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PERSUASION TO STEADFASTNESS
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
It is necessary to the understanding of this chapter that we keep in mind the persecutions and sufferings which were straining the allegiance of the Christian Jews. These were peculiarly distressing at a time when they were also exposed to the solicitations and temptations of the unbelieving Jews.
Hebrews 12:1. Cloud.—Familiar metaphor for a great multitude. Witnesses.—Who in varied spheres illustrate, and testify to, the power of faith to win spiritual triumphs. There is possibly in the mind of the writer, and suggesting his figure, the scene of the Roman or Grecian public games, in which the combatants are watched by multitudes of spectators. Compare 1 Corinthians 4:9. The idea of “witnesses” as those who cheer by their testimony is however to be preferred. Every weight.—R.V. margin, “all cumbrance.” Farrar, “stripping off at once cumbrance of every kind”: the word “weight” was used, technically, in the language of athletes, to mean “superfluous flesh,” to be reduced by training. ὄγκος means “swelling,” “weight,” and then, morally, “pride,” “inflation.” The writer, no doubt, had in mind the special dangers of the Hebrew Christians. The “divers and strange teachings,” spoken of in Hebrews 13:9, in which would be included the Judaising practices which they were tempted to observe, will probably suit the figure best. Which doth so easily beset us.—These words form the translation of a single Greek word, εὐπερίστατον. It is a form of a verb which means to “stand round us”; so the meaning may be “closely clings.” The precise reference of the writer is not to particular and individual sins, but to the sin of apostasy which at that time beset all Christian Jews. Moulton says, “The prevailing opinion amongst modern writers appears to be that the word signifies well (or easily) surrounding; and that the writer is comparing sin with a garment—either a loosely fitting garment by which the runner becomes entangled and is tripped up, or one that clings closely to him and thus impedes his ease of movement.” But Moulton prefers the suggestion of words that are analogous to this one, and that would lead us to render “much admired”; lit. “well surrounded by an admiring crowd.” Anyway, the ordinary associations of the term “besetting sin” are not suitable here. Stuart paraphrases the verse thus: “Since so many illustratious patriarchs, prophets, and martyrs, who preceded us, have exercised faith, persevered in it, and obtained the rewards consequent upon it, let us, in like manner, rejecting every solicitation to renounce our hopes and our holy religion, persevere in the belief, and in the duties, which the gospel requires.”
Hebrews 12:2. Looking.—More precisely “looking off,” “looking away.” It implies “the concentration of the wandering gaze in a single direction.” Author.—ἀρχηγόν: see Hebrews 2:10. Leader, Imitator, Captain, Prince, Bringer-on. He who introduced the new religion. Finisher.—τελειωτήν. The one who has Himself reached the goal for which we are striving. There is a guarantee in His having completed the race (1 Peter 1:9).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 12:1-2
The Inspiration of Noble Examples.—The “cloud of witnesses” is manifestly that list of noble and heroic men and women which has been given in chap. 11, together with that further list which has been suggested by brief allusion. The good men and true who have lived, laboured, and suffered in the past should always appear to us as a “great cloud of witnesses”: in their witnessing is found (in one sense) their immortality. Any goodness gained, any moral triumphs won, never die, in the sense of losing their moral influence on humanity. Every good lifts the race to a higher level.
“Lives of great men all remind us
We may make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”
“Those who thus encompass us, a countless host, have had witness borne to them through their faith, and in turn stand forth as witnesses to faith, bearing testimony to its power and works. One and all they offer encouragement to us in our own contest of faith.” The picture which the writer brings before us is that of the great public games of his day. We are those who have to fight the spiritual fight, and to run the Christian race, and we may well be inspired to all holy energy, persistency, and self-restraint, as we note the severe discipline of these competitors, the intensity of their struggle, the delight in their victory, and the glory of their rewards. Some, however, see in the “cloud of witnesses” the vast crowding mass of spectators in the amphitheatre, who watch the combatants and the racers, and inspire them to heroic efforts by their loud acclaim. The previous suggestion may be preferred as more precisely connecting this chapter with the previous one.
I. The cloud of witnesses.—Setting before us the long roll of godly men who have lived through the ages, there are two things we can see in them which may well inspire us.
1. They were men who mastered their circumstances in loyalty to God. But nobody ever yet mastered his circumstances until he had mastered himself. When once that is done, the mastery of circumstances becomes an easy thing. The circumstances of our life never are “according to our mind.” They are largely created by wills which conflict with ours, and by events that are wholly beyond our control. What is inspiring in the Old Testament heroes is this—they did not master their circumstances in any mere forcing of their own will and pleasure, but in loyally furthering the will of God as they knew it. And that is the highest law for the ruling of our lives. Circumstances will eventually master any man whose only idea is to make his will rule them. Circumstances never can eventually master any man whose one idea is, to make God’s will rule them.
2. They were men who fulfilled their life-mission in devotion to God. On an Irish tombstone, erected to the memory of a devoted lady, whose life was a service to the children and the poor, is inscribed these words: “She had a work to do, and she did it.” That might be said of the Old Testament saints. The recognition of a Divine commission ennobles a life. And such recognition should come to us all. If God “calls us by His grace into the fellowship of His Son,” we may be absolutely sure that He calls us by His grace into some special form of work for His Son, and endows us with the gifts for the work, and brings round to us the sphere in which the work can be done. Every man that watches for it in a spirit of willingness will find his work set before him; and he may be inspired, by the old saints, to fulfil it in absolute devotion to God. He will be ennobled by the sense of having a trust. What may be the inspiring power of the Old Testament wrestlers in the fight, and runners in the race, should also be felt as the power of those saintly and heroic souls who have come into our personal knowledge. They are our inspiring “cloud of witnesses.”
II. The one sublime Witness.—“Looking unto Jesus.” The writer seems to have designed to say something more precise than appears in our English translation. He seems to have meant this: “Look at that long roll of noble souls, and see what triumphs they gained through their loyalty and devotion to God; but do not fix all your thought on them. Get all the inspiration that you can from them; and then look off, look away from them—look unto Jesus, who, in mastery of circumstances, in loyalty to God, in fulfilment of His life-mission, and in devotion to God, is altogether and easily their Head, their Captain. Talk about the practical life of faith which the old heroes lived; here is a practical life of faith in every way more perfect, more complete, more nobly toned, more triumphant, more inspiring. Here is the Author, the Head, the First, of men of faith; here is the Finisher: for nobody will ever live a nobler life of faith, a life that shall surpass His.” Fix attention on three things concerning this absolute model of faith:
1. He endured the cross, despising, mastering, rising above, the shame.
2. His faith in the issue of His enduring brought Him present joy. “For the joy that was set before Him.”
3. His persistent and triumphant faith brought round to Him the Divine recognition and reward. “And hath sat down at the right hand of God.” There is this additional inspiration in the example of the Lord Jesus—that we can apprehend the Divine future reward with which His life of faith was sealed. We cannot pass in thought with the heroes of the Old Testament into the life beyond, and so estimate, inspiringly, their final rewards. We can only see how rewards came in their heart-joy in God, and in their good influence in their generation. But the New Testament Scriptures labour to help us in the apprehension of the glory and reward which Christ has won, and they hold out before us the hope of gaining that “crown of life” which our Lord Jesus has. So Jesus, the sublime witness to the practical life of faith, leads on the double train of heroic souls, from the old age and new, who believed God, and in their faith gained the great life-victory.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 12:1. Besetting Sins.—Precision of thinking may prevent our saying that the writer had in his mind precisely what we mean by “besetting sins,” but to take his words with our own associations will not put us out of harmony with his thought, or with his teaching. If a man speaks harshly concerning the failings and infirmities of other people, we may be quite sure that he either does not know himself, or has a distorted vision which allows him to see only what he wishes to see. By reason of natural or acquired frailties of disposition, character, and habit, every man finds great difficulty in living through the godly life. In the great Christian life-conflict, as in times of national warfare, there are some battles, and much continuous, skirmishing, guerilla work. The battle-times are special temptations and trials. The continuous warfare is represented by the daily dealing with besetting sins.
I. All of us have some evil disposition, tendency, or influence, which may properly be called our “besetting sin.”—Usually, because of its subtle and disguised character, it is difficult for us to find it. Very often we are strangely surprised to find that it is the very thing of which we most readily and most harshly accuse others.
1. Some are directly related to our fallen nature,—as hereditary drunkenness, gluttony, and sensuality; as that love of bloody sports which was so dreadful a feature in Pagan human nature, and which reappears in our day in the strange love of reading about murders, and the fascination of novels containing sensational horrors.
2. Some result from defective moral training, which has failed to deal wisely and effectively with the first signs of evil in child-life,—as vanity, affectation of superiority, idleness, procrastination, cruelty, etc.
3. Some result from the union of fallen nature with outward temptation, e.g. pride, unforgivingness, self-conceit, readiness to take offence. With some knowledge of our real selves, we could not fail to pray, with the psalmist, “Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.”
II. Our besetting sins must exert a most injurious influence on our Christian lives.—A man may be smitten down by a great temptation, and find recovering power, and rise again, shaking off the evil, and becoming henceforth the better for the humbling experience. But the danger of our little falls, through our besetting sins, lies in their so seldom awaking us, and arousing us to exert our recuperative energies. Besetting sins wear away, as the waters wear the stones.
III. Besetting sins demand our watchful attention and our persistent effort.—This we feel increasingly with the growing years. The experience of life gradually persuades us that we cannot hope to entirely uproot them. (The Diabolians will persist in lurking in some little-known corners of Mansoul.) What we can do we must do, and keep on doing—we can watch for and crush their opportunities. This we shall never thoroughly do until we can see our besetment to be sin.
Looking off unto Jesus.—In the old Grecian games it was necessary to keep the eye of the runner fixed on the goal. So we must turn our attention from everything else and fix it on Christ, if we would run well the Christian race.
I. Under what apprehensions of Him are we to look to Christ?—
1. As Saviour. Illustrate by the figures, “Alpha and Omega”; ransom; opened prison; slave given his freedom. The look should be one of gratitude.
2. As Master. Illustrate by figures, captain leading army; king; Joshua seeing “Captain of host”; St. Paul receiving orders from the glorified Jesus. The look should be one of obedience.
3. Example: Jesus is the model of a man dwelt in by the Spirit of God. Imitation needs the presence of a model.
II. In what scenes are we to look to Jesus?—
1. Common duty. Christ’s image can be reflected in a little pool even better than in a great lake.
2. Times of temptation.
3. Times of difficulty. Imagine Moses anxiously looking every morning, the first thing, to see whether the pillar-cloud had moved.
4. Means of grace. What is ever brought to mind by the church steeples pointing upwards.
III. What sort of looks should they be?—
1. Trustful. A man on a height looks up, not down.
2. Obedient. The proper spirit of servants.
3. Loving, as to our mother or our dearest friend. We shall look to Christ the better, the better we come to know Him. Know Him worthily, and we shall look off to Him altogether.
Weights and Sins.—There is a regular series of thoughts in this clause. If we would run well, we must run light; and if we would run light, we must look to Christ. The central injunction is, “Let us run with patience”; the only way of doing that is the “laying aside all weights and sin”; and the only way of laying aside the weights and sins is “looking unto Jesus.” The “sin which doth so easily beset us” is sin generically. All sin is a besetting sin. It is the characteristic of every kind of transgression, that it circles us round about, that it is always lying in wait and lurking for us. Every “weight” is distinct from “sin.” We, as racers, must throw aside the garment that wraps us round—that is to say, “the sin that easily besets us”; and then, besides that, we must lay aside everything else which weights us for the race—that is to say, certain habits or tendencies within us.
I. There are hindrances which are not sins.—Sin is a transgression of God’s law; a “weight” is that which, allowable in itself, is, for some reason, a hindrance and impediment in our running the heavenly race. Sin is sin, whosoever does it; but weights may be weights to me, and not weights to you. What are these weights? We carry them about with us, and we are to put them away from ourselves. They are the feelings and habits of mind by which we abuse God’s great gifts and mercies. We are to put away the dispositions within us which make things temptations. It is an awful and mysterious power that we all possess of perverting the highest endowments, whether of soul or of circumstances, which God has given us, into the occasions for faltering and falling back in the Divine life. Every blessing, every gladness, every possession, external to us, and every faculty and attribute within us, we turn into heavy weights that drag us down to this low spot of earth.
II. If we would run, we must lay these weights aside.—The whole of the Christian’s course is a fight. We carry with us a double nature. Because of that conflict, it follows that, if ever there is to be a positive progress in the Christian race, it must be accompanied and made possible by the negative process of casting away and losing much that interferes with it. There is no spiritual life without dying; there is no spiritual growth without putting off “the old man with his affections and lusts.” How is this laying aside to be performed?
1. By getting so strong that the thing shall not be a weight, though we carry it.
2. By taking the prudent course of putting it utterly aside. There are many duties which, by our own sinfulness, we make weights, and we dare not, and we cannot if we would, lay them aside,—a man’s calling or domestic ties. The duties that in our weakness become impediments and weights we must not leave. There is a large field for misconception and misapplication in the settlement of the practical question, Which of my weights arise from circumstances that I dare not seek to alter, and which of them from circumstances that I dare not leave unaltered? There is a large margin left for the play of honesty of purpose, and plain common sense, in the fitting of general maxims to the shifting and complicated details of an individual life. But no laws can be laid down to save us that trouble.
III. This laying aside of every weight is only possible by looking to Christ.—Some people suppose that when they have laid aside a weight, conquered a hindrance, given up some bad habit, they have done a meritorious thing. We are, no doubt, strengthened by the very act; but then it is of no use at all except in so far as it makes us better fitted for the positive progress which is to come after it. The racer puts aside his garments that he may run. We empty our hearts that Christ may fill them. And Christ must have begun to fill them before we can empty them. “Looking to Jesus” is the only means of thorough-going, absolute self-denial. All other surrender than that which is based upon love to Him, and faith in Him, is but surface work, and drives the subtle disease to the vitals. If you would lay aside every weight, you must look to Christ, and let His love flow into your soul. Then self-denial will not be self-denial. It will be blessing and joy, sweet and easy. Whatever you give up for Christ you get back from Christ, better, more beautiful, more blessed, hallowed to its inmost core, a joy and a possession for ever.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Cloud of Witnesses.—They are “a cloud” like that background of one of Raffaelle’s great pictures, which, at first sight, seems only a bright mist, and looked at more closely is all full of calm, angel faces.—Ibid.
Hebrews 12:1-2. The Christian Race.—This passage is, in the main, an exhortation to that steadfast pursuit of the Christian ideal to which we are all bound by our upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. Nor is there any doubt that its leading image is that of a race such as the athletes of classical times used to run; possibly the race that was in the writer’s mind was one of those that were run in the vast Roman amphitheatres, in which the spectators sat in seats that rose tier above tier, so that to the runners, swiftly flashing by, their white faces and many-coloured robes would look like an illuminated “cloud” stooping from the sky.
I. How are we to prepare ourselves for the Christian race?—By “laying” or putting “aside”; by stripping off, by getting quit of, “every weight,” or better, “all encumbrance,” all that would hinder or impede us, “and the sin that surrounds us,” or, as the English Version has it, “the sin that doth so easily beset us.” As to the first phrase, we need not limit ourselves to the acts of the athlete, and what they may suggest. “Every weight,” “all encumbrance,” cannot mean less than this—that we are to lay aside whatever impedes us, whatever would hamper or delay us, from whatever cause, in whatever way. The second clause is more difficult. It seems as if “the sin that doth so easily beset us” must be our most besetting sin, the sin to which we are most inclined by our personal make, temperament, habit, and into whose hindering and degrading clutches we are most apt to fall. But the simple fact is, that our eight words, “the sin that doth most easily beset us,” are a translation, or a paraphrase, of only three Greek words, which might be translated by “the circumambient sin.” What the writer meant to convey was, that, in addition to all other encumbrances, all else which is adverse to the Christian life, we must lay aside the ruling sin of the age, the sin which is in the very air of our time, which besets or surrounds us like an atmosphere—the sin which, as everybody shares it, we may half persuade ourselves is not a sin at all, or is not a sin so deadly that it need be very strenuously opposed or renounced. It is a popular sin which the inspired writer had in his eye—probably that “fear of persecution” about which he, again and again, warns his readers. These common and admired sins of the time, sins which we can readily excuse to ourselves, which make men, in some sense, think better of us and associate with us on easier terms, which at all events gain for us a more peaceful and quiet life, are among the most dangerous, because the most subtle and plausible, sins; they are among the most fatal hindrances to our advance in the spiritual life; and the temptations to them offer us our noblest opportunities for serving God and man. And these sins are as active, as potent, as fatal, to-day as they ever where.
II. If we ask, How are we to run this race? the answer is, With “patient endurance,” with cheerful constancy, with a resolute and ever-renewed exertion of our whole strength, with an unflagging and whole-hearted devotion which will shrink from no trial, succumb to no temptation.
III. In running this race, we are encouraged by the example and testimony of a great cloud of witnesses. For the writer of this epistle the cloud was composed of the heroic men and women whose famous achievements he had summarised in the previous chapter, from the father of the faithful downward. But in what sense were they witnesses? Are they the interested and approving spectators of our exploits? Or are they, rather, witnesses and martyrs to the truth, and to the God in whom we believe—witnesses in whose lives we may see our own experiences reflected, and from whose lips we may gather consolation and encouragement? How does their presence help us? By stimulating us to a keener emulation, a braver effort, a stronger determination to win, because they are looking on; or by furnishing us with guidance, counsel, courage, hope, as we remember how much they endured, what perils and defects they surmounted, and how gloriously they conquered at last, and how richly they were rewarded? If we must choose between these interpretations, we choose the latter. But we need not choose; we may accept both motives, in so far as they are good and helpful motives; for all things are ours, all motives, aids, encouragements, to that strenuous and continuous effort by which alone we can rise into the life eternal, and receive its crown. There is no kind of reading by which we profit more than the biographies of men who were genuinely or greatly good. But of all biographies those which are the most helpful to us are those which we find in the Bible, when once we have learned that the men whose lives are recorded there were men of like passions with ourselves, and that their faults and sins are recorded for our warning and instruction, not that we may justify them, or allow ourselves in them; for these biographies were written by men who had a special eye for the trials of faith and the triumphs of righteousness.
IV. If we ask, How may we win? how may we best assure ourselves of winning this race, of ultimately obtaining that perfect ideal of character which has been set before us?—the answer is, By “looking unto Jesus.” In the imperial games the goal was placed in front of the emperor’s seat. And the image of this verse seems to be, that that victorious athlete and champion, Jesus Christ, after having run the race as it had never been run before, and reached the goal in face of such opposition and under the pressure of such a burden as man never before endured, had been called up by the Imperator to sit on His right hand, and to adjudge the prize in all races that should be thereafter run. Because He sits high above the goal, because He is to judge the strife, and His hand is to confer the wreath of victory, we are to look to Him as we run; nay, as the Greek verb implies, looking away from all others, or else, we are to look only to Him. There is to be a deliberate and energetic concentration of our whole power and aspiration on Him. We are to concentrate our thoughts on Christ, because He is “the Author and Perfecter of faith”—not only of our faith, but of faith. To this writer faith is a principle, not a creed—not a system of co-ordinated beliefs, but a condition and adventure of the soul, or a life of which this condition is the animating and inspiring motive. When he speaks of Jesus as “the Author and Perfecter” of this faith, he may mean—
1. That even the great cloud of witnesses, from the father of the faithful down to the last of his children who had “wrought righteousness,” owed their faith to Jesus Christ, the everlasting Word, by whom all things were made and all men redeemed.
2. That in Jesus this Divine principle of life first received its full incarnation, that in Him this ideal was first perfectedly realised.
3. And that, if we are to live a life of faith, He must both originate this life in us and complete it. How confidently we may look to Him for all the grace and help we need, we learn from the next clause of the verse: “who, for the joy set before Him, endured a cross, despising shame.” “The joy of the Saviour was the salvation of mankind” (Theodoret). Even the cruel and shameful burden of “a cross” could not abate His zeal nor rob Him of the prize; nor could the shame of it daunt His courage or turn Him from His aim. And what was His cross but the sense and burden of our sin? What the shame which He despised but our shame in that, seeing the very Ideal of virtue and righteousness, we did not recognise it, did not love and desire it; nay, hated it, and, so far as we could, banished it from the world? He who endured all this for us, and from us, can He withhold His sympathy and aid when, instead of opposing and rejecting Him, we set out on the very course He trod, press forward in it under manifold weaknesses and discouragements, looking steadfastly to Him for guidance, sympathy, and grace?—S. Cox, D.D.
Plodding through the Uneventful.—It is a great deal easier to be up to the occasion in some shining moment of a man’s life, when he knows that a supreme hour has come, than it is to keep that high tone when plodding over all the dreary plateau of uneventful, monotonous travel and dull duties. It is easier to run fast for a minute than to grind along the dusty road for a day. We have all a few moments in life of hard, glorious running; but we have days and years of walking—the uneventful discharge of small duties.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Hebrews 12:2. The Saviour rejoicing to suffer for Mankind.—The apostle Paul frequently illustrates the position and prospects of Christians by a reference to the social customs existing among the persons to whom his writings were addressed. Here is a reference to “the games.” Spiritually applied, the Christians addressed are regarded as the spectators; the departed saints; and the Lord Jesus, once a successful candidate, and now the Arbiter at the goal, by whom the reward is to be adjudged and bestowed.
I. The humiliation and suffering to which the Lord Jesus Christ submitted.—
1. In their nature. “The cross” signifies death by crucifixion. “The shame,” of being deserted by the Father, being accursed and outcast, of bearing the guilt of millions, and the wrath for those sins.
2. The spirit in which they were encountered and borne. “Endured” with resignation and fortitude; “despised the shame.” He delights in the scorching of the fire, and He scorns the woe.
II. The prospects, by the pleasurable contemplation of which, amidst His humiliation and shame, the Lord Jesus Christ was animated.—
1. The ordained mediatorial results by which the joy of the Lord Jesus was actually inspired. He was to enter through His sufferings into pre-eminent personal elevation and glory. By His humiliation and sufferings He vindicated the government and character of the Godhead, and secured the redemption and happiness for unnumbered multitudes of mankind.
2. The inherent characteristics by which the joy of the Lord Jesus, so inspired, was distinguished.
(1) The purity of His joy. Absolutely unsullied.
(2) The vastness. Its extent cannot be measured or fathomed. His joy, like His love, passeth knowledge.
(3) The perpetuity. Never fade.
(4) The diffusiveness. The fulness of His joy sends forth streams to the angels and the spirits of the just made perfect.
III. The influence which the pleasure of the Lord Jesus, so excited and constituted, ought to have upon His people.—
1. They ought to rejoice with Him in His joy. We ought to congratulate our Lord Jesus on the pleasure arising from His mediatorial work. Exult with Him, and for His sake.
2. They ought to accord to Him the entire surrender and devotedness of their hearts. If the majesty and splendour of His celestial glory are now continually employed for our welfare, is there not a solemn and resistless call upon our unreserved practical dedication to His will?
3. They should bear their own afflictions and sorrows in imitation of His example. Mental resignation and fortitude, and in holy contempt of what He had to suffer—thus He endured; and here is our obligation too.
4. They should habitually anticipate the period when they shall meet their Redeemer in the world of joy where now He dwells. The eye of faith can detect Him standing by the goal, holding out not the crown of fading laurel, but the incorruptible crown of life. Endeavour to participate in the spirit of this high and noble feeling.—J. Parsons.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 12
Hebrews 12:1. Laying Aside our Weights.—It was on the confines of the desert, amid sterile and almost inaccessible rocks, that Ben Achmet, the Dervise, led a life of austerity and devotion. A cave in the rocks was his dwelling. Roots and fruits, the scanty product of the inhospitable region he inhabited, satisfied his hunger, and the fountain that bubbled up from the lower part of a neighbouring cliff slaked his thirst. He had formerly been a priest in a magnificent mosque, and scrupulously conducted the ceremonies of the Mohammedan faith; but disgusted with the hypocrisy and injustice of those around him, he abandoned the mosque and his authority as a priest, betaking himself to the desert, to spend his days as an anchorite, in sanctity, self-denial, and devotion. Years rolled over the head of Ben Achmet, and the fame of his sanctity spread abroad. In seasons of drought he supplied the traveller of the desert with water from his little well. In times of pestilence he left his solitary abode to attend the sick and comfort the dying in the villages that were scattered around, and often did he stanch the blood of the wounded Arab, and heal him of his wounds. His fame was spread abroad; his name inspired veneration; and the plundering Bedouin gave up his booty at the command of Ben Achmet, the Dervise. Akaba was an Arabian robber; he had a band of lawless men under his command ready to do his bidding, large numbers of slaves, and a treasure house well stored with his ill-gotten wealth. The sanctity of Ben Achmet arrested his attention; his conscience smote him on account of his guilt, and he longed to be as famed for his devotion as he had been for his crimes. He sought the abode of the Dervise, and told him his desires. “Ben Achmet,” said he, “I have five hundred cimeters ready to obey me, numbers of slaves at my command, and a goodly treasure-house filled with riches; tell me how to add to these the hope of a happy immortality?” Ben Achmet led him to a neighbouring cliff that was steep, rugged, and high; and pointing to three large stones that lay near together, he told him to lift them from the ground, and to follow him up the cliff. Akaba, laden with the stones, could scarcely move; to ascend the cliff with them was impossible. “I cannot follow thee, Ben Achmet,” said he, “with these burdens.” “Then cast down one of them,” replied the Dervise, “and hasten after me.” Akaba dropped a stone, but still found himself too heavily encumbered to proceed. “I tell thee it is impossible,” cried the robber chieftain; “thou thyself couldst not proceed a step with such a load.” “Let go another stone, then,” said Ben Achmet. Akaba readily dropped another stone, and, with great difficulty, clambered the cliff for a while, till, exhausted with the effort, he again cried out that he could come no farther. Ben Achmet directed him to drop the last stone; and, no sooner had he done this, than he mounted with ease, and soon stood with his conductor on the summit of the cliff. “Son,” said Ben Achmet, “thou hast three burdens which hinder thee in thy way to a better world. Disband thy troop of lawless plunderers, set thy captive slaves at liberty, and restore thy ill-gotten wealth to its owners; it is easier for Akaba to ascend this cliff with the stones that lie at its foot, than for him to journey onward to a better world with power, pleasure, and riches in his possession.”
The Ancient Grecian Games.—The great religious festivals of Judaism served to unite the nation, and to meet the longing for pleasurable excitement which we find in a greater or less degree in every nation. They help us also to realise the serious and religious character of the Jewish people. They had no public games; and only in the late degenerate days of Roman dominion were gymnasia and theatres established among them. The apostle Paul tarried some time in the city of Corinth, and founded there a large, prosperous, and influential Christian Church; while residing in that city, there can be no doubt the great games were held on the adjoining isthmus, which were known as the Isthmian Games, and celebrated every other year. We cannot imagine that Paul went to them, for they must have been scenes of wild rioting and vice, too much like those witnessed now on our race-courses; but he would know all about them; and they would be for a time quite the common excitement in Corinth. Certainly, in Paul’s later writings, we find many allusions to these games; they seem to have seized on his imagination, and set him thinking how much there was like them in a Christian course. That also seemed to him a race, and he longed “so to run that he might attain.” That also seemed to him a battle; and when he came to its close, he could say, “I have fought a good fight.” The principal passages in which figures taken from the scenes of these games are found, are: 1 Corinthians 4:9; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:13-14; 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; 1 Timothy 4:8; 1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:5; 2 Timothy 4:7-8; Hebrews 10:32-33; Hebrews 12:1; Hebrews 2:1. The company of spectators was exceedingly large, people attending from all the district round; the competitors were urged and excited by their shouts and praises. In the Roman amphitheatres the audiences decided whether a defeated gladiator was to die by turning down their thumbs.
2. The competitors underwent previous and careful training, for at least ten months; keeping under the body, bringing it into subjection, and cultivating skill in the use of weapons, or the art of running.
3. Very stringent laws were fixed for conducting the contests, and they must be carried on in the prescribed way. A man would not be crowned unless he strove lawfully.
4. The contests were divided into two classes,—the pancratium, consisting of boxing and wrestling; and the pentathlon, consisting of leaping, running, quoiting, and hurling. In some games poetical and oratorical contests were introduced.
5. The actual reward was only a crown of pine or ivy leaves; but the victor was set in high honour, his name, and that of his father and country, were proclaimed by a herald to the vast assembly; and he was borne to his native city in triumph. Sometimes a pillar was erected on which the record of his victory was placed. From the rewards given at these games, the figures of Revelation 3:12, etc., are taken.
Hebrews 12:2. Looking unto Jesus.—That conveys the idea of rigid shutting out of other things in order that one supreme light may fill the eye and gladden the soul. If you do not carefully drop black curtains round the little chamber, and exclude all side lights as well as all other objects from the field of vision, there will be no clear impression of the beloved face made upon the sensitive plate. It must be in the darkness that the image is transferred to the heart.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Captain and Perfecter of Faith.—In some notes on New Testament passages, Principal David Brown, in the Expositor, gives a new turn of thought to the familiar phrase, “the Author and Finisher [Perfecter, R.V.] of our faith.” He rejects the word “our,” and would translate, “the Captain and Perfecter of ‘faith.’ ” The passage, he maintains, teaches, not that Jesus is the Author and Completer of “our own” faith, but of the “life of faith.” In other words, He is the model believer. It is claimed that the very next verse brings out this idea. The “joy” was conditioned on the triumph of faith in enduring suffering. So the entire course of Christ’s temptation is a test and victory of faith. At the cross one said, “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him,” etc. Thus Christ is the “Leader and Conductor” of the army of believers, for He is Himself the most shining example of faith. This is a fresh light upon an old text.
Joy of Christ in Redemption.—It was a sad and fearful sight which that noble-minded girl, Grace Darling, and her old father saw, when the grey light began to make things visible across that stormy sea. The wild, broken clouds, the rear-guard of the tempest, were moving slowly and as it were grudgingly away; the fierce winds were sweeping in gusts across the sky; and the waves, lashed into foam by the midnight storm that had been raging, were breaking in sheets of spray over the miserable remnant of the crew who still clung to the wreck. As each breaker poured its torrent over it, the girl and her father could see the numbers thinned, and one after another swept away, to struggle for a few moments in the boiling and whirling eddies, and then “sink like lead in the mighty waters.” Will a boat live in such a sea? Can it be managed? They at all events will try. Their little boat is skilfully pushed off from the lighthouse, and, forced forward by the strength of love, it is soon under the wreck, and filled with those who have lowered themselves into it. A little while and the deeply laden boat has reached the lighthouse and deposited its rescued passengers in safety. Another effort and another, and they are all safe. Oh, how did their generous hearts glow with joy when they looked around on those who, but for their courage and skill and self-devotion, had been lifeless corpses in the ocean I How did their hearts burn within them as they saw the shivering sailors cowering over the fire and thawing their almost frozen limbs! What will be His joy who saw from His throne in the heavens a shipwrecked world with its millions who, but for Him, must have perished, who left His glory and with a strong hand spoiled the raging powers of darkness of their prey, and gathered from the wreck the mighty remnant!—Canon Champneys.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 12:3. Consider.—Place your sufferings in comparison with His. Against Himself.—R.V. renders “against themselves,” which is a well-supported reading. Wearied.—R.V. renders “that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls.” Stuart renders, “lest, becoming discouraged in your minds, ye grow weary.”
Hebrews 12:4. Unto blood.—The last extremity; the surrender of life. Implying that Christ had so resisted. From this we infer that there had been no actual martyrs among the Christian Jews addressed by the writer.
Hebrews 12:5.—Better read as a question, “Have ye forgotten?”
Hebrews 12:8. Bastards.—νόθοι, illegitimate children, who cannot be properly thought of as God’s spiritual children.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 12:3-8
The Strain of Maintaining Christian Profession.—These verses indicate three sources whence strain cannot fail to come, and they suggest considerations which may help the professor successfully to endure the strain, whencesoever it may come.
I. One source is the contradiction of sinners.—They that would live godly will, in every age, suffer some form of outward persecution. The persecution need not always take coarse and violent forms; in our times it takes refined and subtle forms, which are often harder to bear. Let any man to-day try to live a really spiritual life, and teach men really spiritual truth, lifting off material coverings, and bringing to view spiritual realities, he will be sure to meet with persecutions at the hands of those who are zealous for the literality and materiality of religion. Our Lord embodied an ever-acting principle when He said to His disciples, “Ye are not of the world; therefore the world hateth you.” Put the earnest young Christian into the worldly-toned house of business to-day, and he will get the “contradiction of sinners against himself,” as certainly as did the Christian men and women in the old Pagan days. The peril of persecution from without, on account of our religious opinions, or our religious life, must be duly estimated. What can bring us strength to endure? “Consider Him.” “It is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master.” We need not wonder that we should be misrepresented and misunderstood, for so was He. We need not wonder even that our words should be resolutely turned against us, for so were His. We need not wonder even if we are the victims of hostile schemes and combinations, for so was He. But He triumphed over all; and, in spite of all, lived through His “godly, righteous, and sober life”: and so may we. The principles on which He triumphed may be ours. The spirit in which He triumphed may be ours. We need not faint.
II. Another source of strain is the weakness of self.—There is such an easily reached limit to our power of resistance. We can try a little; but if we do not immediately succeed, we give up trying. Our striving against sin is at best but a poor thing; there is seldom anything heroic about it. Cranmer may be weak enough to yield when the stake is right in view, but we weakly shrink back long before we reach any such extremities. To us it can be said, with a most pointed application, “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” We are far enough away from the martyr spirit. What shall so inspire us as to lift us into moral strength for enduring? To some extent the story of the martyr ages; but chiefly the thought of Him who did resist unto blood—who did wrestle with sin, and yielded His life in the struggle, but yielded it only when the victory was won. We must never wonder if the demand upon our moral strength is such a demand as was made upon Christ’s. It is inspiration to us to look and see how He “resisted unto blood.”
III. Another source of strain is the discipline of God.—We wish that to be saved was to be saved once for all. And it is not. It is to be put into the school of God for discipline, involving chastisements, with a view to full sanctifying. God’s discipline is as that of a father with his sons.
1. There is love at the heart of it.
2. There is wisdom in the arranging of it.
3. But there is no hesitation in putting all needful severities into it. The Christian can no more expect to understand the discipline of God than the son can expect to understand the corrections and restraints of his father. The son endures through the trustfulness of his love. And the Christian endures in the same way. No noble human character ever yet existed that had not come out of a school of discipline; and no saintly character ever yet was found among us which had not come out of the disciplinary school of God. What shall help us to bear this form of strain? Looking unto Jesus, who, “though He were a Son, learned obedience by the things which He suffered,” while in God’s earthly school of discipline.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 12:3. Christ’s Enduring Contradiction.
I. What forms of contradiction Christ was subjected to.—
1. His design in founding a spiritual kingdom was contradicted.
2. His spirit and character were misunderstood both by His own disciples and by His enemies. He was often hindered, as at Capernaum and Gadara, and above all at Jerusalem. And at last He was turned out and crucified.
II. In what forms, and on what principles, did Christ overcome the contradiction?—
1. An amazing patience was shown by Him. He proved the power that lies in “patient continuance in well-doing.”
2. The consciousness of His Divine mission sustained Him. A man can always be strong if in his soul is the cherished conviction that he has a work to do. “A man is immortal until his work is done.”
3. His faith in the abiding presence of God with Him constantly sustained Him. St. Paul in this sense of God’s presence comes a long way behind our Divine Lord, and yet he could say, “I can do all things through Him who strengtheneth me.”
III. How does Christ’s overcoming contradiction become an encouragement and a help to us?—None of us can ever have so extreme a conflict as He had. But none can ever have any conflict that will be really different to His.
1. His was a conquest on our behalf. It was really our foe He disabled. And it is a weakened, humbled foe that is left to us to fight.
2. He presented the example which may guide us to wise methods in our conflict.
3. His triumph has brought Him a trust of grace which He now dispenses to all who follow Him in the same holy war, and are subject now to a similar “contradiction of sinners.” Whatever then may be the precise form which our difficulties take, as we endeavour practically to live the Christian life amid depressing and opposing circumstances, we are distinctly called to endure, in Christ’s strength, for Christ’s sake, and after the pattern of Christ’s example.
Hebrews 12:4. War with Sin to the Death.—Read only with the imperfect human vision, the “great cloud of witnesses” are but men, who sustained human relationships, fulfilled human duty, and suffered human sorrows. Read with the illuminations of the Divine Spirit, they are more than men; they are spiritual men, carrying on a spiritual warfare, gaining spiritual triumphs, and looking for the eternal rewards of righteousness. And such as they were we are or may be. Looking down on our lives, they may seem to be wholly human things, full of human cares, human toils, and human associations. But learn to, look aright, and then, though our world-sphere may seem to be insignificant, we are really occupying the places of the old heroes, and doing the work of the old giants. We are spiritual men, wrestling with human circumstances, and forcing them to yield us spiritual strength, spiritual riches.
I. Christian life, in all its aspects, presents to us sin as a fact.—St. Paul says, as an unfolding of private and personal experience that somewhat surprises us: “For that which I do I know not: for not what I would, that do I practise; but what I hate, that I do.… I find then the law, that, to me who would do good, evil is present. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:15; Romans 7:21-23). We can sympathise with him. It is the fact, that conscious evil is intimately connected with all the expressions and associations of the Christian life.
1. The field of Christian thought. The conceptions, imaginations, desires, of Christian thinking. Who can say, “I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin”? There is no side of the Christian life in which the subtlety of sin is so painful and oppressive. Even in the house of God we cannot keep our thoughts free from that which is unsuitable and disturbing.
2. The Christian’s bodily nature. Desires, dispositions, passions, tempers, lusts, are closely related to bodily conditions, and the sincere man is conscious that they are not always kept under hand, subject to authority. There are indulgences of bodily evil which do not come forth to public view, or bring us into the condemnation of even social law. In even the outer relations of life evil is always near, in forms of omission or of commission. There are falterings in honesty, in truth, in long-suffering, in faithfulness, in speech, and in duty. He must be a very bold man, and withal a very foolish one, who thinks he can read his life in the light of the spiritual and holy laws of God, and can say, “All these have I kept from my youth up.” Sin is not only an existing thing; it exists in activity; it is ever moving and working as an opposing force. The “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked”; in it is a world of undeveloped evil capacity. Out of the heart proceedeth all kinds of evil. It is not properly sin that all these evil things should be in our hearts. Sin is really something done, something wrong cherished, something bad that is sought after. The sadness of sin lies in this—that it exists in activity; the evils in our hearts are always proceeding forth, coming out. St. Paul speaks of the “motions of sins in our members.” It would have mattered little if they had kept still. It was imperilling, it was humiliating, that, serpent-like, they writhed and twisted, and strove to lift up the head and thrust forth a deadly sting. He speaks of evil as warring within him. He had not cared, if it had only sheathed sword, and lain still; but it was perpetually harnessed, sallying forth, and watching for every opportunity of striking a deadly blow. We need to face this fact—the evil in us is evil in activity, in an activity of opposition to the work of grace in our souls. It is a masked thief, actively engaged in stealing our peace; a masked slanderer, trying to make us think ill of our God; a masked serpent, watching to thrust out a sting, and fill our natures with the poison of hell; and a masked murderer, who would, if he could, destroy both body and soul.
II. The Christian life in us is a Divine force, also existing in activity, and conflicting with sin up to the measure of blood.—St. Paul says, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” That gives the true idea of Christian life. It is “Christ living in us.” It is the power of God dwelling in us, so as to be the main-spring, the motive-power, the controlling principle, of our life. As truly as the soul possesses the body and uses its faculties, so truly does God possess the soul and express Himself in all the powers and workings of the soul. Evil is near to us, closely associated with every aspect of the religious life; but this new thing, this vital force, this power of the Divine, is nearer, is in closer relations, is truly ours. However the evil may get in to us, it is still an outside thing. It is a parasite on the outside of the tree: this Divine life is the very sap which flows in the tree itself. The parasite may cling very closely, it may even pierce the bark, but it can never be more than an outside thing; while every duct and vessel of the tree is filled with this flowing life of God. Being the Divine Spirit, it must be active. We cannot think of God otherwise than as ever working. And it is active, we may be sure, to mould character, to settle right dispositions, to influence and tone human relationships, to recover from human failings, to battle with spiritual foes. The activity of the Christ-life will be seen in opposition to that evil which comes so close, puts on so many forms, and stands in such constant antagonism to everything that is good and God-like. Wherever there is active evil there is an opposing active good. Wherever there are microbes there are also phagocytes. Every man’s life is the scene of a twofold conflict. Each of these represents the other. In the physical sphere there is a perpetual struggle between disease and health, death and life. Every breath of air we breathe, every measure of food we eat, has poisonous matter with it, and may breed disease. Our vital force is constantly trying to eliminate the poison. So in the sphere of morals. In our spirit is present, active evil, only kept down by the unceasing activity of the new life in Christ. Our text gives the measure up to which God expects this conflict to go. “Resisting unto blood.” There must be this striving against sin, even at the peril of expending life itself in the striving. As the martyr stands for the truth, and resists evil, up to the very sacrifice of his life, so must every Christian man expect, and even desire, to stand for purity, for truth, for God, resisting all the forms of evil that may assail him, even up to the measure of the sacrifice of life itself. In the old days of chivalry, when tournaments were held, and knights, clad in armour, met within the lists to prove their prowess, and young squires fought to win their knightly spurs, the struggle was not usually for life: whoever was unhorsed was reckoned to be vanquished. But if there was family feud, and deadly hatred filled the mind of the combatant, he would go up and touch his foeman’s shield with the point of his lance. That meant war to the death. In that case there must be “resisting unto blood”—the life of one or the other of those combatants must stream forth upon those lists. Such is the conflict of evil and good within the Christian. It is an irreconcilable feud; no play of blunted spears. When a man becomes a Christian, he virtually goes up to strike with the lance-point the shield of his foe, and there must be no putting spear in rest, no sheathing of the sword, until the foe is vanquished, and the victory of righteousness is won. This is the standard of the Christian conflict; but in us the conflict too often falls below the standard. God, indeed, does not often call for the extreme self-sacrifice. Within this limit, how real is our battle with sin? How much has it cost us to resist sin, taking form as
(1) weaknesses of Christian character;
(2) neglect of Christian duties;
(3) besetting sins;
(4) social and business errors and failings? Unto blood? So far from our life-struggle reaching unto blood, there is a much smaller test which we cannot bear to have applied to us. It has not reached to the imperilling of a limb. What passion, like a hand, has been resolutely cut off, and cast away? What sinful appetite, like a right eye, has been determinedly plucked out, and cast away? What questionable business habit which brought money in, what comfortableness which led to the neglect of Christian ordinances, has, like a foot, been cut off, and cast away? Would we gain the full victory? Then must we keep “looking unto Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”
Hebrews 12:5. Men’s Persecutions as God’s Chastenings.—“The chastening of the Lord.” This expression might seem to be especially suited to the distresses that come by disease, calamity, failure; pain, bereavement—things in which man’s action is not evident, but God’s providential workings are very manifest. It is, however, singular and suggestive that the writer has so distinctly in mind the persecutions which the Jewish Christians were then suffering, and the strain which those persecutions were putting on their loyalty to Christ. Even those persecutions he would have them think of as God’s chastisements—things which God was graciously using for the carrying out of His disciplinary work. Illustration may be taken from the nation of Israel. They were subject to oppression and persecution from many outside foes—Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Syrian, Roman; but those foes could never be other than instruments in the hands of Jehovah, for the disciplinary work needed by His people. The manifest human element in outward persecutions makes it difficult to realise the Divine element in them. If God is in them, and working His work by means of them, then of these things we may be sure:
1. They are held within strict limitations.
2. The schemes of men in arranging them have no security of being carried out.
3. We are not left alone in the enduring of them.
4. Instead of injuring us, they can only do us the good God has assigned for them to do.
Hebrews 12:7-8. The Fatherliness of the Heavenly Father.—We are permitted to use our earthly paternal relations in the endeavour to understand the paternal relations of God. But this is often a difficulty to devout souls, who hesitate to compare the heavenly Father with imperfect earthly fathers. It may be helpful, therefore, to present and to illustrate this point. There is a perfect fatherliness conceivable. If we could put together the many forms of fatherliness which have been presented by unusually good fathers, we should have a satisfactory apprehension of it. That fatherliness can but be incompletely represented in any one human father; but that fatherliness—ideal fatherliness—is found in the relations of God with us.
Hebrews 12:7. Life an Education.—God’s purpose in placing us in this world is not chiefly that He may put us to the proof, but that He may educe and train our faculties and gifts, and make the best of us, whatever our natural virtues or failures. This is the proof of Scripture, and of the teachings of experience. Life is an education.
I. God educates us by means of our physical needs.—We alone, of all God’s creatures, are sent into this world unprovided with any of those things which are necessary to the support of physical life. God has not made our task easy. He does not mean that work shall be mechanical, but that it shall tax our ingenuity, and bring out our mental powers to the uttermost. Relatively, too, we are one of the weakest of living beings. We must work. That is the law of life. It strengthens the mind, produces patience, endurance, forethought, courage. Thus is God educating us.
II. God educates us by means of our mental needs.—He has implanted in nature that which awakens our curiosity, and He has implanted in us a hunger and thirst after knowledge and truth, and the result is education. There is in us all a love of the beautiful. Our hearts go out after these things in nature. They have a strange power to make us think.
III. God educates us by the sorrows and trials of life.—The lower animals are almost exempt from suffering. “Life to them is a maximum of enjoyment, with the minimum of suffering.” Man is born to trouble. All life is leavened with pain, forebodings, vain regrets, unsatisfied longings. Why? Because “God dealeth with you as with sons.” “Mystery of pain.” The saintliest of men are those who have suffered the most. It behoved even the great Captain of our salvation to be made perfect through suffering.
IV. God educates us by our spiritual needs.—Our greatest want is to know God. All feel the need of propitiation and reconciliation. Just as nature satisfies mind, so the Bible satisfies spiritual needs.
1. The text throws light on the mystery of the present. We are often puzzled by the question, “What will become of the heathen?” If life is only a probation, I can show no light; but if life is an education, then this earth is only the lowest room in God’s school; and in other spheres and at other times the education which circumstances thwarted and hindered here can be carried on under happier circumstances.
2. It throws light on the mystery of the future. Here is a powerful argument for a future life. Our education here is at best but in its initial stage when death removes us. Our education here is only the learning of the alphabet. In our Father’s house are many mansions, and in one of these our education will be continued.—Angus M. Mackay, B.A.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 12
Hebrews 12:6. The Uses of Affliction.—Note the difference between summer storms and winter ones, the latter rushing over the earth with all their violence; and if any poor remnants of foliage or flowers have lingered behind, these are swept along at one gust, leaving nothing but desolation; while the former make all things to rise as it were with renewed beauty,—the types of the difference between the storms of affliction as coming upon the Christian and the sinner.—Guesses at Truth.
Perfect through Suffering.—Stars shine brightest in the darkest night; torches are better for beating; grapes come not to the proof till they come to the press; spices smell best when bruised; young trees root faster for shaking; gold looks brighter for scouring; juniper smells sweetest in the fire; the palm tree proves the better for pressing. Such is the condition of God’s people; they are most triumphant when most tempted, most glorious when most afflicted.—Bogatsky.
Hebrews 12:7. God’s Dealing with Us.—Visiting a person who was in deep affliction and sorrow, Gotthold was told by the family that he was in the garden. Thither he followed, and found him employed in clearing a vine of its superfluous leaves. After a friendly salute, he inquired what he was doing. “I find,” was the reply, “that, owing to the abundant rain, this vine is overgrown with wood and leaves, which prevent the sun from reaching and ripening the grapes; I am, therefore, pruning part of them away, that it may bring its fruit to maturity.” Gotthold rejoined, “And do you find that in this operation the vine resists and opposes you? If not, why are you displeased that a gracious God should do to you what your vine must not be displeased that you do to it?”
The Estimate of Things lost.—
For so it falls out,
That what we have we prize not to the worth,
Whiles we enjoy it; but being lacked and lost,
Why then we rack the value; then we find
The virtue, that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.—Shakespeare.
Like birds, whose beauties languish, half concealed,
Till, mounted on the wing, their glossy plumes
Expanded, shine with azure, green, and gold;
How blessings brighten as they take their flight!—Young.
Farewell I did not know thy worth,
But thou art gone, and now ‘tis prized:
So angels walked unknown on earth,
But when they flew were recognised.
’Tis only when they spring to heaven that angels
Reveal themselves to you; they sit all day
Beside you, and lie down at night by you,
Who care not for their presence, muse or sleep;
And all at once they leave you, and you know them.—Robert Browning.
Not to understand a treasure’s worth
Till time has stolen away the slighted good,
Is cause of half the poverty we feel,
And makes the world the wilderness it is.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 12:9. Father of spirits.—See Numbers 16:22; Numbers 27:16; Zechariah 12:1. “The Creator of all spirits, who is the Giver of life to all, who knows the spirit which He has made, and can discipline it by chastening.”
Hebrews 12:12. Lift up the hands.—Lit. “straighten out the relaxed hands and the palsied knees” (Isaiah 35:3).
Hebrews 12:15. Root of bitterness.—See Deuteronomy 29:18.
Hebrews 12:16. Fornicator.—The Scriptures do not thus describe Esau. Farrar thinks that the writer must have in mind the Jewish Hagadah, in which Esau is represented in the blackest colours, as a man utterly sensual, intemperate, and vile. And this also was the view of Philo.
Hebrews 12:17. Place of repentance.—In his father. There is no reference to repentance in relation to God. He could not induce his father to change his mind in regard to the matter. The reference is entirely to the transfer of the rights of primogeniture to the younger of the twins, Jacob. The rest of the chapter pleads for watchfulness and steadfastness on the ground that everything under the-new dispensation is of a milder aspect, and of a more inviting, encouraging nature, than under the old. For the references to Old Testament Scriptures, see Exodus 20:21; Deuteronomy 4:5.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 12:9-17
Hebrews 12:9-11. The Father of Spirits.—The contrast here presented between our earthly father and our heavenly Father, and the arguments for the superior claims of our heavenly Father, are based upon a distinction which needs to be more fully recognised. Our earthly father is father of the body and the animal life that we have; our heavenly Father is Father of the souls that we are. The natural relations illustrate the spiritual, but the spiritual are altogether higher than the natural.
I. We recognise authority in the natural relation (Hebrews 12:9).—That sense of parental authority is the basis of moral character. It associates right and wrong with the will of a person, and prepares us to see absolute right and wrong as the will of God. It is to rise into the higher plane of being to recognise the authority of God in the spiritual relation.
II. We yield to the natural authority, even though we know it is imperfect (Hebrews 12:10).—The sense of fatherly unwisdom comes to the son. His judgment does not go with his father’s. He is keen enough to see that the father is serving his own ends, rather than doing the best for him; and, nevertheless, the loyal and good son yields to his father, does what he wishes, submits himself in obedience. How much more then should the submission and obedience be offered when the Father’s wisdom and judgment and motive are absolutely unquestionable, and the child knows that the fatherly dealings are altogether for his profit?
III. When there is full trust in the natural relation, things painful can easily be borne.—This may be illustrated by things required to be done or borne in times of illness. The assurance that parental love aims at restored health and strength enables the child to endure. And in the higher, spiritual relation we may be so sure that our heavenly Father is ever working to produce the “peaceable fruits of righteousness in us,” that we may find it easy to bear chastening which, “for the present, is not joyous, but grievous.”
Hebrews 12:12-17. Christian Ways of helping One Another.—It is evident that the writer had the passage from Isaiah (Isaiah 33:3) in mind. Four ways of mutually helping under the Christian strain are here indicated.
I. By considerateness for the weak.—Lit. “Straighten out the relaxed hands and the palsied knees” (Hebrews 12:12). Make one effort to invigorate the flaccid muscles which should be so tense in the struggle in which you are engaged. This, however, unduly confines the advice to the Christian’s work upon himself. It seems better to refer the words to the way in which the strong ones in a Church can bear the infirmities of the weak. In the Christian chain there always are weak links. They may be a peril. They should be an anxiety. They can be strengthened. That is the work of the experienced and strong-principled.
II. By personal example.—“Make straight paths for your feet” (Hebrews 12:13). Let those about you see you “walking worthily of the vocation wherewith you are called.” Every steadfast Christian is a power; every beautiful Christian is an inspiration. Integrity helps all who watch it.
III. By wise ordering of relationships.—“Follow peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14). That is, shape your conduct, meet your obligations, and show a graciousness in all the daily associations of your life: they shall disarm your foes, and make peaceful all your human relations. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” And those who follow after holiness always find that holiness makes for peace.
IV. By anxious watchfulness and resolute dealings with the beginnings of evil.—“Looking carefully” (Hebrews 12:15-17). The care concerns things and persons.
1. Things. “Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” Things include opinions, teachings, attractions of worldly pleasure, neglects of duty, self-indulgences, etc.
2. Persons. “Lest there be any profane persons.” Persons are always more mischievous than things, because there is life, and activity, and power of influence in them. It is the person whose word, example, or influence is morally mischievous against whom the writer inveighs.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 12:10. Different Principles in the Chastening of Sons.—R.V. “Chastened us as seemed good to them.” It is an indication of the thoughtful observation and intelligent insight of this writer, that he discerns the weakness usually attaching to the discipline of earthly parents. It is the expression of the father’s ideas and wishes, rather than a careful. adaptation of method and rule to meet the differing dispositions of the children. So often the family rules are applied without modification, and the maintenance of the parental authority is more cared for than the moral well-being of a particular child. It has also to be said, that the yet graver mistake made by human parents is punishing when in a temper, and making the chastisement represent the wounded personal feeling, rather than the care for the child’s good. On these sides of parental weakness there can only be contrast between man and God. We may never think of the heavenly Father as losing His self-control under any aggravation of His sons. And we may think of Him as so concerned for the individual well-being of each son as to adapt the outworking of His parental principles so as to secure the “profit,” the moral and spiritual good, of each. Restlessness of sons under the weak fatherhoods of earth may be reasonable. The restfulness of sons under the strong, wise, gracious fatherhood of God should be expected.
Hebrews 12:11. Grievous Now, Joyous By-and-By.—It seems to be an ever-working law of life for moral beings that joy shall not come first—that joy shall always be a consummation, an issue, of something which, in one form or another, involves struggle, self-restraint, “strain and stress.” Things can only gain moral character out of conflict. The moral life is recognising the good and the evil, with inclination to choose the evil, and judgment, based on knowledge, approving the good; and then a conflict resulting in following the judgment, and not the inclination. That struggle must come first; it is always grievous; but triumph brings joy.
The Happy Fruit of Righteousness.—εἰρηνικός is that which bestows happiness or produces it. This corresponds with the writer’s design, who means to say that afflictions, rightly improved, will be productive of fruit that will confer happiness, such fruit as righteousness always produces.—Moses Stuart.
The Purpose of Affliction relieves the Pain of Affliction.—“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” That may be true as a fact of observation, but we must never think it be true as a matter of Divine appointment. If we could clear away all the troubles which men bring upon themselves, there would be very little, if any, trouble left in the world to account for. Concerning earthly trouble we may say, Man made it, by disturbing the Divine order in His wilfulness; but God overrules it, takes the evil thing up into His service, and works out a surprising benediction—a benediction that could not be wrought in any other way—by means of it. But the use which God makes of it must never be allowed to blind our eyes to the evil of it. Trouble is trouble, though we may be lifted up, by our confidence in the fatherliness of God, to call it chastisement and correction. But though man is the cause of all, or almost all, the trouble under which this fair earth of ours groans continually, we have the perplexing fact to deal with, that those who suffer are by no means always those who sin; and it is not easy for us to discern why those who suffer need the chastening. The tower in Siloam falls in a way that men call accidental, but those who were crushed to death were not sinners above all who dwelt in Jerusalem. The Judæan Christians suffered bitter persecutions at the hands of Jewish brethren and heathen neighbours, but the troubles were not brought upon them through their evil-doing, but through their well-doing. See these things standing on the level with them, and they are hopelessly perplexing, and it is easy for us to say, There either is no God, or He is a very inefficient one. This kind of thought has troubled the people of God from the times of Job and Asaph, and led many to make shipwreck of faith. The writer of this epistle does not propose to explain to the Hebrew Christians the meaning of their troubles and persecutions from the level. He tries to lift them up above, so that they may look down upon them, see how they are being overruled, and what they are working towards. On the level you can only see the things that are close to you; up above you can see other things, you can form some idea of the relations of things, and begin to trace how things work together. Up above we can begin to discover working principles, and Divine purposes and meanings. But precisely our difficulty is the difficulty of getting and keeping up above. If we follow the lead of the writer of this epistle, we shall find that the best way is to fill our minds and hearts full of the glory of the Lord Jesus; the marvellous wisdom and grace of His mission; the moral life that He quickens; and the power of His abiding presence in the world as its Redeemer, not only from sin, but also from all the woes that sin has brought in its train. Enter into the mind of Christ, and you will rise above the level of earthly troubles; and looking down upon life as He looks, you will see a great moral purpose being outwrought: the world is being kept, and afflictions are the moral salt that is keeping it; the world is being cleansed, and human troubles are the refiner’s fires and the fuller’s soap, that are doing the cleansing work. Just this seems to be expressed in our text, which the R.V. gives in a somewhat sharper form: “All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous, but grievous: yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness.” Mr. Spurgeon has a clever illustration of the point of this text. There is a little plant, small and stunted, growing under the shade of a broad-spreading oak, and this little plant values the shade that covers it, and greatly does it esteem the quiet rest which its noble friend affords. Once upon a time there comes along the woodman, and with his sharp axe he fells the oak. The plant weeps and cries, “My shelter is gone, every rough wind will blow upon me!” “No,” says the angel of the flower, “now will the sun get at thee, now will the shower fall on thee in more copious abundance than before, now thy stunted form shall spring up into loveliness, and thy flower, which could never have expanded itself to perfection, shall now laugh in the sunshine, and men shall say, How greatly hath this plant increased, how glorious hath become its beauty through the removal of that which was its shade and delight!” This is the truth now presented to us—the purpose of affliction relieves the pain of affliction.
I. Affliction passing over us is hard to bear.—The heap of wheat as it is brought in from the fields, and spread out all over the threshing-floor, cannot but feel it hard when the heavy threshing-roller, with its cutting teeth, is drawn backward and forward over it. That tribulum-work, that tribulation, cannot be joyous, but grievous. But presently it appears what good work has been done by the severe discipline: the husks have been split, and have fallen away from the grain; and it only needs now the winnowing fan to secure the pure corn for the food of man. In every human life there is a mission for the threshing-roller of afflictive discipline. Human trouble takes on a great variety of forms, but it never takes any that are easy to bear at the time. It is in the very nature of trouble that it must be pressure, strain, distress. It would not have its ministry in character if it were not. It is easy to classify the afflictions that befall humanity. They take form as suffering, as sorrowing, as sinning.
1. The form of suffering. Suffering, pure and simple, without the element of sin embittering it, is part of the economy of nature; man only shares it in common with the creature, and we need to speak cautiously and carefully concerning it when we speak of it as evil. It would be possible to show that even important animal qualities, and much more moral qualities, can only be wrought by simple suffering. At once it will come to mind that the motherliness of motherhood, both in the creatures and in humanity, follows upon, and can only follow upon, the suffering of the birth-time. Think closely, and it will soon appear, that moral character can never be made anywhere, save by the agency of suffering. Of Christ it is said, “Though He were a son, yet learned He obedience by the things that He suffered.” We must therefore speak thoughtfully and wisely on this matter. But this is certainly true, and always true—suffering is hard to bear. Personal suffering, taking shape as sickness, frailty, pain, always is. Disease comes in so many painful and repulsive forms. It comes at what seem such unfitting times. It brings in with it such a trail of other woes. It breaks into the enterprise of life, disturbing and imperilling our business relations. It often wholly upsets the plan of our life, and leaves us, when convalescent, to battle again for lost position. It brings strain and stress on those whom we love more than we love ourselves. Hezekiah is the type of all sick folk in his experience of the hardness of his lot: put aside, in pain and helplessness, when life’s schemes were just working out well, but nothing seemed really accomplished. It was hard to be cut off in the midst of his days. It is hard to be sick for a while; it is hard to be frail and weak all life long. While the cloud hangs low over us, we can but walk in the darkness, and feel depressed by it. No personal suffering for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous. It has to feel grievous; it is just its ministry to make us feel burdened and distressed. Do not be surprised that you find your frailty hard to bear: it is precisely what you ought to find it and feel it.
2. The form of sorrowing. A very large portion of human affliction is not personal, but relative, suffering. It is such affliction as David knew when he wailed over his ruined son. It is such sorrow as St. Paul knew when he feared his companion would be taken away, and he would have “sorrow upon sorrow.” It is such sorrow as our Divine Lord felt when He stood by the tomb of His friend Lazarus, with the heart-broken sisters beside Him. It is the sympathetic entering into the sorrows of others which brings their burdens to lie on our hearts. And the sympathy is keen according to our dispositions. There are some who can pass amid the suffering with a chilly self-control, a calmness that keeps them from undue distress; but there are many who, in the quickness and keenness of their sympathy, sorrow unduly, suffer more than the actual sufferers. Perhaps many of us can see, in looking back over our lives, that we have known more affliction through sympathy than through personal suffering. Maybe we have had to deal with great sufferers, or to come helpfully near to those who have been in overwhelming distress; and the strain for us has almost been overstrain. And sometimes our utter helplessness, our inability to meet occasions, the misery of having to stand by with folded hands while the great billows of woe have rolled over our beloved, has been overwhelming woe for us. Even public distress may try us greatly. What do the clergy feel when they bury the bread-winners, and the mothers for whose love and tending the children will lift a life-long wail? Sometimes one is disposed to say that the burdens of sympathetic sorrowing are far heavier than the burdens of personal suffering. How much is suggested when it is said of our great High Priest, that He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities”!
3. The form of sinning. The bitterness of suffering, to us moral beings, lies in our conviction of its close association with sin. But this is no overwhelming distress while we keep to the general fact, that the Divine order has been disturbed by human wilfulness, and the penalties fall upon the whole race, and, vicariously, fall heavy on some members of it. The weight of the woe comes when we are distinctly able to associate personal sin with personal sufferings. What revelations the doctor could make to us if he would be open and true in dealing with us! We go with him round the wards of the hospital, and he could say—There, that miserable sufferer is reaping the drink-seed that he sowed; that wreck of humanity on whom you can hardly bear to look is ending in unspeakable wretchedness a life of vice. When that association of sin and suffering comes close into our spheres, when our prodigal comes home to die, our wilful girl drags life-ruin upon herself, then we have sorrow upon sorrow—sorrow in which is the bitterness of death. That sorrow is hardest of all to bear. While passing over us it is altogether grievous. And you will have found in your experience, that it is very hard to deal with sufferers when you know that they are sinners, and when the sufferings take offensive and repulsive forms, as they always do when they come directly out of sin. It seems so wonderful that our Divine Lord could be so sympathetic with outcasts and sinners, and could deal so graciously with those who were possessed with the devil of uncleanness. But it is the Christliness of Christ that He could take the sin with the suffering, and help at once the sinner and the sufferer. They let a sufferer down through the roof, right in front of Him. Jesus looked upon him, and saw a sinner. But He did not therefore despise him. He only saw the severest feature of his need, the root of all the mischief, and He dealt first with that. It is our Christlikeness likeness if we can bear the suffering that comes out of sin, though that kind of affliction is hardest of all to bear. Whatever form our human troubles take, our text—the first half of it—certainly is true: “No affliction for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous.” While passing over us it is hard to bear.
II. Affliction passed by is good to remember.—The psalmist must have felt that it was when he said, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now will I keep Thy word.” Affliction had done something for him, and something so good that he liked to think about it. It is well to remind ourselves of the temporary character of all human suffering and affliction. It is always “a light affliction, and but for a moment.” It is always a cloud, light or dark, high or low, that is passing on, and drops its rains upon us as it passes. We always have a chance of standing under a clear sky, watching our clouds sail away to the west. We have had our troubles, but they never stayed. They came and went. And when they were gone right past, somehow we began a little to understand them; and the farther they receded into the distance, the more clearly we saw how they—strange puzzle-pieces though they were—fitted into the plan of infinite Wisdom. They bore to us a mission. They carried out their mission. They left us with the blessing of their mission. What have the suffering and sorrowing times of our lives done for us? Perhaps it would be wiser not to try and read the answer by going over the scenes of our own lives. We can never be quite sure of being just to ourselves. It is better to see what suffering did for Jesus. There is so much in that sentence, “Made perfect through suffering.” But we may also each one of us think of some saintly soul who has come, like the silver, through a seven-times refining. It is quite safe for us to trace in them what sublime moral and spiritual agencies these our human afflictions prove to be. We watch them, and see “what almighty grace can do,” and then we hope that almighty grace is doing it for us. Only a word or two can be given to this point, but they may suffice to guide thought along helpful and comforting lines. We can sometimes see—
1. How afflictions have loosened the grip of the world upon the soul. What an enslaving power things seen and temporal have! What would they have if God did not break in upon them with His afflictive dispensations? The claims and rush of life keep our souls looking down and around. The visions and quietness of sorrow-times lift our souls up and away. The other life is far off, and the world is near, while health and energy are with us. The other life comes near, and the world-interests recede, when God puts us into desert places of sickness and trouble. It is said that we never really see the full splendour of God’s sky in the smoky towns. Go out into the broad desert spaces, away from the world, and the stars fairly glitter, and the blue is unspeakably beautiful. Can we not look back and see how trials that were hard to bear loosened our hold of life a little? And what is the mystery of all life save this—gradually getting loosened from the world, and getting soul-anchored in the city of habitations, whose builder and maker is God? It is good to remember how God has been loosening our world-grip, and teaching our hearts to say, “This is not our rest.”
2. We can see how afflictions have tightened our trust in God. Have you held a child’s hand in a first railway journey. It just lay quietly in yours, for the child felt all safe with father; but then the train rushed screaming into the dark tunnel, and the child’s grip tightened, and held tight till long after the calming sunshine had come back again. That is the way it is with us and the Father-God. When the strain-times of life come, we grip His hand hard. And after the strain-times of life are passed by, we love to remember how our Father’s hand clasped ours in the time of fear, and thrilled our souls with the feeling of uttermost safety. We should never be trusting God as we are trusting Him to-day, if it were not for those experiences of sorrow and trouble which are passed and gone long since. The writer of this epistle has a very suggestive term for the issues of Divinely sent afflictions. He calls them the “peaceable fruits of righteousness,” or “it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness.” Why does he call it “peaceable fruit”? I think he must have had this in mind: When our life-troubles first come to us, the trouble in the trouble is the resistance of our wills, the warfare that we make over submission and obedience. But as we learn the Christ-lessons of afflictions, we gain the Christ-mastery over self-will, and then gradually, as afflictions come, there is little or no resistance, little or no warfare. Our souls gradually gain the peace of righteousness, the peace of right-mindedness, that can quietly say, facing each new woe—
“Is this Thy will, good Lord?
Thy servant weeps no more.”
“To them that have been exercised thereby.” You have had many a trouble; but have you been “exercised thereby”? Has your soul-life of love and submission and trust been exercised thereby? Can you gratefully recognise what God has done for you through times of strain and stress? Let us sit down beside St. Paul, and feel that he is writing for us, as truly as for himself, when he says—“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Hebrews 12:13. The Removal of Hindrances.—There are two ways of training children, and two ways of exerting our influence in the associations of life:
1. We may directly mould the child-mind, habits, and life to a pattern which we ourselves form.
2. We may watchfully and carefully take out of the child’s way everything that would hinder the child from naturally and healthily developing itself. This is the kind of influence which can be so wisely and helpfully exercised in the Church, and in the ordinary associations of life.
Hebrews 12:14. The Christian’s Race and Goal.—The idea running through this chapter is that this world is the Christian’s training for heaven. Our Christian course is compared to a race, which implies our effort; not to a voyage, in which we are borne by the effort of others. The images employed in Scripture imply the most sustained effort. A race which is to be run; a narrow path by which many shall seek to enter into life, and those only who strive shall enter; a battle to be won, which requires the whole armour of God, and this we are invited to put on. How far has the reception of the good news that “Christ died for all” really had the effect of leading men to live “not unto themselves, but unto Him that died for them and rose again”? How, then, are we to run this race that is set before us? The answer is, “Looking unto Jesus.” He is our pattern. Christian holiness is a growing conformity to the image of Christ. He saves both from the guilt and from the power of sin—gives purity as well as pardon. He has brought in everlasting righteousness.—Robert Barclay.
Peaceableness and Purity.—The connection between “peace” and “holiness” may profitably be thought out.
1. Peace as a state and condition, peace as an atmosphere, is the surrounding in which Christian holiness can alone thrive. Other good things may thrive in time of war: holiness cannot. There is a bloom on it which cannot stay unless the air is still.
2. But there is a more precise point in the text. It is this—the man who seeks peace, who “follows after peace,” is the man who will be sure to seek also holiness, and follow after purity. Let any one make for peace, keep peace, that man will be sure to make things clean, and keep things clean. He knows that the one thing that spoils peace is self-indulgence and sin.
The Peaceful Temper.—Christianity and worldly wisdom meet in conmending the duty of this text. Wise advice is, Beware of getting into quarrels with people. The reason for “following peace” which worldly prudence suggests is the quietness and happiness of life, which are interfered with by relations of enmity to others. The reason which religion gives is the duty of brotherly love, of which the peaceful disposition is a part. The frequency of the advice indicates that there is some strong prevailing tendency in human nature to which it is opposed. What can that tendency be? Some rush into quarrels from simple violence and impetuosity of temper, which prevents their examining the merits of a case, and permits them to see nothing but what favours their own side. And there is the malignant temper, which fastens vindictively upon particular persons. Men of this character pursue a grudge unceasingly, and never forget or forgive. There are also many persons who can never be neutral, or support a middle state of mind. If they do not positively like others, they will see some reason for disliking them; they will be irritable if they are not pleased; they will be enemies if they are not friends. This disposition has the necessary result of placing them in a kind of enmity towards numbers of persons to whom there is not the slightest real reason for feeling it. It is simply irksome to them to maintain an attitude of indifference and neutrality. The relation of peace towards others is exactly that which the temper described has such a difficulty in adopting. A state of peace is precisely this middle state to which such objection is made. It is not a state of active love and affection; nor is it a state that admits of any ill-feeling; but it lies between the two, comprehending all kindly intentions, forbidding the least wish for another’s injury, avoiding, as much as possible, dispute and occasion of offence, consulting order, quiet, and contentment, but not arriving at more than this. Peace implies the entire absence of positive ill-will. The apostle then says that this is our proper relation toward all men. More than this applies to some, but as much as this applies to all. Be in fellowship with all men, so far as to have nothing wrong in your relation to them—nothing to disunite. Is any other principle of conduct and kind of temper indeed fit for this world in which we live? There are so many obstacles to mutual understanding in this world, and so very thin a veil is enough to hide people from each other, that any other line is hopeless. Two reasons have much to do in promoting the temper to which we are referring:
1. It is very irksome to keep watch over ourselves, and to repel the intrusion of hostile thoughts by the simple resistance of conscience, when we are not assisted by any strong current of natural feeling in doing so.
2. The hostile classes of relation are evidently accompanied by their own pleasures in many temperaments. There is a kind of interest which people take in their own grievances, their own grudges, their own causes of offence at various people, their own discords and animosities, which occupies their thought, it must candidly be said, in a manner not disagreeable to themselves. They enjoy these states of mind towards others in their own way. It is with the entire knowledge of these weaknesses and frailties of human nature, and these elements of disturbance, even in minds of average goodness, that St. Paul said, “Follow peace with all men.” It is not without design that the two things “peace” and “holiness” were connected together by the apostle. A life of enmities is greatly in opposition to growth in holiness. All religious habits and duties—prayer, charity, mercy—are formed and matured when the man is in a state of peace with others, when he is not agitated by small selfish excitements and interests, which divert him from himself and his own path of duty, but can think of himself what he ought to do and where he is going.—J. B. Mozley, D.D.
Holiness bringing Sight of God.—
1. Seeing God is, to all Scripture writers, the very highest conception of bliss. Such a conception attests their superiority to ordinary men. What a sublime conception it is! It really means full, satisfying, up to capacity, knowledge of God. Present knowledge is not restful; the knowledge which comes by faith is. The future knowledge of God may be called “seeing,” in the sense of restful, satisfying, sure knowledge, but not in the sense of being absolutely complete. He must be God who can fully see God.
2. Holiness is, for all Scripture writers, the necessary condition of bliss. Here also is a conception beyond the reach of ordinary men. Holiness is an idea wholly limited to religion. The ordinary man reaches to conceive of goodness according to the standard of the Golden Rule. The religious man reaches to conceive of goodness as “godliness,” according to the standard of his spiritual apprehension of God. With that altogether higher conception all his life becomes higher-toned. See what belongs to the Scriptural idea of holiness.
(1) Sincerity—no guile.
(4) Separated from.
(5) Consecrated to.
(6) Sanctified and sanctifying; white and whitening.
3. How does holiness become the condition of seeing God?
(1) Holiness is the trained vision that alone gives perfect sight.
(2) Holiness fully seen and apprehended is God. It is inseparable from Him. He is the embodiment of it to us. Like alone sees like. The holy alone can see the Holy One. But as our apprehension of holiness grows, we lift it more and more away into the future. It seems to be something attainable in the by-and-by alone. Then there is the danger of our becoming content with an imperfect Christian life now. It should therefore be duly impressed upon us that the Scripture sets holiness before us as present, and practical, and attainable. Absolute perfection is unattainable anywhere, in any world, by a dependent creature; but high measures of holiness are attainable by us, though we are creatures—attainable, if we will live the life of faith.
Hebrews 12:15-16. The Perils of Churches.—Our Lord made it quite clear that the sincere and insincere would be blended in His earthly Church; that no strict attempts could ever be wisely made to separate them; and that the presence of the insincere would have a disciplinary influence on the sincere. Dr. A. B. Bruce says: “In the parables of the tares and the drag-net, especially in the former, we are warned that in the future history of the kingdom there will appear a revolting and unnatural mixture of good and bad men, Christians and anti-Christians, children of the heavenly Father and children of Satan.… Christ deliberately recommends patience as the least of two evils, the other being the uprooting of wheat along with tares in headlong zeal to get rid of the noxious crop [of tares]; which implies a close inter-relationship between the two kinds of growths that may well seem an additional calamity.” St. Paul, in his address to the elders of Ephesus, pointed out the main sources of peril for Christian Churches. “I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” It is a point of importance to see that the supreme peril of any Church never comes with its circumstances, but always from the character and conduct of its members. The Church’s foes are traitors within the city.
I. Peril comes from the inconsistent member.—The man who is sincere, and has the grace of God; but fails to respond worthily to the grace; fails to order his life by the grace; fails to rise to the spiritual level to which the grace would lift him. The man who permits his life to be below the Christ-standard.
II. Peril comes from the quarrelsome member.—That is the “root of bitterness”—the man who makes disturbance, because nothing is ever to his mind, and somebody is always hurting his feelings. The quarrelsome man does the supreme mischief of introducing the quarrelsome spirit.
III. Peril comes from the insincere member.—There are those who are in the Church, but not of it. Their insincerity may be indicated in their
(2) in their immorality. There never can be any right sense of God when there is no cleanness, no moral self-restraint, in the life.
Hebrews 12:16. Selling the Birthright.—“So Esau despised his birthright.” It was done in a moment; but such moments cannot occur except as the epitome of years. There is a plant which is fabled to rush into crimson blossom once only in a hundred years; but even then all the hundred years have been causing, have been maturing, that one crimson flower. So it is with every great sin. It is but the ripened fruit of hundreds of little tendencies. Esau’s guilty moment was but the expression and heritage of all his past life. It was as a youth that he had sold his birthright; it was as a man, it was forty years afterwards, that the seed of that youthful profanity set into the bitter fruit of irreparable grief. It was forty years afterwards that he stood before his aged and trembling father, and found that what he had sold for a mess of pottage was not only the birthright, but the blessing, the glory, the dominion, the prosperity, of years. Then he read his boyish sin under the terrible glare flung upon it by its consequences. It is the epitome of retribution. What was Esau’s sin? He sold his birthright because he despised it; and he despised it because it was not a thing which he could see, or eat, or drink, or grasp with both hands; because it was a glory and a blessing which pertained not to the body, but to the soul. And is this sin rare? Is it not the very commonest of all sins? Is it not distinctly the sin to which every one of us is tempted? And why? Because all men have not faith; and this sin is the absence of faith, the opposite of all faith. For faith is the power to recognise the spiritual, and to trample on the carnal. Want of faith often looks like the sin of a moment, but it is the abstract of a tendency, it is the habit of a life. It is that profane self-indulgence to which an ideal blessing is as nothing compared to a momentary pleasure. What then is the birthright that each one of us has? It is the synthesis of all spiritual blessings. It is a body rightly endowed: it is a mind thrilling with bright affinities for all things beautiful and high; it is a spirit, in which are folded the wings which can soar to heaven, and hold communion with the Divine. It is life; the innocent brightness of childhood, the spring of youth, the force of manhood, the snowy and sunlit heights of age. Do men keep their birthright? Our birthright is innocence, holiness, peace with God, life, light, immortality. Where is the holiness of the liar, the schemer, the blasphemer? Where is the innocence of the drunkard? Where the peace with God of the impure? Yet there are among these crowds some who have not sold their birthright—some who, even in Sardis, have not stained their raiment; the holy, and the brave, and the merciful; the white souls who have toiled, and fought and overcome—souls “transparent as crystal, active as fire, unselfish as the ministering spirits, sweet and tender as grace; strong, generous, and enduring, as the hearts of martyrs.” But how comes it that all are not such? It is because, for one morsel of meat, they have sold their birthright. The one aim and object of all God’s education of us in life is the cherishing, the preserving, the securing, of our birthright. It is in youth that the birthright is most often sold. This should be the aim of every man who would make something of his life—to keep his birthright unimpaired, not to sell it for a mess of pottage, not to sell it for the careless hour or the sensual snare. That youth is in the highest sense well educated who by God’s grace passes into the battle of life strong, self-denying, pure; scorning mean pleasures, scorning vulgar comforts, scorning idle uselessness; brave to meet danger, brave to defy sin, brave to fight in the cause of God; strenuous to do and to do dare; ready to spring to the front in every good cause; not following the multitude to do evil. To be thus is to have the birthright of a man. To strengthen the higher, to control the lower, to enlist on the side of the higher every pure spiritual influence, to help you to win the tranquil mastery over yourselves—this should be your aim.
“One there is can curb myself,
Can roll this strangling load off me,
Break off my yoke and set me free.”
That one is Christ.—Farrar.
Profanity in the Home.—In Scripture there are few characters more profitable for study than Esau. Here is a man who came to sin by birth into it, by the sins of others as well as his own, by every-day and sordid temptations, by carelessness, and the sudden surprise of neglected passions. There is everything about Esau to engage us in the study of him. The mystery that haunts all human sin, the pity that we feel for so wronged and genial a nature, only make clear to us more fully the central want and blame of his life.
I. Esau was sinned against from his birth.—His father and mother were responsible for much of the character of their son. The marriage of Isaac and Rebecca began in a romance, and it ended in the sheerest vulgarity, just because, with all its grace and wonder, the fear of God was not present. Their introduction was very picturesque. The Nemesis of picturesqueness without truth is always sordidness; the Nemesis of romance without religion is always vulgarity; and vulgarity and sordidness are the prevailing notes of Isaac and Rebecca’s wedded life. Throughout we see a divided house—father and elder son upon one side, mother and younger son upon the other. Of such a false and hasty mother was Esau born, and he had her haste. Sin, whatever form it assumes, always works itself out, if not in the first generation, then in the next, to violent ends. The faults that spoiled Rebecca’s character were the same faults that ruined Esau’s life.
II. Esau got his “profane” character at home.—“Profane” means “thoroughfare.” A “profane” character means an open, common character, unhallowed, no guardian angel at the door, no gracious company within, no heavenly music pealing through it, no fire upon the altar, but open to his dogs and his passions, to his mother’s provocations, and his brother’s fatal wiles. The home was not walled in by reverence and truth, and the steadfast patience of father and mother.
III. In the subsequent tragedy we see the climax of minor vices.—Two habits came to their fatal head in Esau’s confession and his offer to sell his birthright (see Genesis 25:30-34).
1. First, his hunger; second, exaggeration. The physical selfishness of hunger, stimulated by the mental selfishness of thinking and feeling in an exaggerated way about oneself, sprang to fatal empire, and at their bidding the deluded man sold his birthright, his life, and his honour. There are more people cheated out of their spiritual birthrights by ordinary selfishness than by great crimes. The habit of insisting upon getting our own way in every little matter distorts the true porportion of life to our eyes. The habit of thinking in an extravagant way about oneself, how often it cheats us out of the great chances of life, and renders us unfit for life’s noblest callings! Some are needed to take the lead in Church or State, for inspiration in the crowd, for God’s work; but a base love of comfort, a selfish exaggertion of their impotence or weakness, a cowardly succumbing to the sorrow that should have been the flood-tide to carry them to triumph, turned them from their idea and their God-given right.
2. The other point in the development of Esau’s tragedy is this—his passion made him the prey of the first designing man he came across. There is not a pleasure or a passion which to-day tempts any one, but there are men and women waiting to make something out of it for themselves, and to make fools of us. Let no one be deluded by either of the two great temptations to a life of pleasure—by the fancy that you are going to play the full-grown man in it, or by the fancy that you are going to enjoy a cordiality and a friendship that you will fail to find in more sober or steady circles.
IV. Let us get back to this word “profane.”—It is the centre of the whole evil. Fence your characters; make yourselves not common. Guard against little vices. Keep the virtue of truth. Jealously guard your hearts from the vulgar world; jealously fill them with the inhabitants of the world of holiness and truth. An empty mind is the unsafest and unhallowedest thing in the world.
V. God has provided something more for us than guardian angels: He has given us a Saviour.—A Saviour sufficient for the world. Let Him dwell in your hearts by faith, and, like Jacob, you may be lifted from your low level to the very heights of spiritual character and genius.—Prof. G. Adam Smith.
Hebrews 12:17. Lost Opportunities.—This verse is easily misapprehended. It is quite misused when it is made to mean that a man may at some time want to repent, and find repentance impossible. It is equally misused when it is made to mean that a man may seek forgiveness from God, and fail to gain it. All that is said is, that Isaac, having given the blessing, refused to undo what he had done.
Estimating the Value of Things Lost.—Wonderful is the intelligence with which we can perceive the value of anything we have lost. The collector of household treasures is cited, who in his daily walks may see in a shop-window a little bit of china, a picture, an apostle spoon, a quaint old volume, which he intends to bargain for one day when he shall have leisure; so he passes it a hundred times, indifferent as to its merits, half uncertain whether it is worth buying. But he discovers some day that it is gone; and then in a moment the doubtful shepherdess becomes the rarest old china, the dirty-looking bit of landscape an undeniable Crome, the battered silver spoon an unquestionable antique, the quaintly bound book a choice Elzevir. “The thing is lost; and we regret it for all that it might have been, as well as for all that it was, and there are no bounds to the extravagance we would commit to regain the chance of possessing it.” This is but the subjunctive or potential mood of what is simply but largely indicative in Scott’s sufficiently commonplace couplet—
“Those who such simple joys have known
Are taught to prize them when they’re gone.”
Blessings Estimated when they have Vanished.—Possession drowns, or at least mightily cools, contentment. Want teaches us the worth of things more truly. How sweet a thing seems liberty to one immured in a dungeon! How dear a jewel is health to him who is in sickness! I have known many who have loved their dead friends better than ever they esteemed them in their lifetime.… When we have lost a benefit, the mind has time to reflect on its several advantages, which she then finds to be many more than she was aware of while in possession of it. It is a true remark, that blessings appear not till they have vanished.—Owen Feltham.
Belated Appreciation of Blessings Past.—Coming home faint from the field, Esau, that cunning hunter and man of the woods, preferred to his birthright a meal of Jacob’s bread and pottage of lentils. Behold, he was a-hungered; felt even at the point to die of hunger: what profit should that birthright do to him? Let it go. And it went. Thus Esau despised his birthright. Time passes; and we see the red hunter, even Edom, plying his aged father with savoury meat, that Isaac may eat of his son’s venison, and bless his elder-born, before he die. But the blessing is forestalled. The subtle purchaser of the birthright is the fraudulent possessor of the blessing. In vain, for all too late, is Esau’s great and exceeding bitter cry, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” The blessing is gone, like the birthright. For one morsel of meat was the birthright bartered. And he who stigmatises the barterer as a “profane person” tells us that we know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place of repentance—τόπον μετανοίας: by some of our best commentators referred to Isaac, who could not be induced to alter his decision, though the disinherited suppliant sought it carefully with tears. A morsel of meat was worth more than the birthright till the birthright was gone. Gone, the valuation of it was declared with streaming eyes and an exceeding bitter cry, with, as it were, groanings that could not be uttered—a flood of unavailing tears, shed all the more because shed in vain. And such is the way of the world.—Francis Jacox.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 12:18. Might be touched.—A figure of speech for a “material” thing. “A palpable and enkindled fire.” For the terrors accompanying the giving of the law on Sinai, see Exodus 19:20.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 12:18-21
Emblems of the Older Revelation.—The rhetorical character of this passage is very marked, and it should be treated as we properly treat rhetorical work. It is unreasonable to press for a precise meaning and a logical relation in the terms of a rhetorical passage. Farrar says: “At the close of his arguments and exhortations the writer condenses the results of his epistle into a climax of magnificent eloquence and force, in which he shows the transcendent beauty and supremacy of the new covenant as compared with the terrors and imperfections of the old.” The point which comes out most prominently is, that the old was an outward and material religion of bodily acts, relations, obediences, and ceremonies. Its character could therefore be indicated by material signs: nature-moods and nature-forces could be wisely associated with the founding of that religion, and the promulgation of that law. Dr. Geikie recalls to mind the sublimity of the great day of Sinai: “At last, on the morning of the third day, the peaks of the mountain were seen veiled in thick clouds, through which lightnings quivered vividly and unintermittently, as if the vast height were aflame; terrible thunders leaped from crag to crag, and reverberated in multiplied echoes, like the sound of mighty trumpets announcing the approach of God. The phenomena of thunder-storms were in all ages associated by the Hebrews, as by other early and simple races, with the Divine presence, and were its fitting accompaniments when Jehovah now actually drew nigh. All nature was moved, and seemed to tremble before Him. The people had been led out by Moses to see a spectacle so august, but its terrors awed small and great; for as they gazed the mountain appeared to smoke like a furnace, and to reel on its foundations. But if the sight presented were august, the words which sounded above the thunders were still more so.… What, in comparison with a moment like this, was the whole record of the Hindoo, Egyptian, or other nations, however ancient—with all their wisdom, or their gigantic creations of temples, pyramids, and colossi? The transaction on Sinai was for all time, and for the life beyond. It laid the foundation of true morality and human dignity among mankind. It was the birth-hour of a people differing from all yet seen. The simple but profound truths of a spiritual God of whom no likeness was to be made—a Being who draws to Himself the oppressed and wretched; of the veneration to be shown to parents; of chastity; of the sacredness of human life and of property; of truth between man and man; and of the necessity of a clear conscience, were first revealed at Sinai, as a legacy for all ages.” Dean Stanley gives us even a deeper impression of the relation in which nature stood to the old revelation: “The outward scene might indeed prepare them for what was to come. They stood in a vast sanctuary, not made with hands—a sanctuary where every outward shape of life, animal or vegetable, such as in Egypt had attracted their wonder and admiration, was withdrawn. Bare and unclothed, the mountains rose around them; their very shapes and colours were such as to carry their thoughts back to the days of primeval creation, ‘from everlasting to everlasting, before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made.’ At last the morning broke, and every eye was fixed on the summit of the height (Ras Sufsafeh). Was it any earthly form, was it any distinct shape, that unveiled itself?… There were thunders, there were lightnings, there was the voice of a trumpet exceeding loud; but on the mount itself there was a thick cloud—darkness, and clouds, and thick darkness. It was ‘the secret place of thunder.’ On the summit of the mountain, on the skirts of the dark cloud or within it, was Moses himself withdrawn.… They saw not God; and yet they were to believe that He was there. They were to make no sign or likeness of God, and yet they were to believe that He was then and always their one and only Lord.” This sublime scene the writer of the paragraph before us recalls to mind; but it is the materiality of it all on which he dwells. These were nature-emblems of a ceremonial and outward religion.
I. A material mountain.—“A mount that might be touched.” It had substance. It was a real mountain. It has been noticed that those who are born and dwell in mountain districts, though they feel passionately attached to their country, seldom either intellectually or poetically interest themselves in the hills. Those who visit such districts receive the mental and spiritual impressions which they are calculated to produce. And the Israelites were visitors to Sinai, to whom the mountain impressions fully came, giving thoughts of the eternity, stability, and sublimity of Him who made these everlasting hills His throne. How the mountains waken thought may be illustrated by one of R. Buchanan’s Coruisken Sonnets.
“Ghostly and livid, robed with shadow, see!
Each mighty mountain silent on its throne,
From foot to scalp one stretch of livid stone,
Without one gleam of grass or greenery.
Silent they take the immutable decree—
Darkness or sunlight come—they do not stir;
Each bare brow lifted desolately free,
Keeping the silence of a death-chamber.
Silent they watch each other until doom;
They see each other’s phantoms come and go,
Yet stir not. Now the stormy hour brings gloom,
Now all things grow confused and black below,
Specific through the cloudy drift they loom,
And each accepts his individual woe.
Monarch of these is Blaabhein. On his height
The lightning and the snow sleep side by side,
Like snake and lamb; he broodeth in a white
And wintry consecration.”
II. An earthly form.—The awful majesty of tempests in mountain districts is told by travellers. The thunders roll from hill to hill, and gather force as they roll. The might of nature-powers is overwhelmingly impressed on the soul, and man feels his utter nothingness and helplessness in their presence. And yet Elijah learned in this very region of Sinai, that the fire and tempest are but material forces, and belong to the lower ranges of Divine revelation. Those lower, earthly ranges were the only ones which the Israelites could then reach. The time for the spiritual revelations was not then fully come.
III. A trumpet-voice.—Which seems to mean sound without sense. The appeal to fear, rather than to love. A call to attention, an awakening to concern; but the time was not fitted for the utterance of words which could be taken into thought and heart, and made the guide and rule of life. At least the words could not then come from God Himself. His voice sounded to Israel but as the blare of some mighty trumpet, and it did but fill them with fear.
IV. A strict injunction.—They were to consider that mountain so entirely sacred, that they must not permit even a stray beast to overpass the boundaries. The living symbol of that sacredness of the Holy of Holies, where God dwelt, which was the very centre of their religious system. All the emblems suggested a formal, outward, material revelation and religion. And it is of the very essence of outward, material religion—the religion of forms and rites and ceremonies—that it treats men as children, and helps them to goodness through fear. A spiritual revelation and religion—which comes to man and spirit in the power of the Holy Spirit—alone can treat men as men, and help them to goodness by principle and trust and love. The way of “help to goodness through fear” is always called for, since in every age there are found men who are but children, and therefore must be treated as such. Sinai that may be touched, till there can be apprehension of Zion that cannot be touched.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 12:18-19. Sinai and Zion.
I. Christianity is a spiritual, not a material, dispensation.
II. Though it is spiritual in its nature, it employs material forms as adjuncts.
III. Sinai and Zion are only marks of progress, not final destinations.—Jesus is the grand resting-point.
(1) that privilege is the measure of responsibility;
(2) that there is no limit to progress in love and knowledge.—Dr. J. Parker.
Hebrews 12:18-21. The Gospel Church and the Jewish Church.—Here the writer goes on to engage the professing Hebrews to perseverance in their Christian course and conflict, and not to relapse into Judaism. He shows how much the gospel Church differs from the Jewish Church, and how much it excels. We have a very particular description of the state of the Church under the Mosaic dispensation.
1. It was a grossly sensible state. Mount Sinai, on which that Church-state was constituted, was a gross, palpable place. It was very much external and earthly.
2. It was a dark dispensation. Upon that mount there were blackness and darkness; and that Church-state was covered with dark shadows and types.
3. It was a dreadful dispensation; the Jews could not bear the terror of it.
4. It was a limited dispensation; all might not approach to that mount, but only Moses and Aaron.
5. It was a very dangerous dispensation. The mount burned with fire, and whatever man or beast touched the mount must be “stoned” or “thrust through with a dart.” This was the state of the Jewish Church, fitted to awe a stubborn and hard-hearted people, to set forth the strict and tremendous justice of God, to wean the people of God from that dispensation, and induce them more readily to embrace the sweet and gentle economy of the gospel Church, and adhere to it.—Matthew Henry.
Hebrews 12:18-24. The Two Mounts.—There, on the right hand, are the flowery slopes of the mount of blessing; there, on the left, the barren, stern, thunder-riven, lightning-splintered pinnacles of the mount of cursing. Every clear note of benediction hath its low minor of imprecation from the other side. Between the two, overhung by the hopes of the one, and frowned upon and dominated by the threatenings of the other, is pitched the little camp of our human life, and the path of our pilgrimage runs in the trough of the valley between. And yet, might I not go a step further, and say that above the parted summits stretches the one overarching blue, uniting them both, and their roots deep down below the surface interlace and twine together?—A. Maclaren, D.D.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 12
Hebrews 12:18. Mount Sinai.—Among the characteristics of Sinai one must not be omitted—the deep stillness, and consequent reverberation of the human voice. From the highest point of Rás Sufsàfeh to its lower peak, a distance of about sixty feet, the page of a book, distinctly but not loudly read, was perfectly audible; and every remark of the various groups of travellers, descending from the heights of the same point, rose clearly to those immediately above them. It was the belief of the Arabs who conducted Niebuhr, that they could make themselves heard across the gulf of Akaba—a belief, doubtless, exaggerated, yet probably originated or fostered by the great distance to which, in these regions, the voice can actually be carried, and it is, probably, from the same causes that so much attention has been excited by the mysterious noises which have, from time to time, been heard on the summit of Gebel Mousa, in the neighbourhood of Um-Shómer, and the mountains of Nâkús, or the Bell, so called from the legend that the sounds proceed from the bells of the convent enclosed within the mount. In this last instance the sound is supposed to originate in the rush of sand down the mountain-side, and here, as elsewhere, playing the same part as the waters or snows of the North. In the case of Gebel Mousa, where it is said that the monks had originally settled on the highest peak, but were, by these strange noises, driven down to their present seat in the valley, and in the case of Um-Shómer, where it was described to Burckhardt as like the sound of artillery, the precise cause has never been ascertained. But in all these instances the effect must have been heightened by the death-like silence of the region, where the fall of waters, even the trickling of brooks, is unknown.—Dean Stanley.
Roots Uncomely but Useful.—The root of a plant is often a rough and very unsightly part. Its colour is unpleasing, and its form ungainly, yet it plays an all-important part in the economy of the plant’s life. You may pluck off the bright flowers and leaves one by one till all is stripped bare, and it will still survive; but the root is essential to its life: injure or remove it, and the plant perishes. Again, the oxygen, the life-sustaining element of the air, given off by the various members of the vegetable kingdom, comes entirely from the stem and leaves, the green parts of the plant, the more beautiful flowers and fruit only exhaling poisonous carbon. So it is with the body mystical of Christ, “the Church of the firstborn,” and its members in particular.… Often God brings a rough, uncouth Luther to far more distinction than a refined Erasmus, and exalts Bunyan the tinker above the most polished of his pious contemporaries. The “uncomely parts” have more honour, for it is God’s method of working to place more honour upon them, and make them of more use. It is very humbling to pride, especially spiritual pride, but it is His way, who will have “no flesh to glory before Him.”—James Neil, M.A.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 12:22. Mount Sion.—The spiritual or heavenly mount. Not Jerusalem, but what is represented by Jerusalem. “The mountain and city of a living God.” Innumerable company.—Lit. “myriads, the joyful company of angels.”
Hebrews 12:23. Church of the firstborn.—The saints from the older dispensation. Some regard it as meaning the Christian saints who had gone to glory; but the spiritual association of spiritual Christian Jews with spiritual Jews of all the ages is prominently before the writer’s mind.
Hebrews 12:24. Blood of sprinkling.—A figure taken from the blood-sprinklings of the old covenant (Exodus 24:8 : see 1 Peter 1:2). That is done spiritually by Jesus which was materially represented in the old blood-sprinklings. See Hebrews 9:14.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 12:22-24
Emblems of the Spiritual Dispensation.—These verses give the antithesis to all this scene of terror which accompanied the introduction of the ancient law. Worshippers, under the new dispensation, approach a scene of a very different nature. There should not be sought anything material to answer to these emblems; the suggestion of them, and explanation of them, lie wholly in the spiritual range. Dr. Moulton quotes a valuable and helpful passage from Delitzsch: “What it was to which Israel in the time of the old covenant drew nigh we have now heard. Their drawing nigh was at the same time a standing afar off; the mount of the revelation might not be approached by them; the voice of God was too terrible to be borne; and yet it was only tangible material nature in which God at once manifested and concealed Himself. The true and inner communion with God had not yet been revealed; first must the law lead to the painful consciousness that sin prevents such communion, and intensify the longing that sin may be taken out of the way. Under the new covenant, no longer is a tangible mountain the place of a Divine revelation made from afar; but heaven is thrown open, and a new super-sensuous world, in which God is enthroned, is opened to admit us—opened through the Mediator of the new covenant, accessible in virtue of His atoning blood.” Sinai and Zion are contrasted in six particulars, as emblems of the respective dispensations.
I. An immaterial mountain.—A mountain still, because Zion as truly conserves the impressions of the eternity, stability, and sublimity of God. Zion is not the familiar mount at Jerusalem. It is the name for the heavenly abode, the spiritual abode of God.
II. An intangible city.—The heavenly or spiritual Jerusalem. Jerusalem which is above. The city which in his vision St. John saw descending from God. The place where are gathered all who are spiritually quickened, whether they be alive or, as we say, dead.
III. A company of angels.—Conceived of as spiritual beings, and therefore kin with men when men are spiritually quickened.
IV. A Church of firstborn souls.—“To myriads of angels, and to a festal assembly and Church of the firstborn.” The reference is meant to appeal directly to personal feeling. The firstborn are those who first received Christ, and eternal life in Him. They had passed from the mortal sphere; but they formed a festal, happy company in the spiritual spheres. “Spirits of the just made perfect.”
V. A satisfying relation with God.—“And to God the Judge of all.” Intimating the absence of all fear of the Judge, seeing that the Judge is their Saviour. They can come unhesitatingly to Him.
VI. A living and spiritual Redeemer, whose work is a spiritual work in souls. There is no intended reference to the Church, or to any Church on earth. “It is to the living, the universal Church that the words are from age to age addressed. They describe the blessed, heavenly fellowship to which each servant of Christ now toiling on earth is joined; when he has run the race set before him, he will, through the blood of sprinkling and through Jesus the Mediator, reach the company of the just made perfect, and stand before the God of all.” So constantly and so seriously are spiritual men being enticed back to material conceptions, material relations, and material religion—as Christian Jews were to formal Judaism—that it needs to be ever freshly impressed upon us that, though the material will ever seem to be the real so long as we continue imprisoned by the senses, the spiritual is the real; and this we shall fully apprehend when we are free to be the spirits that we are, and free to exercise the spiritual powers that we have.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 12:22-24. Privileges of the Christian.—Remember the great tenacity with which the Jews held fast to their historical faith; how, over and above pride and worldliness, there was what I might almost call a relentless tenacity in their religious convictions. Therefore apostles urged that, in accepting Christ, the Jew really gave up nothing. You do not abandon the Jewish law, the Mosaic economy, when you accept Christ. You fulfil it more perfectly than when you leave Christ out, and attempt to follow Moses. And, still better, you lose nothing. Under the old dispensation you were constrained, you were under bondage. We ask you not to abandon that in any such sense as to be recreant to its real spirit, but to accept it in the larger presentation which it has in the Lord Jesus Christ, so that you shall have a thousand times more. You lose nothing, you gain everything. Do not fear to accept Christ, for it gives you all that you had before, and a thousand times more. It advances you out of the twilight, and out of the storm-clad horizon of your past faith, into the glorious illumination of a more spiritual worship, where all forms of fear and ghastly motives of terror cease, and where companionship and Divine guidance and infinite blessings await you. And ye are actually come to these things. It is a part of the privilege which belongs to the earthly ministration of your faith. What, then, is the privilege of the Christian? Christians are heirs of a wonderful inheritance, which is already so far dispensed, portions of which are ministered in advance, in such a way that, if they but knew it, they would be transcendently happy.
1. “Ye are come unto … the heavenly Jerusalem”—God’s home. God takes us to His own home. We are surrounded by it. We touch it, or are touched by it. We are brought into such intimate relations, if we be true Christians, with Christ or with God, that, whether we know it or not, the kingdom of God is within us or around us.
2. “To an innumerable company of angels.” It is not that when we die we shall go where angels live, but that when we come into the new dispensation, by the true spirit of faith, we then come to the “general assembly.” Angelic ministration is a part, not of the heavenly state, but of the universal condition of men. Moreover, we come into junction and relationship with everything that has been on earth worthy of remembrance, of enunciation, of celebration. All the great natures of the world are ours, if they have been saved. “The spirits,” they are called, “of just men.” But they are the spirits made perfect in their beatified condition.
3. “To Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.” This to the Jew meant nothing, but to the disciple meant everything. What are fitting applications of this passage?
I. We are come by virtue of our Christian life, not to self-denial, and to pain, and to repentance, and to sorrow, and to limitation.—A man who has been going in wrong courses must needs pass through the gate of repentance and the baptism of sorrow. But the popular impression, that to be a religious man is to enter upon a life of gloom, is a false impression. If a man becomes a Christian, he is simply a man that has been in an abnormal state, an out-of-joint state; and becoming a Christian, is merely getting back into joint with God, with his own spiritual being, with the universe. He comes into nature again—for a man that is living in a sinful way is out of nature—his higher and truer nature. Ye are not come to tears or to sorrow. Ye are come to triumph, to an illustrious company, to glorious heraldings. Ye are come to convoys and felicities, and radiant hopes and blessed fruitions. “May I not cry then?” Yes, just as the night does—and in the morning it is dew. True tears make men beautiful.
II. It is a great comfort, in the light of this truth, that nothing on earth has ever been lost that was worth keeping.—Everything has been gathered and garnered, and that for you and me. All the holy men that have lived in every age of the world are mine—every one of them. All the apostles, all the martyrs, all the confessors, all pure and true preachers of the word, all kings that deserved to be kings, all nobles that were nobles of heart as well as of name, all holy mothers and fathers, all great artists, all great benefactors, all the persecuted and despised, and crucified almost, all that have suffered for a principle, all that the dungeons had, and all that the hospitals had, and all that the sea has swallowed, and all that the earth has covered—all of them, though they have passed through so many and such various pains, although they are apparently destroyed, are no more destroyed than the seed that the farmer covers under the clod, that it may rise again in more glorious luxuriance. God has saved everything that was worth saving in this world.
III. No Christian on earth need be lonely.—If these truths are not poetical truths; if they are real truths; if the air is full of administering spirits; if time itself is but the Lord’s chariot, and He rides with those who ride therein; if everywhere, above us, beneath us, and on every side, and all through the world, good men are substantially united, who has had to do more than lift himself up into the consciousness of this essential union of noble natures, to feel that he is not without company?
IV. They also who put themselves into the way of Christ, and who sow in tears, who perform obscure duties, and duties that to others are disagreeable, who will not be reduced by ease from tasks of usefulness, who feel in themselves called to follow Christ in doing, in labouring, who are considered singular and remarked—are they not by these very things joined to this exceeding great company?—H. Ward Beecher.
Hebrews 12:23. The General Assembly.—When the florist gathers his seeds in the best way he can, and winnows them, giving them the best sifting he can, the poorest seeds are carried away by the wind with the chaff, and he loses them, unless he is a very acute seedsman, and goes after these poor seeds to bring them back again, that they may swell the bulk and quantity of his saleable material. But when the great Gardener shall save His seeds, the poorest seed of the whole, the most shrunken, if it only has a germ no bigger than a needle’s point in it, shall not be lost. Not the great, beauteous, plump seeds alone, but the little infinitesimal seeds—all these God has saved, and He will save them all.—H. Ward Beecher.
Heaven a State of Perfection.—“And to the spirits of just men made perfect.” The text expresses what the Christian Israelites were come, and were tending, to, the representation whereof hath a double reference: intermediate—to the state and constitution of the Christian Church; and final—to the heavenly state; the former being both a resemblance, and some degree, of the latter.
I. The perfection the spirits of the just do finally arrive to in their future state.—Being “made perfect” is an agonistical phrase. To it the idea of “running a race” plainly leads us. But it is a real, inward, subjective perfection, by which they all become most excellent creatures, that must be chiefly meant. Perfection, in a moral sense, doth contain a threefold gradation:
1. At the lowest, sincerity. The man is a resolved and thorough Christian.
2. An eminent improvement, greater maturity in Divine knowledge, and all other Christian virtues.
3. The consummate state of the Christian, when he is come “to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” The felicity of the future state depends upon such perfection of the subject of it. Concerning the object of felicity, we are agreed it can be no other than the blessed God Himself, the all-comprehending God, fully adequate to the highest and most enlarged reasonable desires. But the contemporation of our faculties to the holy, blissful object is so necessary to our satisfying fruition, that without that we are no more capable thereof, than a brute of the festivities of a quaint oration, or a stone of the relishes of the most pleasant meats and drinks. We are too apt to fill our minds with ideas of a heaven made up of external, outside glories, forgetting we must have the “kingdom of God within us,” hereafter in its perfect, as well as here in its initial, state. The internal perfection of the spirits of just men is thus indicated—“We shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is”; it includes likeness to God, and the vision of Him. This likeness to God may be considered as preparative for the vision of Him; or the vision of Him may be considered as an argument for our seeking to grow like Him. Ultimate perfection is virtually contained and summed up in knowledge.
1. The true and proper object of knowledge must be whatever is requisite to their duty and felicity—all that lies within their compass, but especially the blessed God Himself.
2. The manner of knowing is not that slight, ineffectual, merely notional, insipid knowledge, which unregenerate minds are now wont to have of the most evident truths, but a knowledge, or vision, that is most deeply and inwardly penetrative, efficacious, and transforming; admits a light which spreads and transfuses itself through the whole soul. Accordingly, the whole, even of practical religion and godliness, is in the Holy Scripture expressed by the knowledge of God. Likeness to God certainly ensues upon suitable preceding knowledge of Him; for the kind and nature of that knowledge being, as it ought to be, powerful, vigorous, transforming of the whole soul, and the will ductile and compliant, agreeable impressions do most certainly take place. But this likeness to God must be understood with exception to the Divine peculiarities.
II. In what sense may sincere Christians be said to have already come to the spirits of the just made perfect?—
1. In a relative sense, as belonging to the “general assembly,” of which the spirits of the just form part.
2. In a real sense; by a gradual, but true participation of the primordia, the first and most constituent principles and perfections of the heavenly state.
The following reflections conclude the discourse:
1. It ought to be most remote from us to confine, in our narrow thoughts, sincere religion and godliness to a party, distinguished by little things, and most extra-essential thereto.
2. The spirits of the just on earth are in a great propinquity, and have a near alliance to heaven.
3. The just in this world are of the Church in heaven.
4. Angels must have kind propensions towards men, especially good men, in this world.
5. When we find any excellent persons in our world attain far and high towards the perfection of the heavenly state, it ought to be a great encouragement to us, and is an obligation, to aspire to some like pitch.—John Howe.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 12
Hebrews 12:23. The Church Triumphant.—The πανήγυρις (pançguris) was a solemn assembly for purposes of festal rejoicing … the word having given us “panegyric,” which is properly a set discourse pronounced at one of these great and festal gatherings. Business might grow out of the fact that such multitudes were assembled, since many, and for various reasons, would be glad to avail themselves of the circumstance; but only in the same way as a “fair” grew out of a “feria” or “holy-day.” Strabo notices the business-like aspect which the πανήγυρεις commonly assumed, which was indeed to such an extent their prominent feature that the Romans translated πανήγνρις by the Latin mercatus, and this even when the Olympic games were intended. These, with the other solemn games, were eminently, though not exclusively, the πανἡγυρεις of the Greek nation. If we keep this festal character of the πανήγυρις in mind, we shall find a peculiar fitness in the employment of this word at Hebrews 12:23, where only in the New Testament it occurs. The apostle is there setting forth the communion of the Church militant on earth with the Church triumphant in heaven—of the Church toiling and suffering here, with that Church from which all weariness and toil have for ever passed away (Revelation 21:4); and how could he better describe this last than as a πανήγυρις, than as the glad and festal assembly of heaven?—Trench.
Hebrews 12:24. Blood better than Abel’s.—Abel stands forth before us as the first in a cloud of witnesses, bearing brave testimony, and prepared to seal it with their lives. He died a martyr for the truth, the grandly God-like truth that God accepteth men according to their faith. All honour to the martyr’s blood which speaks so effectually for precious truth. Our Lord Jesus Christ, being also a testifier and witness for the faith of God, spake better things than Abel, because He had more to speak, and spake from more intimate acquaintance with God. He was a fuller witness of Divine truth than Abel could be, for He brought life and immortality to light, and told His people clearly of the Father. Our Lord Jesus Christ had been in the bosom of the Father, and knew the Divine secret; this secret He revealed to the sons of men in His ministry, and then He sealed it by His blood.—C. H. Spurgeon.
Blood crying for Vengeance.—To us it seems a slight, and therefore a strange, commendation of the blood of the great sacrifice to say it speaks better things than vengeance. But to Hebrews who had shed their brother’s blood the case was widely different. Of the men who in the madness of their persecuting zeal had said concerning Jesus, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” imagine some brought afterwards to feel what they had done; what more natural apprehension in their awakened conscience than that their brother’s blood should cry for vengeance against them, as Abel’s blood cried against his murderer? It has been so. The Hebrew nation is a living Cain. Their brother’s blood crieth against them.… To the penitent believer, therefore, how needful, and how suitable, and how satisfactory, was the apostle’s assurance! His death in their hands was indeed the murder, but by the hand of God it had been turned into a mercy.—Hugh McNeile, D.D.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
Hebrews 12:29. Consuming fire.—Deuteronomy 4:24. Not intended as in any sense a description of God, but “an anthropomorphic way of expressing His hatred of apostasy and idolatry. The reference is made in order to show why we ought to serve God with holy reverence and fear.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Hebrews 12:25-29
The Voices of God.—God has always found voices for the communication of His will to men. They always carry responsibility to those who hear them—deepest responsibility to those who not only bear, but distinctly recognise the voice as the voice of God, and fully admit it to be His. And this is precisely the condition of the Christian Jews, to whom this epistle is addressed. They had received Jesus Christ as the voice of God, and doing so had brought them into the most serious responsibilities, which it was impossible for them to shirk. They admitted the Mosaic dispensation to be a voice of God; and so did the writer. But they admitted the voice that spoke in Jesus Christ to be a new and later voice—the last message that had come direct from God. It could not possibly honour God for them to refuse that later voice, and fall back upon their confidence in the earlier one. In order to reassure them, the writer contrasts the two voices, and argues for the deeper responsibilities attaching to the reception of the later one.
I. The voice of God on earth.—A voice that could be heard by human ears, that could be apprehended and written down, and that could put into rule and order all their human conduct, duty, and relations. They came under serious responsibility who received that voice for the guiding of their lives; for the voice was supported by severe and holy sanctions.
II. The voice of God from heaven.—A voice that no human ear could hear, but every human soul might hear if it would. That voice speaks the holy will to the man’s love, and the man first hears with his soul, and then writes the laws upon his heart. In figures the writer says what a searching thing the new voice is. It shakes—tests—everything that is shakeable. It confirms everything that is unshakeable. And the spiritual sanctions that support this voice must be in every way more searching and more awful.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
Hebrews 12:25. Refusing God’s Voice.—The writer has finished his great contrast of Judaism and Christianity as typified by the mounts Sinai and Zion. But the scene at the former still haunts his imagination, and shapes this solemn warning. The multitude gathered there had shrunk from the Divine voice, and “entreated that it might not be spoken to them any more.” So may we do, standing before the better mount of a better revelation.
I. The solemn possibility of refusal.—The exhortation is addressed to professing Christians, who have in so far exercised faith as that, by it, they are “come to Mount Zion.” The true application is to Christian men. And it does not mean entire intellectual rejection of the gospel and its message. Then, again, it is to be noted that the refusal here spoken about, and against which we, professing Christians, are thus solemnly warned, is not necessarily entire intellectual rejection of the gospel and its message. For the Israelites, who made the original “refusal,” to which that which we are warned against is paralleled, recognised the voice that they would not listen to as being God’s voice, and just because it was His voice wanted to hear no more of it. And so, although we may permissibly extend the words before us to include more than is thereby originally meant, yet we must remember that the true and proper application of them is to the conduct of men who, recognising that God is speaking to them, do not want to hear anything more from Him. That is to say, this warning brings to us Christians the reminder that it is possible for us so to tamper with what we know to be the uttered will and expressed commandment of God as that our conduct is tantamount to saying, “Be silent, O Lord! and let me not hear Thee speak any more to me.” The reason for that refusal, which thus, in its deepest criminality and darkest sin, can only be made by men that recognise the voice to be God’s, lies just here, “they could not endure that which was commanded.” So, then, the bottom of the whole thing is this—that it is possible for Christian people so to cherish wills and purposes which they know to be in diametrical and flagrant contradiction to the will and purpose of God, that obstinately they prefer to stick by their own desires, and, if it may be, to stifle the voice of God. Then remember, too, that this refusal, which at bottom is the rising up of the creature’s will, tastes, inclinations, desires, against the manifest and recognised will of God, may, and as a matter of fact often does, go along with a great deal of lip-reverence and unconsciously hypocritical worship. These men from whom the writer is drawing his warning, in the wilderness said, “Don’t let Him speak! We are willing to obey all that He has to command; only let it come to us through human lips, and not in these tremendous syllables that awe our spirits.” They thought themselves to be perfectly willing to keep the commandments when they were given, and all that they wanted was some little accommodation to human weakness in the selection of the medium by which the word was brought. So we may be wrenching ourselves away from the voice of God, because we uncomfortably feel that it is against our resolves, and all the while may never know that we are unwilling to obey His commandments. The unconscious refusal is the formidable and the fatal one. It comes by reason, as I have said, at bottom, of the rising up of our own determinations and wishes against His commandments; but it is also due to other causes operating along with this. How can you hear God’s voice if you are letting your own yelping dog-kennel of passions speak so loudly as they do? Will God’s voice be heard in a heart that is all echoing with earthly wishes, loudly clamant for their gratification, with sensual desires passionately demanding their food to be flung to them? Will God’s voice be heard in a heart where the janglings of contending wishes and earthly inclinations are perpetually loud in their brawling? Will it be heard in a heart which has turned itself into a sounding-board for all the noises of the world and the voices of men? The voice of God is heard in silence, and not amid the noises of our own hearts. And they who, unconscious, perhaps, of what they are doing, open their ears wide to hear what they themselves, in the lower parts of their souls, prescribe for themselves in obedience to the precepts and maxims of men around them, are really refusing to hear the voice of God.
II. The sleepless vigilance necessary to counteract the tendency to refusal.—“See that ye refuse not.” A warning finger is, as it were, lifted. Take heed against the tendencies that lie in yourself and the temptations around you. The consciousness of the possibility of the danger is half the battle. “Blessed is the man that feareth always,” says the psalm. “The confident”—by which is meant the presumptuous, and not the trustful—“goeth on, and is punished.” The timid—by which is meant the self-distrustful—clings to God, because He knows his danger, and is safe. If we think that we are on the verge of falling, we are nearer standing than we ever are besides. To lay to heart the reality and the imminence and the gravity of the possibility that is disclosed here is an essential part of the means for preventing its becoming a reality. They who would say, “I cannot turn away because I have come,” have yet to learn the weakness of their own hearts, and the strength of the world that draws them away. There is no security for us except in the continual temper of rooted self-distrust, for there is no motive that will drive us to the continual confidence in which alone is security, but the persistent pressure of that sense that in ourselves we are nothing, and cannot but fall. I want no man to live in that selfish and anxious dread “which hath torment,” but I am sure that the shortest road to the brave security which is certain of never being defeated is the clear and continual consciousness that
“In ourselves we nothing can,
Full soon were we down-ridden;
But for us fights the proper Man,
Whom God Himself hath bidden.”
The dark underside of the triumphant confidence, which on its sunny side looks up to heaven and receives its light, is that self-distrust which says always to ourselves, “We have to take heed lest we refuse Him that speaketh.” If there is any need to dwell on specific methods by which this vigilance and continual self-distrust may work out for us our security, one would say—By carefully trying to reverse all these conditions which, as we have seen, lead us surely to the refusal. Silence the passions, the wishes, the voices of your own wills and tastes and inclinations and purposes. Bring them all into close touch with Him. Let there be no voice in your hearts till you know God’s will; and then with a leap let your hearts be eager to do it. Keep yourselves out of the babble of the world’s voices, and be accustomed to go by yourselves and let God speak. Do promptly, precisely, perfectly, all that you know He has said. This is the way to sharpen your ears for the more delicate intonations of His voice, and the closer manifestations of His will. If you do not, the voice will hush itself into silence. Thus bringing your lives habitually into contact with God’s word, and testing them all by it, you will not be in danger of “refusing Him that speaketh.”
III. The solemn motives by which this sleepless vigilance is enforced.—“If they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth”—or, perhaps, “who on earth refused Him that spake”—“much more shall not we escape if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven.” The clearness of the voice is the measure of the penalty of non-attention to it. The voice that spoke on earth had earthly penalties as the consequence of disobedience. The voice that speaks from heaven, by reason of its loftier majesty, and of the clearer utterances which are granted to us thereby, necessarily involves more severe and fatal issues from negligence to it.—Anon.
Hebrews 12:27. Things Passing and Things Permanent.—Outside in the world and within our own souls there are stable realities. It is well for us to see them and to have them rising up and becoming stronger under the shock of every earthquake. I. Illustrate this law of things. II. Show some of the benefits that result from it.
I. To illustrate this law.—
1. The Jewish dispensation was shaken, but the great realities enclosed in it remain.—The coming of Christ in the flesh was the signal for the overthrow of that venerable and magnificent system. The Jewish nation has ceased to be the peculiar people of God, but there is a spiritual Israel, all of them priests, to offer sacrifices continually, in lives holy and acceptable through Jesus Christ.
2. The forms of human society are shaken, but the principles that regulate it remain. Christianity intensifies social struggles by pouring new light upon human rights and duties, but great principles of right and freedom assert themselves amid all changes.
3. Outward systems of religion are shaken, but the great truths of the Church of Christ remain. Organisations with a particular human name, locality, and administration are shaken, but the spiritual children of God built on Jesus Christ, the great corner-stone, abide.
4. The temporal circumstances of men are shaken, but the great possessions of the soul remain. In disease, sickness, death, old age, faith in God abides.
5. The material frame of man is shaken, but the immortal spirit remains. There may be a growing life within corresponding to the growing death without.
6. The whole system of nature is shaken, but the new creation remains. When the curtain is gone, we may say: Isaiah 51:6.
II. Some of the benefits that result from this law.—
1. Finite minds can only learn by such processes of birth, growth, death, revival.
2. Painful changes are the consequence of sin, yet an aid to its cure.
3. We learn to cleave to the permanent things as our portion. Jesus is the abiding Friend.
4. It is Christ who shakes all things, but He stands unshaken. “To whom can we go,” etc.—J. Ker, D.D.
Hebrews 12:28. Religion.—What is religion? Sometimes we hear religion put in a kind of opposition to theology. “Let us have religion, but not theology.” But theology is the indispensable basis on which religion rests. The word “religion” is not used in the Old Testament. It is found in three places in the New.
1.Galatians 1:13; Galatians 1:13. In the original the word rendered “the Jews’ religion” is Judaism. St. Paul says he had formerly lived and been forward “in Judaism.” This word is like Christianity. And as we can say “the Christian religion” to mean the same thing as Christianity, so our translators used “the Jews’ religion” to mean the same thing as Judaism.
2.Acts 26:5; Acts 26:5 : “Straitest sect of our religion.” The religion here referred to means the whole creed and worship of the Jews.
3.James 1:26-27; James 1:26-27 : “Seem to be religious … this man’s religion.… Pure religion and undefiled.” Here religion stands for devout habits of life. The religious man was one who had the form of godliness according to the fashion of his time. A man who assumes an exterior of religion, St. James says, professes that he desires to worship God devoutly. Let him know that the devout worship which is real, and which God approves, is best shown in charity and unworldliness. But the most original, simple, and universal sense of the word is fear of God. It denotes the awe which instinctively possesses the human mind in contemplating the supernatural. This awe or fear may be of any quality, ranging from the noblest and most exalting reverence down to the most superstitious cowardice. An irreligious mind is a mind without this awe. The religious sentiment is instinctive or natural. In no portion of humanity will you find it altogether wanting. It appears in various shapes. That which is most opposite to it is thoughtlessness or superficiality of mind. If human beings can be kept in a perpetual whirl of trivial occupations and interests, the very instinct of religion may be almost starved. But wherever an atmosphere is created for it by reflection, there a feeling of awe is sure to be inspired by the mysteries of the unseen world. In the early stages of civilisation it has always been in a great measure through contemplating the incidents and processes of nature that the fear of the unseen powers has been developed. Some races have been more affected by the dangerous and destructive occurrences of nature; others by the orderly and beneficent aspects of nature. The fact that religion has often manifested itself in hateful and cruel superstitions is an undeniable and important one, and has made this name “religion” odious in the eyes of some. But we are really not bound or concerned in any way to clear the name “religion” from these imputations. It is far better that we should honestly admit their truth; it is profitable to remember them. In itself religion is not to be called either bad or good—that is, it may be the one as well as the other. It may be either a terrible curse, or an exalting and purifying and sustaining sentiment. A secondary sense in which the word “religion” is often used is that of customs and ordinances of worship. These are the forms in which religion clothes itself, and to these accordingly the name of religion is naturally given. If any one attempts to describe a religion, he will find it impossible to keep such modes and forms of worship separate from the account of the being or beings to whom the worship is paid. So when a religion is spoken of, the creed and the worship are generally combined in one. The creed represents what is believed concerning the unseen world—concerning God, and man’s relation to God. The nature of the creed always affects the nature of the worship. People fear God in a manner corresponding to what they believe concerning Him. The creed, therefore, is sometimes what is chiefly meant when a religion is named. For example, when we speak of the Christian religion, we very generally mean the system of doctrines or the creed supposed to be held by Christians in common. But when it has come to mean a system of doctrines, the word “religion” has diverged considerably from its first and most proper sense. Religion is first the fear of God; secondly, by a natural extension, the mode of worship; thirdly, the belief on which the worship is founded. When we desire to be accurate, it is better not to use the word “religion” in this third sense. There are several words we may use instead, such as “creed,” “faith,” or “theology.” Religion rests on creed or theology. It is idle to talk of having religion without a theology. If you urge a man to be religious, he will want to know whom or what he is to regard with awe, to whom or what he is to consecrate himself. Illustrate from a Christian teacher requiring the faith of a heathen people. He must teach what is to be believed. (See the work of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra.) By bringing men to believe in Jesus Christ and in the Father, the preachers of Christ undoubtedly nourished in them an ever-increasing fear of God. It is impossible to believe in God, to think of Him, and not to fear Him. But the fear of the just and gracious Father emancipates, and does not enslave. The fear of the true God is allied with faith and hope and love. It gives courage, instead of melting it away.—J. Llewellyn Davies, M.A.
Hebrews 12:29. The Christian’s God is a Fire.—Emphasis lies on the word “our.” “Our God is a consuming fire.” The God of the Jews was—that must be granted. The God of the Christians is—that should be apprehended. The mildness of Christianity has made it often to be misrepresented. There is the intensest severity behind love. There is nothing so searching as love. The sternest person in the world is the good mother. The passage in Deuteronomy shows what the precise idea of the passage is—a jealous God. Jealousy is that feeling we have when one whom we have a right to think loves us turns from us to set his love on another. That human feeling represents the Divine feeling towards apostates. Fire is a fitting figure to represent the activity of the Christian’s God, because fire consumes the consumable, and purifies the unconsumable. God works in the Christian to secure the end which is secured when fire acts on metals—He delivers the Christian from everything that would hinder his being and becoming his best possible.
God a Consuming Fire.—“Fire” as a symbol of the Divine nature is a most happy and expressive symbol. For if fire is the first thing we are taught to fear, do we not early learn to love it too? Do we not gladly gather round the hearth, and spread our hands to its fostering warmth? Is not “the hearth” a familiar synonym for “the home”? Is not “the home” the name for all that we hold most precious and dear? Fire destroys; but it destroys the dead wood to comfort the living man. It only burns us when we handle it wrongly or foolishly. Fire burns and destroys; nevertheless, it is so much our friend, human civilisation and comfort and progress depend so utterly upon it, that the wise Greeks had a fable of one who was man, and yet more than man, who, in the greatness of his love for the human race, stole fire from the gods, and was content to endure an immortal agony that he might draw down this sovereign good from heaven to earth. Fire is a destructive agent, but it is also a creative, vivifying, conservative agent. Through the broad reaches of geological times fire gave form to the very earth on which we dwell. Its daily task, its common work, is not destructive, but most serviceable and benignant. So when we find God compared to a fire, we have to remember
(1) that though fire consumes, it consumes that which is dead in order to feed and nourish the living;
(2) that though fire burns and destroys, it also gives life, conserves life, supports life; and
(3) that while destruction is but the occasional and accidental effect of fire, its real and constant task is to quicken and cherish and bless. Thus interpreted, fire becomes a very welcome symbol of the character of God. But can we fairly welcome it, both as consuming and as destroying fire? The love of God is no weak, puling sentiment, but a masculine, nay, a Divine affection, which, for their good, can bear to inflict pain, and even the worst extremities of pain, on those whom it embraces. If when the fire of Divine love kindles upon our sins and sinful habits, in order that we may become pure, we will not let them go, what can happen but that we shall be burned, as well as our sins, until we can no longer retain them? On the other hand, if, when in His holy love God calls us to pass through fiery trials, we willingly cast away from us the besetting sins which He has devoted to destruction, from which we ourselves have often prayed to be redeemed, one like unto the Son of God will walk the furnace with us (for was not even He made perfect by the things which He suffered?), and we shall pass out of it, not only unharmed, but transformed into His likeness. We have before us the leading passages of Holy Writ in which God is compared to a devouring or consuming fire. Read in their connections, they do not convey harsh or repugnant suggestions. If we can say of fire, that it is not an implacable enemy, but a constant and benignant friend; that it never becomes our enemy till we abuse it; that we use it and love it far more than we fear it; that it consumes that which is dead to warm and serve the living; that it holds all things in being and in order; that, if it destroys, it also quickens, nourishes, and preserves; that to destroy is only its occasional and accidental work, while to vivify and preserve and nourish is its common task,—if we can say all this of fire, can we not also say it of God, and of the love of God as revealed in Holy Scripture? Is not He our gracious Friend till we compel Him to become our enemy? Is not our love toward Him, should it not be, more than our fear? Does not He seek to consume our dead works and evil lusts only that He may feed and liberate and strengthen that in us which truly lives? If He sometimes destroys, does He not commonly quicken and nourish and conserve? Is not destruction only His strange occasional work, while His constant task from day to day is to vivify and cherish? Is not His anger but for a moment, while His mercy endureth for ever? What can be more full of comfort and hope for us than to learn that at the centre of the universe there burns a sacred fire of Divine love, to which all intolerable but unconquerable evils will be as stubble?—S. Cox, D.D.
Our God a Consuming Fire.—The emphasis in this sentence rests upon the word “our.” There can be no doubt at all that the God of the Jews was a “consuming fire.” There need be no question at all concerning the further fact, that the God of the Christians is also a “consuming fire.” Our God, the God revealed and manifested in Jesus Christ. But this is not the familiar thought of the Christian’s God. God is love. Fatherliness, mildness, pity, gentleness, are the familiar characteristics of the Christian’s God. And there is some grave danger of the exaggeration of onesidedness. That is not all our God. Behind it lie all the solemnities of Divine righteousness, august majesty, supreme claims, searching inspections, and the holiest jealousy. The Christian’s God is to be served with thankful trust, loving obedience, and sunniest joy; but He is also to be served with reverence and godly fear; for He is still—nay, He is more truly than He ever was—“a consuming fire.” That seems to be the point of impression of the text. The mildness of Christianity makes it liable to misunderstanding. And it needs to be made quite plain, that there is nothing so searching, so severe, so inexorable, as love. There is an awful strength in gentleness; there is a masterful persuasion in pity; there are inexorable demands in love. We may remember the times when our father beat us with the cane for our wicked ways, but we recall them with a smile, for well we know there was too much passion in them for them to have been effective vindications of righteousness. But among our very holiest memories are the times when we grieved our mother. She did not punish; she did not say much; but the distress of her wounded love smote us to the quick, humbled us into the dust; it was harder far to bear than those fatherly strokes; it was a “consuming fire” of love, and we have never lost the ministry of that “fire” of mother-love, though long years have passed since she joined the assembly of the saints. The writer of this epistle is still full of his contrasts of the two dispensations. In urging the Jewish Christians to maintain their loyalty and faithfulness to the Christian profession, he has endeavoured to touch Jewish sentiment, and inspire to noble things, by reading over the long roll of heroes, who, by faith, mastered a thousand difficulties, and held fast their integrity. He has carefully explained the deeper meanings of those afflictions, anxieties, and persecutions through which they were passing. They were the strengthening and corrective discipline of Divine chastisement. And in a most effective rhetorical contrast he has pictured for them the genius and tone of the two dispensations. The older having its locus in storm-encircled mountain-heights, from which the fires flashed, over which the darkness brooded, and around which the alarming thunder-voices rolled. The new having its locus in a spiritual sphere; in a mount that had no earth-foundations; in a city which was built by God, ministered by angels, and dwelt in by sainted souls. No fires flash in that spiritual sphere; no thunder-voices waken terror in the soul. All is peace and love and service. But his contrast might leave a wrong impression. They might presume on the mildness of the new dispensation, and relax into indifference. He would check that possibility by this strong assertion, “Our God [too] is a consuming fire.” His service too must be rendered “with reverence and godly fear.” We can, however, see a little more precisely what was in his mind; for his words are a quotation from the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 4:24), and an incomplete quotation. To complete it is to provide the explanation of the term “consuming fire.” The older Scripture reads, “For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” The jealousy of God is expressed in this fire figure. We need search no further than this for its meaning. The text reads thus, “Our God, even the Christian’s God, is a jealous God.” But that is a term which we do not like to use for God. With us it has associations which seem to make it quite unsuitable. And yet the Bible has frequent allusions to the Divine jealousy, and it may be possible to find primary meanings in the term, and to affix careful limitations to it, so that we may recognise its appropriateness as, even in these times, applied to the Christian’s God. It does seem strange, but it may even be right, to apply the term to Christ, to “God manifest in the flesh”; for “our God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” He can burn with the indignation of slighted, wounded love; and that is holy jealousy. Jealousy is that feeling which we have when one whom we love, and who seemed to love us, turns away from us to set his love upon another. Then we are said to burn with jealousy. It is when we have a right to the love which is taken from us, and given to another, that our jealousy becomes so intense and is so righteous. In this way the word can be applied to our God. He is jealous of His honour and His rights when the love that belongs to Him is given to another. He could properly be jealous of His ancient people, who were bound to Him by every dearest tie, when they forsook Him, and set their love on idol-gods—“on every high hill, and under every green tree wandering, playing the harlot”; and against them His jealousy most righteously burned as doth an oven. It is important to notice this distinction—jealousy is natural and proper and right when we have exclusive property in another’s love. The husband ought to be jealous if his wife is unfaithful; a wife ought to be jealous if her husband is unfaithful; a king ought to be jealous if his subjects are disloyal, and set their love on another. It is only when we really have no exclusive property in the love, but try to make out that we have, that our jealousy is wrong and unworthy. It is easy then to see how the term can be properly applied to God, seeing He has absolute, sovereign, and unquestionable rights in the love of His creatures. They ought to love Him with all their heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. And He ought to be jealous and indignant when they turn away from Him, and set their love on another. He may well be to them as a consuming fire. It was precisely in relation to idolatry that God was called jealous in the Old Testament. “Thou shalt have none other gods before Me … for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.” And it is to idolatry in some of its later phases that the term is applied in the New Testament. Apostasy is modern idolatry; and towards it God is a consuming fire. But here is a somewhat strange thing, one which needs consideration, and suggests some searching applications. Those who were addressed in this epistle were not in danger of leaving Jehovah to worship and serve idols. They were in danger of leaving the Christian God to take up with the Jewish God, and we are to understand that this aroused the Divine jealousy, and towards this God was a consuming fire. And yet it was the same God. Yes, it was. But it is the grief of love to be loved only for what we were, not for what we are—to be loved for what we were thought to be in the first hours of passionate affection, not for what we are in the full maturity and beauty wrought through the culture and experience of years. A simple illustration will make this quite clear. You had childish views and thoughts of God: there was as much fear as there was wonder in them; but they were most imperfect, and altogether unworthy. He was really no more than a magnified benevolent man. If you now persisted in giving up all those higher, worthier, more spiritual apprehensions of God, which the thousand-fold experiences of your life, and the spiritually enlightened teachings of God’s word, have brought you; if you persisted in going back upon those old child-notions, would you not grieve Him, would you not make Him jealous of your loving that old God better than Himself? Must He not then be to you a consuming fire? But that is precisely what some of those Jewish Christians were doing. And that is precisely what some of you are doing. You are afraid of the God revealed to your manhood, and falling back upon the God of your babyhood. You are leaving the Father of Jesus for the El, the power-God of your childhood. You are wanting all those picture-teachings, simplicities, first principles, which properly belong to a child’s God; and cannot rise into the higher, spiritual, divine apprehensions of God as He is in Christ, which are the holy satisfactions of cultured manhood. And God is jealous of His old self, because it thus takes your love away from Him as He is, and wants to be now to you. The idolatry of the Jewish Christians was not Baal or Moloch, or even Jupiter or Venus. It was an old image of Jehovah which was good enough in its day; but its day had long since passed. They wanted to worship that, to keep on worshipping that. And to them God was a consuming fire, even a jealous God. But we seldom think that we are trying God just as they did. He gives us fuller revelations of Himself. We prefer the old ones. He gives us larger apprehensions of truth. We prefer the little ones. He lifts us into the pure atmosphere of the spiritual. We get down again as soon as we can into the thick, murky atmosphere of the material. And so to-day we make Him jealous, we compel Him to become to us a consuming fire. For though our fullest love is due to Him as He is, we persist in taking it away from Him, and giving it to something that He was. We make an idol of our childhood’s God, and worship Him rather than the Father of Jesus.
I. God always has been a consuming fire, jealous of His supreme claims to love for what He is.—Almost the first lesson humanity had to learn was God’s jealousy of His outraged honour. His consuming fire was upon our first parents, who had given up the obedience of love for self-pleasing; and the fire found its symbol in the flaming sword of the cherubim, which guarded the lost Paradise.
1. The God of the patriarch was a consuming fire, even a jealous God; for the horror of great darkness which fell on Abraham, when the smoking furnace and lamp of fire passed between the severed victims, was meant to assure him how exclusive were the claims of the Covenant-maker.
2. The God of Moses was a “consuming fire, even a jealous God”; for the bush that burned, and was not consumed, was the sublime assertion of Jehovah’s exclusive rights in the people of Israel—rights to burn them into national form in the fires of sternest discipline.
3. The God of the people of Israel was a consuming fire, even a jealous God; for His symbolic presence was a cloud which was silver-tinted in the light of day, but flashed and glowed as with the burning of an inner fire in the dark night-sky. And when the young priests forsook Jehovah for the idols of their own self-wills, forth flashed the fires of the Divine jealousy, for their sudden and awful destruction.
4. And the God of the prophets was “a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” The people had forsaken Jehovah, and in a spirit of time-serving had set their love on Phœnician Baal and Astarte. And the Divine jealousy burned. One day on Carmel the assembled nation on the sides of the hill watched in breathless suspense a solitary Jehovah altar, and a solitary prophet, who stood calm and strong beside it. And the fire of God fell, the jealousy of God burned, and that day four hundred men, who had taken from Jehovah the love that was His sole and sovereign right, were consumed in the fire of the Divine indignation, slain on Kishon’s side, to be swept by the coming rain-floods out to the ocean’s nameless grave. There, all down the story of the ages lie the ever-varying illustrations of the truth that God is a jealous God. His glory He will never give to another. The love which is His sole right He will never share with another. Against all phases and types of idolatry His indignation ever burns as does an oven.
II. God is to-day a consuming fire, even a jealous God.—Jealous of His sole and sovereign claims, in Christ Jesus, upon our love. Our God, the Christian’s God, is “a consuming fire.” If it be so, then there must be some forms of idolatry by which nowadays we can be enticed. The apostle John knew that there were such in his day, for he wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” If we are Christians, then our whole soul’s love is given to God in Christ, the Father-God of the ever-acceptable Son, and that love carries to God the full consecration of ourselves, of our life. In that “setting of our love upon Him” God finds His holy satisfactions and delights. Then we know what grieves Him, wounds Him to the very heart, rouses the holy jealousy, and compels Him to be to us a consuming fire. It is our taking that love which is His, which is His sole and sovereign right, and giving it to some one else, to something else, to idol self. Can it be that we ever do this? Can it be that God knows we are really idolaters? Can it be that our heart is divided? Have we in actual fact our own private idols, and do they take our real heart-love and worship? The missionary Paton felt convinced that the apparent religion of the aborigines of Australia was not their real religion, and set himself to discover what it was. At last he found they had in secret smooth stones, kept hidden in bags, and in these their souls trusted. It may be so with us. We bow at the Christian altar, and keep idols of our own at home. Idols we make of persons; idols we make of opinions; idols we make of pleasures. But our text has suggested a kind of idol which we may never have thought of before. The Jewish Christians were in danger of making an idol of the old God they served before they became Christians. And God is represented as being jealous of their leaving His present self to worship and serve His old self. Can it be possible that we are grieving God thus? He has lifted us up, in Christ Jesus, to high, spiritual, noble thoughts and apprehensions of Himself, and to a high and holy circle of truths gathering round His spiritual Fatherhood. Alas! it seems too high for us, and we leave Him to go back upon the bare, poor idea of God which belonged to our childish immaturity, and to the unspiritual days before our regeneration. We make idols of the bald, picture settings of doctrinal truths which suited our religious childhood. It is as if the Christian Jews persisted in becoming formal Mosaic Jews again. It is one form of the idolatry into which Christians fall in our days; and God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 12
Hebrews 12:25. Refusing Advice.—I once happened to be on a visit to a great castle situate at the top of a hill. There was a steep cliff, at the bottom of which was a rapid river. Late one night there was a woman anxious to get home from that castle in the midst of a thunder-storm. The night was blackness itself; the woman was asked to stop till the storm was over, but she declined; next they begged her to take a lantern, that she might be able to keep upon the road from the castle to her home. She said she did not require a lantern, but could do very well without one. She went. Perhaps she was frightened by the storm—I know not the cause—but in the midst of the darkness she wandered from the path and fell over the cliff. The next day that swollen river washed to the shore the poor lifeless body of this foolish woman! How many foolish ones are there who, when the light is offered them, only say, “I am not afraid; I fear not my end I” and how many have perished because they have refused the light of God’s truth, which would have guided them on the road to heaven!—Bishop Villiers.
Hebrews 12:29. Consuming Fire.—A traveller writes, “I saw a flaming globe of fire, magnificent indeed, but too terrible for the eye to rest upon, if its beams had been naked and exposed; but it was suspended in a vase of crystal, so transparent, that while it softened the intensity of its rays, it shrouded nothing of its beauty. On the contrary, that which before would have been a mass of undistinguishable light, now emitted through the vase many beautiful and various coloured rays, which riveted the beholder with wonder and astonishment.” Such is God manifested in Christ and out of Christ, He meets the affrighted sinner’s eye as “a consuming fire.” Like fiery flames breaking forth to consume the adversary, He is too terrible for the apprehension. But now He reveals Himself in Christ; His terrible majesty no longer affrights us. His consuming fire, seen in Christ, is like the mild rays of the morning sun in spring, going forth to bless the earth with its cheerful and invigorating beams.—H. G. Salter.
Hebrews 12:27. Removing Shakeable Things.—Let us be glad when “the things which can be shaken are removed,” like mean huts built against the wall of some cathedral, masking and marring the completeness of its beauty; “that the things which cannot be shaken may remain,” and all the clustered shafts, and deep-arched recesses, and sweet tracery, may stand forth freed from the excrescences which hid them.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Losing Anchor-hold.—I was looking out not long ago upon a very stormy sea. The winds howled, the troubled waves were dashing themselves into spray upon the rocks. Many vessels were in the bay; they could not move for the hurricane, but could only trust to some anchor in the sands, and were tossed wildly up and down. In the night the anchors of two of them slipped their hold, and they were hurled helplessly in total wreck upon the shore. There was no beauty or glory in those poor ships; it is the beauty and glory of a ship when her helm is firmly grasped, and the obedient wind swells her white sails, and the cleft wave bears her onwards towards her haven—“a plume and a power.” And so it is with man.—Farrar.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Hebrews 12". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany