Relying on God's Grace (preaching resource for 8/21/22)
This post exegetes Hebrews 12:14-29, drawing on multiple sources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary), F.F. Bruce (Epistle to the Hebrews) and D.A. Carson (New Bible Commentary).
|Paradiso (a vision of Heaven, public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
Due to persecution, the original Jewish Christian readers of Hebrews were being tempted to abandon faith in Jesus to return to Judaism. In Hebrews chapter 12, the author exhorts them to persevere in the faith, emboldened by the great examples of faith described in chapter 11. In giving this exhortation, the author utilizes two analogies: sports and citizenship. These two were intertwined in a culture where sports were prized for personal well-being and victory in sports for bringing honor to the community.
The exhortation to perseverance begins with encouragement to shed any hindrances to running well: “Throw off everything that hinders” (Heb. 12:1). In that day, runners wore weights in training to build strength and endurance. But the weights were removed for competition. The analogy is clear: Christians must shed the excess weight of the “sin that so easily entangles” them (Heb. 12:1). Indeed, it is sin that keeps us from running well. It is likely that the sin of unbelief is in view, for it was unbelief that kept Israel out of the Promised Land and it is unbelief that hinders Christians from the fullness of their spiritual inheritance in Christ.
The author then proceeds with the exhortation to perseverance by giving the readers a three-part charge: 1) look to Jesus, 2) be reassured of God’s love, and 3) rely on God’s grace. In Heb. 12:14–29, we'll look at the third part: rely on God's grace.
Remember the goal, and keep running!
We begin with verses 14 and 15:
14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God…
As we run the Christian race, what is the goal? The authur notes two: “Peace with all men, and to be holy” (Heb. 12:14, also see Heb. 12:11). These two goals remind us of Jesus’ high priestly ministry—he is both King of peace and King of righteousness (Heb. 7:2).
Christian history (including Jesus' own experience) shows us that it requires diligence and an ability to endure suffering to run toward these goals. Failing to do so can lead to being a person who “misses the grace of God” (Heb. 12:15). God’s grace is ever abundant and never-failing, however we can fail to take advantage of that grace and in that sense “miss it." And so the author of Hebrews encourages the readers to rely on God’s grace by looking in three directions: back, up, and ahead.
Look back—the bad example of Esau (vv. 15–17)
15 See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 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. 17 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.
Isaac's son Esau (brother to Jacob) failed to rely on God’s grace (the account is given in Genesis 25:27–34; 27:30–45). Esau was a “godless” person in the sense that he lived for the world and not for God. Esau despised his birthright and sold it to Jacob, and so missed out on the blessing because it was given to Jacob. Afterward, Esau tried to get his father Isaac to change his mind, but it was too late. Even Esau’s tears availed nothing.
What sins will rob us of the enabling of God’s grace? These verses tell us: lack of spiritual diligence, bitterness against others (see Heb. 3:12), sexual immorality, and living for the world and the flesh. Some people have the idea that a “godless” person is blasphemous and filthy; but Esau was a congenial fellow, a good hunter, and a man who loved his father. He would have made a fine neighbor—but he was not interested in the things of God. God’s grace does not fail, but we can fail to depend on God’s grace. Esau is a warning to us not to live for lesser things.
Look up—the glory of the heavenly city (vv. 18–24)
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear." 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Here the author contrasts Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law (the old covenant) with the heavenly Mt. Zion and the blessings of grace in the church under the new covenant. The author describes the solemnity and even the terror that were involved in the giving of the Law (Heb. 12:18-21). The people were afraid to hear God’s voice, and even Moses feared and trembled! God set boundaries around the mount, and even if an animal trespassed, it was stoned. God was impressing on his people the seriousness of his Law. This was the infancy of the nation, and like children, all they could understand was reward and punishment.
What a relief it is to move from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion! Mt. Sinai represents the old covenant of Law, and Mt. Zion represents the new covenant of grace in Jesus Christ (see Gal. 4:19–31). The heavenly city is God’s Mt. Zion (see Psa. 110:1–2, 4). This is the city that the patriarchs were looking for by faith (Heb. 11:10, 14–17). The earthly Jerusalem was about to be destroyed, but the heavenly Jerusalem would endure forever.
The author goes on to describe the “citizens” that make up the population of this city. Innumerable angels are there. The church is there, for believers have their citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:20) and their names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20). “Firstborn” is a title of dignity and rank. Esau was actually Isaac’s firstborn, but he rejected his privileges and lost his blessing and birthright.
God is there, of course, and so are the Old Testament saints (“spirits of righteous men made perfect”). Jesus Christ the mediator is there, the one who shed his blood for us. We learn in chapter 11 that Abel is still speaking (Heb. 11:4); and here in chapter 12 we learn that Christ’s blood speaks “a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:24). Abel’s blood spoke from the earth and cried for justice (Gen. 4:10), while Christ’s blood speaks from heaven and announces mercy for sinners. Abel’s blood made Cain feel guilty (and rightly so) and drove him away in despair (Gen. 4:13–15); but Christ’s blood frees us from guilt and has opened the way into the presence of God. Were it not for the blood of the new covenant, we could not enter this heavenly city.
When the days are difficult and we are having a hard time enduring, that is when we should look up and contemplate the glories of heaven. Moses “persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). The patriarchs persevered as they looked ahead to the city God was preparing for them. One way to rely on God’s grace is to look ahead by faith to the wonderful future he has prepared for us.
Look ahead—the unshakable kingdom (vv. 25–29)
25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." 27 The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken-- that is, created things-- so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our "God is a consuming fire."
God is speaking to us today through his word and his providential workings in the world. We must listen! If God shook things at Sinai and those who refused to hear were judged, how much more responsible are we today who have experienced the blessings of the new covenant! God today is indeed shaking things. He wants to tear down the temporary and reveal the unshakable realities that are eternal. Alas, too many people (including Christians) build their lives on things that shake.
The “shaking” quotation in Heb. 12:26 is from Haggai 2:6, and refers to that time when the Lord will return in glory to fill his house with glory. Until that day of the final consummation of the Kingdom, this temporary world (which is passing away) will experience much shaking. Nevertheless, a Christian living in a shaking world can be confident, thankful and worshipful, for one day they shall receive an unshakable kingdom. In fact, they are part of that kingdom even now.
What shall we do as we live in this shaking world? Listen to God speak and obey his word. Receive grace day by day to serve God “with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28). Do not be distracted or frightened by the instability and massive changes occuring all around us.
Rely on God’s grace! God will see you through. Keep running! Amen.