altered ‘Himself’ to ‘themselves’, producing the more difficult reading, whereas it is easy to see why two such scribes should have removed a difficulty, and honoured Jesus at the same time, by altering from ‘themselves’ to ‘Himself’. On those two criteria, therefore, ‘themselves’ wins hands down.
RV, consistently with the principles of textual criticism, translates ‘themselves’, with ‘Himself’ in the margin, but ASV and RSV (which surprisingly in my copy shows no alternative rendering in spite of the powerful evidence) opt for ‘Himself’, undoubtedly because it fits the context so much better, even though there is no manuscript evidence for it before 5th century AD.
End of Note.
‘And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons, “My son, regard not lightly the chastening (moral training, discipline) of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by him, for whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.” ’
He points out that they might have overlooked or forgotten the Biblical teaching on chastening and firm discipline as something by which God speaks to His children as to sons. They have clearly, in their concern to escape persecution, forgotten the exhortations of Scripture which had aided the past heroes and heroines of the faith to persevere. For example let them consider Proverbs 3:11-12, ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, or faint when you are reproved by Him, for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and beats every son whom He receives’. This is almost word for word with LXX which merely excludes the ‘My’.
The warning here is against treating God’s discipline and chastening as though it did not matter, or on the other hand, allowing it to affect them too much. Some shrug it off, others are devastated by it. But rather they must take it as an act of love from their Father, and learn from it the lesson that He wishes to teach them. Above all they must recognise that it is a sign of His love for them, demonstrating that He does care about what they are and what they become. It is a proof of His true Fatherhood.
They Are Not To Forget That Chastening Is Good When It Is At The Hand Of A Loving Father (Hebrews 12:5-11).
And in as far as they are called on to suffer affliction and tribulation, to experience discomfort, hardships and deprivation, they are to consider what God’s purpose is in such things. They are to recognise that they are actually for their benefit. For tribulation produces patient endurance, and patient endurance produces experience, and experience produces hope, and all this results in our being unashamed because we have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who is given to us (Romans 5:2-5). Thus when they are chastened they should give thanks to our Father for the love and concern that He shows towards them.
Both James and Peter also stress the same lesson. James says, "You know that the testing of your faith develops patient endurance. And let patient endurance complete its work so that you may be mature and perfect, not lacking in anything" (James 1:3-4). While Peter adds, "These [trials] have come so that your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:7).
The chastening described here is probably to be seen as that arising because they serve Christ. Everyone in the world at times face afflictions and distress. That is the common lot of men. They are more often seen as God’s judgments rather than His chastening, although those too often have the purpose of awakening men to their sins. But when we suffer for Christ’s sake, then we can see it as chastening, for it is special to His people.
‘It is for chastening that you endure; God deals with you as with sons. For what son is there whom his father does not chasten?’
For the truth is that their having to endure arises from God’s purpose to discipline and chasten them. They have to endure because God is dealing with them as sons, and that should be a comfort and encouragement to them. For, after all, what son is not chastened by a good father? And they should recognise that a good father does it because he only has his son’s best interests at heart. So let them realise that God’s present chastening comes to them because He is a good Father.
‘But if you are without chastening, of which all have been made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons.’
Indeed God’s disciplining and chastening is a sign of high favour. It is the true born son who is disciplined and chastened because the father is concerned to train him properly with a view to his future responsibilities. He is an heir and therefore proper concern must be shown for his upbringing. He bears the family name. What he becomes is important. It is the illegitimate children, who will have no rights to inherit, who have no name to uphold, who can be left with no proper training, so that they can behave as they like. So it is if they find themselves without chastening that they need to be concerned, not when they are chastened, for not to be chastened will simply demonstrate that they are not true believers, true born sons at all.
(This is not to be taken as God’s views on illegitimate children. The writer is using an illustration from how things were at the time, not passing a judgment on whether it was right or not).
‘Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence. Shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live?’
Additionally he is sure that they can all remember how they themselves were chastened by their fathers when they were young, and how this made them respectfully obedient. They honoured their fathers because they recognised the love that lay behind the chastening, and they submitted to them.
In the same way is it not right and good that they should be chastened by God and submit to Him as ‘the Father of spirits’, for this will result in true spiritual life. ‘Father of spirits’ is in contrast with ‘fathers of our flesh’. The ‘fathers of our flesh’ (our earthly fathers) are responsible for our fleshly upbringing, the Father of spirits (the Father Who deals with all things spiritual and especially the spirits of His own - Hebrews 12:23) is responsible for our spiritual upbringing. It is He Who is the One Who has overall responsibility and expertise in things of the spirit for His own (compare the use in ‘the spirits of righteous men made perfect’ (Hebrews 12:23) and 1 Corinthians 5:5). He is the Father both of them and of us, if we are truly His. The God Who has called His elect will surely do what is right for them as regards their spirits.
And even if, as some think, the term is to be seen as including all spirits, indicating ‘over everything spiritual’, the emphasis is still on the spirits of men (as again in Hebrews 12:23), for that is the point of the contrast.
Note the contrast between ‘having fathers who chastened us’ and the strong ‘be in subjection to the Father of spirits’. The fathers did what they could in an uncertain world, often with sons who were sometimes unruly, but the ‘Father of spirits’ is Lord over all and is the Father of their spirits so that they are to be in true subjection to Him as sons, and know that they have a right to His protection and that what He does of His own good pleasure must be for their good, for all is under His will.
No similar title is found anywhere else in the New Testament. It would therefore clearly seem to be one conjured up by the writer as a description of God’s unique Fatherhood of His own elect. Indeed this is the only reference to God’s Fatherhood, outside of quotations, in the whole letter, although chapter 1 infers that He is Father to ‘the Son’. Now He is seen as Father to ‘the spirits’ of all truly righteous men, and as such the Disciplinarian of our spirits.
‘And live.’ The Spirit gives life, for He is the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2; Galatians 5:25; Revelation 11:11 compare Ezekiel 47), thus too does the Father of spirits foster spiritual life in His own (compare John 5:26; John 6:57; John 14:19; 1 Peter 1:3). When God is truly the Father of our spirits we have true life, abundant life, eternal life. We are new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Note on ‘Father of spirits’.
The writer here describes God as "the Father of spirits" (patêr tôn pneumatôn). Some see it simply as signifying that God is the Father of the spirits of men. Others see the reference as signifying His Lordship over all spirits, including the heavenly realm.
We can first compare how the phrase "God of the spirits, even of (or ‘and of’) all flesh" [theos tôn pneumatôn kai pasês sarkos] occurs in LXX in Numbers 16:22; Numbers 27:16. But in the Hebrew text it reads as ‘the God of the spirits to/for all flesh’. So while it might in LXX (but not necessarily) have been seen as referring to Him as the One Who is over both angels and men, the Hebrew appears to clarify the situation and say that it means ‘God of the spirits for all flesh’ and that it therefore rather signifies fleshly men as they are in their deepest inner being, the spirits put within men, or ‘the God of all life’ including all living creation to which He has given ‘spirits’, the spirit of life. The idea would seem to be either that God knows the very depths of a man’s soul, or that He is the Lord of all earthly life who are therefore subject to His sentence, whatever it be.
This is in stark contrast with the use in the Similitudes of Enoch [1 Enoch 37-71] where God is regularly called ‘Lord of the spirits’ [37:2-4; 38:4; 39:2, 7], where the main reference is to hosts of angelic beings under His command. The same is true in 2 Maccabees 3:24 where He is called "the sovereign of spirits and all authority" [ho tôn pneumatôn kai pasês exousias dunastês] when an apparition of a dreadful horseman appears. In each of these cases ‘spirits’ primarily indicates angelic beings, as in Psalms 104:4. In 1QH 10:8 God is called "prince of elohim" again meaning angels. The idea is in total contrast to Numbers.
It is doubtful, however, whether we are to see this latter emphasis here in Hebrews. The idea of ‘Lord’, and ‘Sovereign’, and ‘Prince’ is very different from that of ‘Father’, especially when the latter is used in a Christian context, and although angels are sometimes called ‘bene elohim’ (sons of God), it is never with the thought of God as their Father. Here in Hebrews the thought is of loving relationship.
So here in Hebrews the main reference is surely to God as ‘the Father of the spirits’ of His own people, as their spiritual Father (of the spirits of just men made perfect), in contrast with those who are ‘the fathers of their flesh’, who are the earthly fathers to their own sons. For he then goes on to show that our Father’s purpose for His sons is that we might be made partakers of His holiness.
There are many, however, who do take it to be a general title indicating His sway over all spirits, over the whole world of the spirits, whether heavenly or earthly. But either way the emphasis is undoubtedly that He is ‘Father’ of the spiritual realm, and therefore especially of men’s spirits.
End of note.
‘For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed good to them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness.’
This contrast confirms the contrast in Hebrews 12:9. If we remember back to the earthly chastening of our parents we will remember that it was only temporary, ‘for a few days’. And while they chastened us in the way that they thought best, they may well sometimes have been wrong. But with our heavenly Father we can be sure that any chastening is solely for our benefit, is appropriate, will strengthen our spirits and will last no longer than is necessary. He is never wrong. And His watch over us is total for He is the Father of our spirits, and of all the spirits of those who are righteous through faith.
And His purpose in it is that we might become holy in our spirits as He is. For He longs for us, and determines for us, that we may partake in His holiness, receiving it, enjoying it and being filled with it deep within, that we may be strengthened with power by His Spirit in the inner man, resulting in the indwelling of Christ, and our being rooted and grounded in love, so that we may know the love of Christ which passes all knowledge and be filled ‘unto all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:16-19). That then is why He chastens us, to make us like Himself in His perfect holiness.
And what is the holiness of God? It is that which sets God apart from men, that which distinguishes Him as ‘different’. He is set apart in His perfect purity and truth, in His absolute righteousness and true goodness. So are we to be transformed into His likeness.
‘For a few days.’ This may mean that chastening never lasted long, but was only temporary, or it may refer to the period of childhood as being relatively only ‘for a few days’. Either way the stress is on the temporary nature of chastisement, both men and God’s. It will not last for ever.
Of course this is not the only explanation for having to endure ‘chastisement’. The Book of Job gives another, and the sufferings of Jesus were not because of any lack in Him, although He learned from them and through them was made perfect for the task He had to do (Hebrews 2:10), while the blood of the Martyrs became the seed of the church, they were a divine advertisement. But these were the exceptions rather than the rule. But all benefited by it in one way or another and in general the principle applies. God’s chastisement is with our holiness in view.
‘All chastening seems for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yields peaceable fruit to those who have been exercised by it, even the fruit of righteousness.’
He recognises that chastening is never pleasant. Indeed when it is in process it seems grievous. It can hurt dreadfully. But it is the result that we should consider, not the process. To those who respond to God’s chastening rightly, and are rightly affected by it, it yields ‘peaceable fruit’, the peaceable fruit ‘of righteousness’ (compare James 3:17-18). Just as earthly chastening should result in the restoration of our relationship with our parents, restoring peace between us, so does our Father’s chastening result in the restoration of our present ongoing relationship with Him when it is in danger of breaking down. The fruit of His discipline is that we are found at peace with Him, and receive peace from Him. And this will result in our continuing to be truly righteous inasmuch as we respond to it. So God’s purpose in chastening us is in order that we might be at peace with Him, and so that we might become ever more holy and righteous. We have been perfected in holiness (Hebrews 10:14) that we might be made holy, (totally separated to a holy God). For without the latter, first imputed and then imparted, the fullness of the former is impossible.
‘Exercised thereby.’ The word is taken from training for the games and stresses the great effort to be put in. God’s chastisement should result in our getting fit in our hearts in order to be righteous, with its resulting fruit.
So Let Them Now Be Responsive To Their Father’s Chastening Instead of Rebelling Against It (Hebrews 12:12-17).
In the light of the fact that they now see their tribulations as in fact being their Father’s chastening, let them now fully respond to it and get their attitudes and response right, for then all will turn out well.
‘Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees, and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned out of the way (or ‘put out of joint’), but rather be healed.’
He likens his readers to people who have given up because they are in despair. Because they have been frozen into inactivity. Their hands are hanging down so that they are doing nothing, their knees are like palsied knees which will not support them. They are like athletes who are wilting in the long distance race, their hands hanging down, their knees paralysed with overstrain, wandering all over the course into the rough ground, unable properly to run the race (Hebrews 12:1). They are like those wandering in a maze and are finding their ways difficult because of their doubts. But let them now wake up. Let them stir themselves (because God the Father of their spirits is stirring them). Let them see the way before them in the light of the Scriptures so that they run in the true way along straight paths. Let them get their understanding of its teaching straightened out in accordance with what he has written to them. Let them respond to God and thus be made whole, and be fully restored. Then the weak also will not go astray. And the lame, whose limbs are liable to be put out of joint as a result of leaving the main path and going into the less trodden and therefore rough ways, will rather be healed. They will be bound up by God. Compare Isaiah 35:3-8; Proverbs 4:26; Matthew 3:3; Jeremiah 17:14; Ezekiel 47:9.
‘Follow after (‘pursue’) peace with all, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord.’
Some see this as meaning ‘all men’ as in Romans 12:18, but the context rather suggests it means all their fellow Christians with whom at present they are not perhaps fully at peace because of their Judaistic tendencies. They should seek to be aligned with them in their beliefs and hopes. But whichever way it is, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for the they will be called the children of God’ (Matthew 5:9). Those who are His seek peace with all, and peace between all, for that is how God’s children should be. And this should be accompanied by following ardently after ‘sanctification’, that sanctifying process whereby they are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29), for in this they will have peace with God. It is peace to be achieved within sanctification. We must never seek a false peace which is not accompanied by sanctification. Oneness is important, but never at the cost of holiness or truth.
‘Without which no man shall see the Lord.’ ‘The Lord’ here probably means ‘Jesus Christ’ rather than ‘God’, for outside of quotations this is how the writer usually uses the title (Hebrews 2:3; Hebrews 7:14). Thus ‘seeing the Lord’ here probably refers primarily to His second coming (Hebrews 9:28; 1 John 3:2-3). It is a reminder that if we are to see Him we will at present be experiencing His sanctifying work (Hebrews 2:10-11).
However, as Jesus Himself said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5:5) and there He was surely including the experience of this ‘seeing God’ as being available at the present time, in the new age of the Kingly Rule of God which had come in Him. He is saying that it is only if our hearts true that we will see Him. For it is only if we are at peace with one another, and experiencing constant sanctification, if we are genuinely pure in heart, that we can see Him (compare Hebrews 12:2). Then we can experience the vision of God now in our hearts and spirits. Yet glorious though such a thought is, it is a but foretaste of what will be ours in fullness when we see Him face to face. We may see Him now in our hearts, and His beauty may shine on us, a beauty of which we can only have a relatively minimal idea, but then we shall see Him in His fullness, we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). We shall see the King in His beauty (Isaiah 33:17). We may be being conformed to His image now, but then the process will be complete. Then we will be made like Him, for we will see Him in all that He is (1 John 3:2-3).
‘Looking carefully lest there be any man who falls short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby the many be defiled.’
And this seeking of peace and sanctification should be carried through with greatest care as they keep their eyes open to ensure that none of them ‘fall short of the grace of God’. For those who are in the grace of God (God’s action towards us in unmerited love and favour) it is impossible to fall short of it, for it is God’s gift whereby we are His workmanship and whereby He will make us truly righteous in deed as well as in standing (Ephesians 2:9-10). The idea here is rather of someone who falls short of God’s grace that has been offered to them, by a refusing to believe in Him truly in genuine response, by a holding out on His calling. They will be revealing that they have not yet truly become His, and such persons should be the concern of all God’s people.
‘Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby the many be defiled.’ For he is concerned lest there be those among them who have within them a bitterness at what they are facing which like a root will spring up and spread and begin to produce a more mature fruit of bitterness, causing many to be led astray (compare for the language Deuteronomy 29:19 where the idea is used of turning from God to false religion). They may feel that they had followed the Messiah expecting him to lead them into pleasant paths, and that He had clearly failed because of their present situation. And once such ideas begin to be mooted they can soon spread, and he is fearful lest it weaken the church in its faith and in its resolve.
‘Thereby the many be defiled.’ Being defiled is the opposite of being made holy. They cease from their separation to God and become worldly minded because their faith has dwindled. This may then manifest itself either in sexual misbehaviour, or in being taken up with the world so that heavenly things cease to be important and their ‘holiness’, their outward separation to God, is marred.
‘Lest there be any fornication, or profane person, as Esau, who for one portion of food sold his own birthright. For you know that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place for a change of mind, though he sought it diligently with tears.’
This root of bitterness is now defined in terms of Esau who ‘sold his birthright’ because it meant so little to him. He was a worldly person. He despised what was spiritual. He looked at present benefit not at future ‘pie in the sky’. Note the implication. What he lost had never been his in any genuine way, for he had always despised it in his heart. It meant nothing to him, and he had casually exchanged it for a dish of soup. He did not have a faith that dwindled, it was a faith that had never existed.
But later when he suddenly realised that it did matter it was too late. He had chosen his path and could not turn back. No amount of tears could change the situation. He had made an irrevocable decision and was now stuck with it. Compare Hebrews 10:26.
This does not mean that Esau was lost for ever. The writer is not talking about his eternal state. He is making a comparison between the loss of his birthright through folly, with the greater danger of others of losing everything through folly, and stressing how such a situation can become irrevocable. Esau could still repent of his sin and find forgiveness before God, but there was no way in which he could bring about a change of mind concerning his birthright. He had lost it permanently. The danger, however, for those who ‘despise’ Christ is that they may truly reach a stage where they themselves are lost for ever.
‘Lest there be any fornication, or profane person.’ Esau was never described as factually a fornicator, but he did marry a number of foreign wives, wives outside the covenant, which grieved his father and mother deeply (Genesis 26:34-35; Genesis 27:46; Genesis 28:8-9). He was unequally yoked together with unbelievers. That may be partly the idea here. That too demonstrated that, unlike Jacob, he had little concern for ‘the way of promise’. God’s purposes were not important to Him. And that eventually was why he was able to dismiss his birthright so easily and with such disinterest. First he went wrong with his choice of women, and then he demonstrated his contempt for the promises of God. As it turned out he was concerned what his father thought about him, but he was not concerned with what God thought about him.
But moving from the example to the people he was writing to the writer probably has literal fornication in mind for them (compare Hebrews 13:4). Relationships with women have always been vitally important for the Christian, and fornication and sexual misbehaviour, is always a present danger. Wrong attitudes lead to wrong relationships. Thus they are to avoid fornication, the idolatry of the flesh; and they are also to avoid being profane and worldly minded, the idolatry of the spirit, that is, looking only at what is seen and putting such things before God.
For Let Them Consider What They Are Dealing With. They Are Not Dealing With Earthly Experiences But With Heavenly Realities.
Once again we are brought back to the comparison between the old and new ways, the old and new covenant, the old and new Law (chapters 7-10). His readers have less excuse for failure than Israel of former days, and more to be afraid of. For they have not come to something earthly, fearsome and awesome though it may be, and something which makes men tremble, and made even Moses fear and quake. As well as being a time of great import to Israel it was also a time of exclusion. God was there but they were not to approach Him hidden in the darkness. Only Moses could enter the cloud and even he trembled.
But rather they have come to the glory of heavenly realities, and the wonder of the new Mediator Who mediates the new covenant in Heaven. It is no longer the terror of Mount Sinai, but the glory of the heavenly Mount Zion, with all that goes with it. It is an entrance with joy. But it is still the dwellingplace of the Consuming Fire for those who have turned their backs on Him.
‘For you are not come to what might be touched, and which burned with fire, and to blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words.’
The situation of those of old is first dealt with vividly. He is trying to establish for his readers, by negatives, a sense of the holiness and awesomeness of God. For the new covenant and the new realities have not changed the nature of God. Let them not forget that. He is still a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). What they have changed is the situation for those who are truly responsive to Christ, and His approachability.
When the first covenant was given it was on an earthly mountain, one that was tangible and of this world. And yet it had with His presence become so holy that it could not be touched, because God was there. It was a mountain which burned with awesome fire. It was a mountain of blackness and pitch darkness (gnopho and zopho) and tempest. See for this general picture Deuteronomy 4:11 LXX, ‘the mountain burned with fire up to heaven, with darkness, cloud and the great sound of a tempest’. Note the repetitions in order to bring out its dark and mysterious nature and the reference to tempest which indicates the thunder and savagery of nature that accompanied it. It was a mountain from which came a blaring sound as of a trumpet and the voice of words. There was no closeness of relationship here, no sense of ease and calm, no easy approach, but a sense of fear, and terror before the glory of the Lord that shook the very being, and an awareness that God was revealed and yet hidden, local and yet could not be approached. (See Exodus 19:16; Exodus 20:18-19; Deuteronomy 4:11-12).
‘What might be touched.’ This stresses that Mount Sinai could in fact normally be touched because it was of the earth and therefore attainable by man when God was not there. It was of this world. For with all its manifestations at that time it was in the end but an earthly mountain, in total contrast with the heavenly Mount Zion. However, because God was there it could not be touched at that time, for even an animal straying onto it would immediately become ‘holy’ and had to be slaughtered by stone or arrow (it could not itself now be touched) - Hebrews 12:20. Thus it was both earthly and heavenly at the same time.
‘And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words.’ The sound of a trumpet is regularly the indication that God is approaching to act, and here He acted with the voice of words in giving the covenant in terms of being their sovereign Lord in a way that would never be forgotten. And yet even so it failed because of the sinfulness of their hearts. The background may have been powerful thunder, or it may have been some unearthly noise which gave the impression of the blaring tones of a trumpet, but it alerted them to the seriousness of what God was about to say.
-20 ‘Which voice they who heard it entreated that no word more should be spoken to them; for they could not endure that which was enjoined. If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned.’
There were the fiery flames, the blackness and darkness (gnopho and zopho), the sound of a roaring tempest, the notes of an unearthly trumpet, all swirling round the top of the mountain in awesome power. And then there came the words. And the words themselves came over so fearsomely that the people who heard them pleaded that they might not hear them again. They could not endure what was said or how it was said. It was all too much for them. They could bear neither His presence nor His words. Why, His presence was so real that even a dumb beast that touched the mountain had to be stoned or shot with an arrow, because it had by that become sacred and was thus untouchable, lest it return and bring God’s holiness directly among the people. They were fearfully afraid. Compare here Deuteronomy 5:23-27.
The old covenant was in fact good news for them. It was the gracious acceptance of them into His covenant. But what they retreated from was not the covenant but this personal and vivid experience of a holy God. They could not face Him as He was, because of what they were. They preferred to leave that sort of thing to Moses. And it would continue to be so when later Moses’ face shone with the glory of God, and they pleaded that that might be covered up as well. Many of us are like that. We like to come close to God, but not too close.
‘And so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.’
But the experience was so dramatic that even Moses found it hard to bear. We tend to forget that Moses was human too, and that he was dealing with something that was beyond his understanding. Compare Deuteronomy 9:19 LXX ‘and I was greatly terrified because of the wrath and the anger’ in respect of the golden calf experience and Exodus 3:6, ‘he was afraid to gaze on God’, in respect of the burning bush experience. Moses trembled there before God, and here too he trembled along with all the people (Exodus 19:16). The writer puts words into Moses’ mouth, based on what is revealed about his experience so as to make it more vivid (note that he does not represent it as from Scripture), probably based on some well known Jewish tradition. Such tradition often mentions Moses’ terror.
‘But you are come to mount Zion,
And to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,
And to innumerable hosts (or ‘large numbers, myriads, thousands upon thousands’) of angels in a festal gathering,
And to the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,
And to the God of all as Judge,
And to the spirits of just men made perfect,
And to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant,
And to the blood of sprinkling which speaks better than that of Abel.’
But what his readers have come to is not like that. Rather it is glorious and wonderful and heavenly. It is both a place of welcome and a place of awe. Because a way has been provided for them through Christ, by which they could enter boldly, they have come into the very presence of God and the glory of the heavenlies, but they must never forget that He is a consuming fire for all but what is acceptable to His nature.
We present the verses in couplets, not in order to present it as poetry but in order to bring out the pairings and contrasts. It is noteworthy that in each pairing the first part of the pairing is a straight statement and represents that which is permanently of Heaven, and the second part represents the people of God who have become a part of Heaven, and in each of the second items in the pairings a further explanation is added on. Thus the first phrases present basic, enduring, heavenly facts, the second refer to their connection with mankind and require expansion. They are interwoven to emphasise the closeness with which they are now combined. Heaven and earth has met together.
The first parts of the pairings are, ‘To Mount Zion -- to innumerable hosts of angels in festal gathering -- to the God of all as Judge -- to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant.’
In these we have that which is heavenly and permanent, the heavenly source of earthly blessing and protection and sustenance. We might almost see it as the sights that meet us as we approach into His presence. First we come to His dwellingplace, to the heavenly Mount Zion. Then we come to the festal gathering of angels. Then we approach the throne itself where the Governor of the Universe is seated, but which can approach without fear because our mediator sits at His right hand.
‘Mount Zion’ represents the original and permanent dwellingplace of God (Psalms 20:2; Psalms 48:2; Psalms 87:1-2; Psalms 99:2; Psalms 125:1; Psalms 135:21; Jeremiah 8:19; Revelation 14:1), the very throne room of God in which is the heavenly tabernacle (Hebrews 8:2; Hebrews 9:11 compare Isaiah 16:5; Psalms 20:2; Psalms 76:2) to which we are privileged to come to seek help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). On that heavenly Mount Zion we see the ‘innumerable hosts of angels’, gathered as one whole in festal joy, both rejoicing in God and also rejoicing in every sinner who repents (Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10), who are the servants of God who have always awaited His heavenly bidding, and who minister to us as the heirs of salvation (Hebrews 1:14 compare Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalms 68:17; Daniel 7:10). They are gathered here for the worship of God (Revelation 5:11-12).
Here too is ‘the God of all as Judge’. He represents the One Who is over all, ruling over all and responsible for all. This is not a scene of judgment, He is there as the ‘Judge’ in the wider sense as the One Who exercises authority over all and governs all, Who is in a way like the judges in the Book of Judges (compare Acts 13:20), responsible for maintaining and dispensing justice, and giving guidance and help to the people. He is the One Who will one day call all to account, but as yet acts as Moral Governor and Guide and awaits the petitioner who seeks His aid and mercy.
And there too on Mount Zion is ‘Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant’. Without Him we would have no approach. He is the One Who as Eternal God (‘the Son’) and Representative Man acts in Heaven to make His plea on behalf of those who are within the new covenant on behalf of those who approach through Him.
So all the participants are there to welcome God’s people. The way has been made open. The man or woman in Christ may approach God continually in Heaven, looking to worship Him and seek His aid in living their lives for Him under His care. There is no more fear, nothing to keep man away. For Jesus Christ has through His offering of Himself removed the veil that kept men and women from God. Through Him therefore we have access, and there is thus only peace and love in His presence.
‘New.’ The word used (neos) means new because recently established for each one who becomes a Christian. This is in contrast with kainos (Hebrews 8:8; Hebrews 8:13) which means new as contrasted with the old, new of a different kind.
The second parts of the pairings are:
‘To the city of the living God, ---- the heavenly Jerusalem,
To the church of the firstborn ones --- who are enrolled in Heaven,
To the spirits of just men -- made perfect.’
To the blood of sprinkling -- which speaks better than that of Abel.’
It will be noted that the first of the first pairings, and the last of the second pairings differ from the other three in each case in that they refer to what are non-personal descriptions. Thus Mount Zion is followed by three references to heavenly personages, and the blood of sprinkling is preceded by three references to the people of God. The pattern is clear.
It should further be noted that these second parts of the pairings do not just refer to those who have died and are in Heaven. They refer to all who become His from the moment that they do so. They include the whole true people of God on earth and in Heaven. ‘You have come.’ Once we become His, we come to this heavenly sphere as we seek to worship God. We, along with those who have gone before, are thus spiritually part of the city of the living God, citizens of Heaven even though we travel as ‘strangers’ on the earth. And here we can come in Christ to worship.
We are also therefore part of the assembly of the firstborn ones, whose names have been written in Heaven, which indicates that we are enrolled in Heaven, that we are citizens of Heaven. And we are those who have been called and set apart by and for Him Who is the Firstborn, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). And we are also included among the spirits of just men made perfect, for God is the Father of spirits including our spirits (Hebrews 12:9), and we have been perfected in Christ (Hebrews 10:14). And we are also united with Him and with all God’s people in the covenant by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus.
‘You are come.’ That is, ‘you have come and are now here’ (perfect tense). For the meaning of proserchomai in the letter see Hebrews 4:16, Hebrews 7:25, Hebrews 11:6. It means to come to God, to draw near to God. And to where have we come to draw near to God? To the new Jerusalem, and to the church of the firstborn ones, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to the blood of sprinkling. We can approach in worship here (Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:19) precisely because in Christ we are present in the spiritual realm, in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6), because we have been raised with Him, because we are even now a part of this great assembly and gathering, are even now citizens of this heavenly Jerusalem.
We are not on earth cowering before Mount Sinai in fear, standing in a barren wilderness and petrified at the sound of His voice, rather, together with all those who have passed on before us, we rejoice in this heavenly Mount Zion, in the glory of God’s presence, and we glory in Him, being brought near and having access through the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). For the work of Christ on the cross and His establishment as High Priest on our behalf (the resurrection being assumed) has all been in order to make this possible.
‘To the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’. This is paralleled with Mount Zion, the dwellingplace of God. And its second part in the parallel demonstrates that it refers to man’s part in the heavenly realm, where those who have gone before can worship God, and those still on earth can worship Him too (Hebrews 10:19). At Sinai the people stood afar off and could not approach the mountain because of their fear, for God temporarily abode there (Exodus 24:16) and they were afraid, for they were kept from Him by their sinfulness and by His awful holiness. But the people of the new Jerusalem gather on Mount Zion, the very permanent dwellingplace of God, and are not afraid (compare Revelation 14:1).
This city of the living God represents the whole of the people of God whether in Heaven or on earth, all who are founded on the Apostles (Revelation 12:14), for in Christ all who are His dwell in the heavenlies, in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 2:6), and dwell in the new Jerusalem (‘you have come and are now there’) and will one day dwell in the new creation (compare Revelation 3:12; Revelation 21 all). This is the city which has foundations (Hebrews 11:10), the foundations being the Apostles and Prophets with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20), or seen in another light the twelve Apostles (Revelation 21:14), with the twelve tribes of Israel as the gates. The latter stresses that our access is thus through being of His true people, through our being the true Israel. For in the New Testament the church, the ekklesia, the congregation, is seen as in essence the true twelve tribes of Israel (Romans 11:13-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 1:1; James 1:1; Matthew 16:18-19; Revelation 7:1-8) continuing the congregation of Israel of old).
It is the city for which Abraham looked, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10), which we can even now enjoy. Abraham could only look out for it in hope. We can experience it. It is God’s replacement for rejected earthly Jerusalem. It is the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:25-26), the whole people of God, established in the heavenly Mount Zion, in God’s permanent dwellingplace, through the work of Christ. Its coming and final triumph was vividly portrayed in pictorial fashion in Isaiah 66:10-24, with the wicked evermore excluded (Hebrews 12:24). See also Isaiah 4:3; Isaiah 4:5-6. Mount Zion is the dwellingplace of God. The heavenly Jerusalem is that wherein God’s people dwell with Him.
We should note that like Zion and Jerusalem in the Old Testament (e.g. Zephaniah 3:16; Zechariah 2:7; Psalms 147:12; Joel 3:1; Isaiah 40:2; Isaiah 49:14; Jeremiah 4:14; Jeremiah 6:8; Jeremiah 7:29; Lamentations 1:8) Jerusalem can represent both the place, and its people when the latter are spoken of in large numbers. In Matthew 3:5 Jerusalem is mentioned as going out to hear John. In Matthew 23:37 and parallels Jerusalem killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to her. Compare the same idea in Matthew 8:34. And this fact is made full use of in Revelation 21. The new Jerusalem is the bride (Revelation 21:2 compare Revelation 19:7-8), and the twelve Apostles her foundation (compare Ephesians 2:20). It was thus the ideal way to connect God and Mount Zion with His people. It is both heavenly city and heavenly people.
The ‘church of the firstborn ones.’ This is paralleled with ‘the innumerable host of angels in festal array (in general assembly)’, indicating their uniting with them in the worship of Heaven. All the angels worship the One Who is the Firstborn Who came into the world (Hebrews 1:6), and worship before the throne. Here His people also worship with them, and they too come as a festal gathering, for in Isaiah 66:10 LXX it is they who are called on to call a general assembly or feast as the new Jerusalem. ‘Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and all you who love her, hold in her a general assembly (a festal gathering)’).
But Christ’s people are clearly also contrasted with the angels, for they come not as attendants but as His fellow-heirs, sharers in the privileges of the Firstborn, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). They are ‘firstborn’ ones, co-heirs of Christ’s privileges (compare Romans 8:29 where Jesus is described as ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’). They are one with Him as the angels can never be. For He is their Elder Brother (Hebrews 2:10-16), and they will share His throne, the one given to Him as glorified Man (Revelation 3:21). And part of angelic service is to minister to them (Hebrews 1:14). In the same way in Revelation 4, 5 the church is represented by the twenty four elders who are seated on thrones and are near the throne of God and have received their crowns, which they cast at His feet.
‘Firstborn ones.’ In Hebrews 1:2 the Son was called ‘the heir of all things’, for Whom all things are destined. He is the Firstborn, the rightful Heir, because of His Oneness with the Father (Hebrews 1:6). In Romans 8:29 He is ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’, the heir Who shares all with those who are have been called by God and have been conformed to His image. And in Colossians 1:18 He is ‘the firstborn of the dead’, the One through Whom the redeemed have received life as firstborn ones, given life by the Firstborn from the dead. Thus by being the ‘church of firstborn ones’, that is, those gathered and given life by the Firstborn (and therefore also heirs), His people are associated with Him in His destiny and in His resurrection
They are the gathering of the redeemed people of God, those who have been united with the One Who is the Firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), Who is the source of its existence and its life, the One Who is the Giver of being, and Who is the Firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), the One Who has power over all life and had power to take back His life again (John 10:18; John 5:21) and is the Giver of New Life, Eternal Life, the One Who came into the world and as Heir of all things (Hebrews 1:2) is worthy of the worship of angels (Hebrews 1:6). And to this gathering of firstborn ones (of heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ) belong all Who are His people in Heaven or on earth to whom He has given being and eternal life (Colossians 1:15; Colossians 1:18; John 5:24; 1 John 5:12-13 and also Hebrews 1:6). They are the ‘firstborn’ ones (prototokon), those who will receive their birthright (prototokia) through Him, in contrast with those who have rejected and forfeited it (Hebrews 12:16). As heirs they are the inheritors of God’s inheritance (Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:12).
‘Which are enrolled in Heaven.’ This restricts the description to genuine believers. They are those whose names are written in Heaven, enrolled in the New Jerusalem as men on earth were enrolled in their cities and were their cities (Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3 compare Malachi 3:16; Psalms 69:28). It is God Who has enrolled them and they are thus citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20 compare Isaiah 4:3). It was a normal process in great cities that those who were citizens had their names enrolled in the city records, and expunged if they were seen as guilty of some great crime, and all were aware that a select number could be described and enrolled as ‘Roman citizens’ even though they had never lived in Rome. They represented Rome.
‘The spirits of just (righteous) men -- made perfect.’ This is paralleled with ‘to the God of all as Judge’. These spirits of righteous men do not fear the God of all, the One who rules and governs as Judge, (in the same way as the Judges of the Old Testament), but love and worship Him, for they come to Him looking for His righteous governance and guidance, for they are righteous, having been perfected by the blood of Christ. They are the spirits of all who have been made righteous by faith (see Hebrews 12:9), and having been made perfect through Christ’s offering of Himself (Hebrews 10:14), are even now spiritually present in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 2:6), perfected by Him with a view to their ultimate sanctification, which is at present in process.
This represents we who are on earth, whose hearts and minds and citizenship are in Heaven (Colossians 3:1; Philippians 3:20), as much as those who are in Heaven. (‘They without us shall not be made perfect’ - Hebrews 11:40). The use of ‘spirits’ may well be in order to confirm that the resurrection is seen as having not yet taken place. Such have not yet been ‘clothed upon’ (2 Corinthians 5:2-4; 1 Corinthians 15:20-57). They still ‘sleep’ in Christ (because their ‘sleeping’ bodies lie in the grave) or walk on earth. But God is the Father of all such ‘spirits’ (Hebrews 12:9) and watches over them all.
So the three descriptions reveal God’s people, firstly in connection with God’s dwellingplace, secondly in conjunction with and in contrast to the angels, and thirdly in the relationship that they have with God even prior to the resurrection.
‘To the blood of sprinkling -- which speaks better than that of Abel.’ This is paralleled with ‘And to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.’ This is the blood of Jesus as sacrificed for His own (Hebrews 9:14) that it might successfully call down mercy from God on those to whom it has been applied. Rather than crying for judgment, as Abel’s did (Genesis 4:10-11), its successful plea is for mercy and oneness in the covenant. And its Source is now in Heaven.
This comparison with Abel should make us aware of exactly what the blood of Jesus represents. It represents blood shed through death. It represents the blood of one slain by those who hated Him. But unlike Abel’s it also represents blood which cries out for mercy for His enemies. That is why it speaks better than the blood of Abel.
And ‘the blood of sprinkling’, being here related to the Mediator of a new covenant, is a specific reminder of and contrast with the blood of sprinkling on the people when they were brought into the old covenant (Exodus 24:8). Through it He brings His own into the new covenant. Through it all His people are sprinkled and made one, for the sprinkling is on them all..
It may also have in mind the Passover, although there, while the blood was applied with hyssop, it was not said to be sprinkled (Exodus 12:22). But see 2 Chronicles 35:11. The blood of sprinkling also hallowed the priests when the priesthood was first set up (Exodus 29:21; Leviticus 8:30) and was continually applied by sprinkling to the altar as an indication of atonement (Leviticus 1:11 and often). It was also sprinkled in the water of purification for the removal of the taint of death. And it was to be sprinkled by the Servant of Yahweh on ‘many nations’ when He had become the One who bore our sin and was our offering for sin (Isaiah 52:15; Isaiah 53:4-5; Isaiah 53:10-11). Thus we find in this blood of sprinkling participation in the new covenant (compare Mark 14:24 and parallels) and the means of full atonement and purification.
This spiritual blood of sprinkling is applied on earth when we respond to Christ, but it is carried into Heaven on those who have been sprinkled, just as the Lamb is seen in Heaven as the One Who has been slain (Revelation 5:6), even though He was slain on earth. The thought is of the fact that all men and women who are in Heaven are there by virtue of the sprinkling of the blood of the Lamb Who was slain. It has to be introduced in order to make this very fact clear. And in that sprinkling we are all made one. And He acts as our Mediator in Heaven because His blood has brought us within the new covenant.
The whole emphasis then of this passage is that in Christ we have broken through into Heaven itself, and into the very presence of God through the blood of Christ (Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:19) and join with the people of God in Heaven in worship and praise as one people. Not for us Mount Sinai, but the heavenly Mount Zion. That is why He became our High Priest. Not for us visits to the earthly Jerusalem. That has been replaced. For the earthly Jerusalem is no longer the centre for God’s people. We have come to, and are a part of, the heavenly Jerusalem. Nor for us the gathering in Jerusalem for the great feasts and especially the Passover and Atonement, we join the festal array of the angels and gather in the heavenly Mount Zion with all who call on His name, while our Passover and Atonement, already accomplished in Him, are seen in Heaven as having been applied to us as His people. The earthly copies and shadows are no more. They have been replaced by the heavenly realities. Let men not therefore look back with nostalgia to the old things. They are gone for ever. When that which is perfect has come then that which is in part is done away.
‘See that you do not refuse him who speaks. For if they escaped not when they refused him who warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven:’
But let them not be misled. It is true that this glory is now theirs if they truly belong to Christ. Yet they must beware. For if they refuse Him Who speaks, Him Who calls them to this glory, they will find Him far more fearsome than the God of Sinai. He spoke to men from Sinai and they did not escape when they refused Him by their behaviour and their lives, outwardly entering into covenant but inwardly rejecting it. How much more then shall men not escape if they refuse the One Who speaks from Heaven itself, also outwardly accepting His new covenant but inwardly rejecting it. Laying their claim to the right to Heaven and then spurning it. For, for those who refuse Him Who speaks, Mount Zion will be more terrifying than Mount Sinai (just as Jesus will one day be more terrifying for unbelievers than Moses when his face shone). They will find His judgment to be even more severe.
‘Him Who speaks.’ Primarily in context He speaks through the blood of sprinkling especially (Hebrews 12:24). Jesus speaks through His death and through the offer of His blood to cleanse all Who will come to Him, and through its application to those who become His people in order to bring them within the new covenant. It speaks better than that of Abel for it speaks of pardon, mercy and restoration. But woe to those who despise that blood, for then its voice will be more fearful than they could ever know.
However we may see here also all the ways in which God speaks from Heaven through His Holy Spirit, for the voice is still the voice from Heaven, and is also to be paralleled with the voice in which He spoke from the Mountain (Hebrews 12:19-20). He speaks from Heaven on may ways.
‘Him who warned on earth.’ There is disagreement as to whether this refers to God or to Moses. Hebrews 12:19; Hebrews 12:26 would suggest that it refers to God. But the question is not of primary importance, for the message was God’s whoever spoke it. Certainly in the next verse it is God’s voice directly that speaks.
‘Him Who warns from Heaven’ or ‘Him Who is from Heaven’ (literally ‘He Who from Heaven’, the verb has to be read in). This may be seen as referring to the fact that Jesus described Himself as the One Who had come from Heaven bringing God’s word to men, yes more, bringing Himself (John 5:37; John 6:33; John 6:38; John 6:50-51; John 7:16; John 7:29; John 8:18; John 12:49 compare Hebrews 3:13). Or it may refer to the coming of the Holy Spirit and His testimony through His Apostles and those who followed them (Acts 2), and Who still speaks through the ministry of His word. It may also include the voice of God that spoke directly from Heaven during the ministry of Jesus (Mark 1:11; Mark 9:7; John 12:28), and especially the blood of sprinkling which ‘speaks’ from Him in Hebrews 12:24. Or indeed all are probably included, for His warning was continual and even now reaching his readers (Him ‘Who is warning’).
Note the change again from ‘you’ to ‘we’. This message is for all. The thought is certainly theoretical and conditional. He did not see himself as one who had turned away from God and from Christ. But he was aware that it was the responsibility of all men not to turn from Him.
‘Whose voice then shook the earth. But now he has promised, saying, “Yet once more will I make to tremble, not the earth only, but also the heaven.” ’
God has spoken and will yet speak again even more terribly. For at Sinai His voice shook the earth (Exodus 19:18), and it trembled before Him. That was terrible for those who experienced it. But now His promise is that He will once again shake the earth, and not only the earth but the heaven also will tremble before Him (see Haggai 2:6). One day God was to reveal Himself as He never has before.
The ‘shaking’ was to some extent already present in Jesus and the Kingly Rule of God. All was shaken when Jesus came to earth proclaiming that the Kingly Rule of God was present in Him (Matthew 10:34); and in His ministry against evil spirits and in His victory over them at the cross the heavens were shaken too (Luke 10:18). And this shaking continued in the ministry of the early church (Acts 4:31; Acts 16:26), and in the destruction of Jerusalem. More was going on than we will ever know (compare Daniel 10:11-21). It will be made even more apparent when God brings things to their final consummation (Matthew 24:29; Luke 21:26).
‘Heaven’ here probably refers to the heaven made at creation, and to the sphere in which operate the spirits of evil, not to the Heaven of heavens. That has just been seen in peace and harmony as being untouchable. It is the present creation that is to be devastatingly removed (2 Peter 3:10-12). In the light of these pending events they should take the more earnest heed.
‘And this word, “Yet once more”, signifies the removing of those things which are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain.’
For this ‘yet once more’ (speaking from the time of the prophet) signifies that God was again to finally shake creation once and for all. It was shaken by the coming of Christ and of the Holy Spirit bringing His Kingly Rule among men, for it was through His coming that the house of David would triumph and be made God’s sign (Haggai 2:23). But it will be shaken even more in its final destruction, which is to be the result of His coming, for the words ‘yet once more’ signify the once-for-all final removal of the things that have been made. All that is shaky and of this creation will be removed because they are things that are made. But what will not be shaken, and cannot be shaken, are the things which have not been made, that which is spiritual and connected with Jesus Christ and God’s Kingly Rule, and they will remain. The things that are seen are temporal, they will come to an end, the things that are not seen are eternal, they will endure (2 Corinthians 4:18).
In the next verse he specifically includes among the things that cannot be shaken the Kingly Rule of God. It is that which is among us now for those who will respond to it, ruled from Heaven, and we should ensure that we enter into it. For one day the new heavens and the new earth will replace the old, but the Kingly Rule of God will go on, under the God of all Who is Judge, and under His royal King Messiah. It will go on for ever ( 2 Peter 1:11 compare Ezekiel 37:24-28).
This prophesy from Haggai 2:6-7 had a twofold application. It referred first to the success of Zerubbabel, David’s ‘son’. But in the final analysis it related to the coming success of the house of David which Zerubbabel represented, and thus to great David’s greater Son, the Messiah, Who would finally bring about all that was promised. The Rabbis also saw the words as Messianic.
‘Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, may we have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’
At Sinai Israel received a kingdom that could be shaken (Exodus 19:6). It was a kingdom of priests, and it was earthly. But Israel failed in its destiny to be priests to the nations, and as we have seen their priesthood has been superseded. It has passed away as far as God is concerned. And it would soon be gone. But we are even now continually receiving and accepting a Kingly Rule that cannot be shaken, a spiritual Kingly Rule, the Kingly Rule of God which Jesus declared was present in Him and is to be ours for ever, which we enter into when we put our trust in Jesus Christ. We thus need to ensure that we have continual grace, God’s gracious love and favour revealed in action in a way which we can never deserve, received through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), so that by it we may offer service which is well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe.
And we are under His Kingly Rule as priests. We have become the ‘kingdom of priests’ (Revelation 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9), replacing the old (Exodus 19:6). The idea here is of priestly service, acceptable to God because we come through our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. It is a priestly service of the offering of spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving (Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9; Psalms 50:14; Psalms 107:22; Psalms 116:17; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 4:2) and of the offering of ourselves to total obedience (Romans 12:1 compare Philippians 4:18). A sacrifice of doing good and helping and encouraging one another (see especially Hebrews 13:15-16). And these sacrifices are to be brought ‘with reverence and awe’. Though we come boldly we must not approach God lightly. For we must ever remember Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:14). ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ He is a God Who destroys all that is unworthy.
The words ‘may we have grace’ (the literal rendering) could also be translated ‘let us be thankful’. But grace, God’s gracious activity in sustaining and keeping us, is surely what is needed for such a ministry.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany