HEBREWS: OUR 3-FOLD DUTY

Hebrews 12:12—17

The writer of this letter just spent a handful of verses encouraging his readers to look at God’s discipline as a good thing. The “therefore” at the start of verse 12 connects this new admonition to the last one. Discouraged believers need to “keep calm and carry on” in the faith. We can’t let hard times deter us from our walk of faith. We can’t let any kind “persecution” on account of our faith cause us to doubt that same faith. In fact, we must “suck it up” and understand that reversals in life are either sent by God or allowed by God to discipline us. That’s not to say God is punishing us; discipline is essentially a means to teach something to somebody so that they’ll learn something helpful.

This is an important topic, and if you can understand how deep it is, it will help you live a more positive, optimistic life. Many believers needlessly beat up on themselves because they are reaping the unpleasant consequences of a decision sowed years and years ago. Instead of doing that—living in some kind limbo of regret—understand that God is trying to teach you something that will not only benefit you, but others as well. And that’s hard to do, but the rewards of doing that will range from lower blood pressure to fewer frown lines to a happier marriage and an all around happier disposition!

The idea in this letter is that if you consider Jesus and what Jesus went through to live a life of faith, whatever negatives you may encounter are nothing compared to He went through! It is important for God’s people to live AS God’s people all the time, not just when things are going their way.

Why is this so important? Believers are called to a higher standard of living than unbelievers. We are not to look to unbelievers for our standards. What that means is this: if a reversal in your life causes you distress, you are NOT to respond to that reversal like an unbeliever. You are not to assign blame to God. You are not to mope around forever, feeling sorry for yourself. You are not to remain in the pit of discouragement and despair for long. You, because you are a child of God, are to respond like a child of God

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? (Luke 11:11, 12a)

I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. (Psalm 37:25)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

If you understand that and respond as you should as a child of God, then you are fulfilling a three-fold duty.

1. Our duty to ourselves, verses 12, 13a, 14

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.See to it that no one misses the grace of God

The writer quotes from Isaiah 35:3 and Proverbs and essentially tells his readers to “Snap out of it!” Because Jesus is their example and because they now know about God’s loving discipline, it was time for them to get out of their posture of discouragement and to “put their best foot forward.” What an exceptional word of encouragement! These people may have been overwhelmed with a series of adversities, but God had not forgotten them! Let their hands be lifted up in praise! Let their legs stop trembling in fear! The implication of this verse is that these set upon Hebrew Christians had become spiritually paralyzed. Notice that the writer doesn’t offer sympathy; they didn’t need sympathy! What these folks needed was what we often need: somebody to point their spiritual finger at them and say, “get with it” and “put things right” and to “stop thinking about yoursselves!”

Spiritual paralysis” must surely be the plague of the modern church! At least these Hebrew Christians faced real, genuine threats because of their faith. Think about what paralyzes modern believers; car problems, high interest rates, ATM fees, and so on. It may be all relative, but let’s face it: we modern believers have nothing to complain about! And even if we did, the Bible’s advice would be exactly the same: get with it! Stop looking and thinking only of yourselves and look to God.

Though highly metaphorical, verses 12 and 13 are powerful because they refer to aspects of the Christian life. Hands are typically a metaphor for service, knees are a picture of attitude (either courageous or anxious or reverent), and feet picture the daily walk of the Christian. We can’t afford to be spiritually inactive because time is so short. Our duty to ourselves is to make sure our walk is not wobbly or crooked or unsure. Of all the people in all the world, Christians should be the ones who are identified by their optimism, their positive attitude, and their disposition of good cheer.

Why is it to our benefit to be like this? The first phrase of verse 15 suggests that if we respond to adverse circumstances like worldly people do, then we run the very real risk missing out on the grace of God! This is the fundamental risk of spiritual paralysis and may well be the fundamental failure of most believers. If we become so preoccupied with ourselves and the circumstances of our lives, then we will miss out on something special from God. Is there a lack of God’s blessings in your life? It could that the problem is as simple as your outlook!

So, our primary duty to ourselves is to make sure we are spiritually healthy. If we don’t, we’ll be spiritually disabled. True healing comes to us when we put forth the effort to live as we ought. When we do that, we will be the recipients of God’s amazing grace.

2. Our duty of fellow believers, verses 14, 15

Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Verse 14 is positively emphatic; we MUST make the effort to live in peace with all men. If we are to live with a Christ-like attitude, it must start with troubled personal relationships. Taken in context, the “with all men” seems to restrict itself to members of the household of faith—so be at peace with other Christians. In other words, we can’t be holy if we can’t live at peace with other believers, and if we can’t be holy, we’ll never see God. You may ask, “How can that be possible?” Indeed, this is a good question that is answered in Deuteronomy 29:18—

Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.

That verse speaks a mouthful! The implication is that if we are at odds with a fellow believer or believers, we might fall into apostasy. This was a big problem with Israel, and it certainly is a problem in the Church. So much about our relationship with God hangs on our relationship with fellow believers.

Just what is this relationship between “peace” and “holiness?” “Holiness” is supposed to be a characteristic of the believer; it means “being set apart for God.” So, even though the Christian lives in the world, because he is “holy,” he must always be different from the world and separate from the world. In the world, it’s “dog-eat-dog,” but it shouldn’t be like that in the church. In the world, people walk all over each other to gain an advantage; it should never be like that in the church. Those who want to fellowship with God must be able to fellowship with others who want to fellowship with God. Any kind of a “bitter root” can disrupt fellowship between believers and ultimately fellowship with God.

God takes our fellowship with each other seriously, and so should we. Verse 15 tells us as much: “See to it that no one misses….” We are “look diligently” so as to make sure none of us misses out on God’s grace. This is an obligation we have to each other. We are to “look diligently” to the spiritual well-being of each other! This does not mean we are to be intrusive or nosey! We must be ever vigilant and be ready to lend a hand to any brother or sister who is stumbling in their walk. We must bear one another’s burdens:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

So, not only must we make sure WE are not missing out on God’s grace, we have to do our best to make sure OTHERS aren’t missing out on God’s grace. While that may sound like a lot of work, consider this: If we are busy doing the things necessary to live like this, we might be so occupied with the “good fight” of faith that we won’t have time to get mired in our own discouragement.

3. Our duty to God, verses 14, 16, 17

Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.

Verse 14 makes it crystal clear: we must live holy lives if we ever want to see God. Part of living a holy life is being right with other believers. We may question the order of the words in this verse: God wants us to pursue peace before holiness?  Really?  Why do you suppose it’s that way? As Christians, we cannot be right with God if we are not right with our fellows. An unbeliever, on the other hand, must get right with God first, then with his fellow man. But a Christian cannot be right with God if he is not right with other believers. This is a duty to God, as well as a duty to other Christians.

So, looking out for the well-being of other believes is also a duty to God. We are to strive after holiness in ourselves and in others. Now, those who live this way won’t be like Esau. He’s given as a bad example not to follow after, just as Jesus is a good example we should follow after. Esau was one who allowed a bad attitude to take root in his life. Esau, you recall, was the first born son of Isaac and should have been his chief heir. However, Esau was a bitter, godless fornicator (he married “Hittite” women contrary to his parents wishes). The bitter Christian—the Christian who isn’t pursuing a life holiness in himself or others—typifies that elder brother, Esau. This unfortunate believer’s bad attitude toward God, toward his faith, and toward his fellow believers may cause him to fall from from grace; to become an apostate. Or, alternately, he may stick around his church as a respectable member, his bad attitude rubbing off on all he comes in contact with.

This is why the pursuit of holiness is so vital and is at the very heart of the true believer’s life. When you neglect holiness, you will ultimately despise it, perhaps even going so far as to do just what Esau did: sell your birthright for a moment’s gratification. Remember; holiness is not a kind of moral or ethical superiority manifested by the Christian, but rather a separation from the world. It’s living a life markedly different from that of the unbeliever.  Oour duty to God is to pursue a life of holiness. Esau is given as an example of one who did not do that. He was an immoral man; he was not a holy man and that affected his whole way of thinking. He sold his birthright for some food; a foolish thing to do. The really sad thing about Esau is that eventually he realized his tragic mistake:

He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears. (vs. 17)

Esau is the kind of man that James might have had in mind when he wrote this:

But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (James 1:6—8)

Esau didn’t really believe, and his immoral behavior demonstrated that, and he did what a mentally unstable person would do: he gave up his inheritance for a bowl of food. The tragedy is that even while Esau realized his mistake, he couldn’t change it back; he could not undo what he had done. There was a finality to his act.

The lesson for the Hebrews and to modern believers is obvious. Unbelief leads to the hardening of the heart and, maybe in time, to apostasy. Esau cried to his father, but his tears were not tears of repentance, they were tears of anger upon realizing the blessing had bypassed him, only to fall on his brother. The one who falls away from God will find that God has rejected him. This is why believers are to take such pains to guard against drifting away from the faith and to help others to stay faithful. We have a solemn duty to ourselves and to other believers to do all we can to live at peace and promote holiness within the Church. Peter put it like this:

But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)

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