Hebrews 12

The opening words of chapter 12 bring us face to face with the appli­cation to ourselves of all that has preceded in chapter 11. All these Old Testament heroes of faith are so many witnesses to us of its virtue and energy. They urge us on that we may run the race of faith in our day, even as they did in days before ours.

In 1 Corinthians 9 Christian service is spoken of under the figure of a race; here Christian life is the point in question. It is a figure very much to the point since a race requires energy, concentration, endurance. So here the exhortation is, “let us run with patience,” and patience has the sense of endurance . The normal Christian life is not like a brief sprint of 100 yards, but rather like a long distance race in which endurance is the decisive factor.

In this matter of endurance there were disquieting symptoms manifested amongst these Hebrew believers, as the latter part of chapter 10 has shown us. Verse 36 of that chapter begins, “For ye have need of patience.” Then faith is mentioned as the energizing principle of Christian life, and this is followed by the long dissertation on faith in chapter 11. Thus chapter 11 is a kind of parenthesis, and in the words we are considering in the first verse of chapter 12 we are back again on what we may call the main line of the exhortation.

We can only run the race with patience if we lay aside every weight and the sin which entangles. Sin is a very effectual hindrance. It is likened to an obstacle which entangles our feet so that we fall. In the first place however weights are mentioned, as though they were after all the greater hindrance. Many things which could by no means be classified as sins prove themselves to be weights to an earnest Christian; just as there are many things quite right, and allowable to the ordinary individual, which are wholly discarded by the athlete. He strips himself of everything which would impede his progress to the goal. And every Christian should consider himself a spiritual athlete, as 2 Timothy 2:5 also shows.

We have heard chapter 11 spoken of as “the picture gallery of faith,” and the opening words of the second verse of our chapter as setting before us “the great Master-piece which we find at the end of it.” As we walk down the gallery we can well admire the portraits that we see, but the Master-piece puts all the others into the background. No other than JESUS is the Author – i.e., the beginner, originator, leader – and Finisher of faith. The others displayed certain features of faith; flashes of it were seen at different points of their career. In Him a full-orbed faith was seen, and seen all the time from start to finish. The little word “our” in the AV is in italics you notice, since there is no such word in the original, and here it only obscures the sense.

The One who was the perfect exemplification of faith is set before us as our goal, and as the Object commanding our faith. In this we have an immense advantage over all the worthies mentioned in chapter 11, for they lived in a day when no such Object could be known. We have noticed that faith is the eye, or the telescope, of the soul; that it is faith that sees. Well, here faith looks to Jesus. If He fills the vision of our souls we shall find in Him the motive energy that we need for the running of the race.

Moreover He is our Example. Every kind of obstacle confronted Him when He trod on earth the path of faith. There was not only the contra­diction of sinners to be faced but also the cross, with all the shame that it entailed. The shame of the cross was a small thing to Him: He despised it. But who shall tell what was involved in the cross itself? Some of us used to sing,

The depth of all Thy suffering
No heart could e'er conceive,
The cup of wrath o'erflowing
For us thou didst receive;
And oh! of God forsaken
On the accursed tree:
With grateful hearts, Lord Jesus,
We now remember Thee.

Yet though we cannot conceive all that the cross meant to Him, this we know, that He endured it.

In the enduring of these sufferings for sin the Lord Jesus stands abso­lutely alone, and it is impossible to speak of Him as an Example. In the lesser sufferings which came upon Him through men He is an Example to us, for in one way or another we suffer as following Him. He went to the extreme limit, resisting unto blood rather than turning aside from the will of God. The Hebrews had not been called to martyrdom up to the time of the writing of this epistle, nor have we been up to today; still we need to consider Him.

In this connection another thing has to be taken into account. We are so apt to consider suffering as something in the nature of a very awkward liability – as being all loss. But it is not this. It may rather be written down on the profit side of the account, since God takes it up and weaves it into His scheme of things, using it for our training. This thought fills verses 5 to 11 of our chapter.

Three words are used in this passage: – chastening, rebuking, scourging. The last does of course mean a whipping, and the second means a reproof. But the first, though it may sometimes be used for a beating, primarily means discipline in the sense of child-training; and it is worthy of note that, whereas each of the other two words is used but once in these verses, this one is used no less than eight times. This then is the predominant thought of the passage. We ARE children of God and hence we come under His training, and must not forget the exhortation addressed to us in that capacity.

The exhortation quoted comes from the third chapter of Proverbs. Turn up the passage and you will see how Solomon addresses the reader as, “my son.” Here however it is assumed to be the voice of God Himself addressing us, just as again and again in the first chapter of our epistle we had the words, “He saith,” introducing a quotation of Old Testament Scripture. We might say perhaps that it is the voice of the Spirit of God, for later in the Epistle we have had such expressions as, “The Holy Ghost saith,” “The Holy Ghost this signifying,” “The Holy Ghost is a Witness to us.” The point however is this, that what looks like being but the advice of a Solomon to his son is assumed by the New Testament to be the Word of God to us .

We are then to take this chastening from the hand of God as being the normal thing. It is a proof to us that we are His children. Hence when we come under His chastening we are neither to despise it nor to faint under it, but to be exercised by it, as verse 11 tells us. If we are naturally light­hearted and optimistic, our tendency will be to disregard the troubles, through which God may see fit to pass us. We put a bold face on and laugh things off, and do not recognize the hand of God in them at all. In so doing we despise His chastening. If, on the other hand, we are naturally pessimistic and easily depressed, our spirits faint under quite small troubles and our faith seems to fail us. This is going to the opposite extreme, but equally with the other it means the losing of all the profit, into which our troubles were designed to lead us.

The great thing is to be exercised by our troubles. Chastening means trouble, for we are plainly told that “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous but grievous.” And exercise means that we turn our troubles into a sort of spiritual gymnasium; for the Greek word used here is the one from which we have derived our English word, gymnasium. Gymnastics for the body have in them some profit, as 1 Timothy 4:8 tells us. Gymnastics for our spirits have in them great spiritual profit in the direction of both holiness and righteousness. By them we become partakers of the very holiness of God Himself; and we are led into paths of righteousness. Righteousness itself bears fruit which is peaceable, even though the disciplinary process, through which we passed in order to reach it, was of a stormy nature.

The tendency with the Hebrews evidently was to faint under their troubles, hence in verse 12 comes the exhortation, in the light of these facts about God's chastening, to renewed energy in the race. Observe those runners at the start of a Marathon race. Their arms are firmly lifted by their sides: their step is elastic, and their knees strong. Now look at them as they approach the finish an hour or two later. Most of them have run themselves out. Their hands hang down and their knees tremble, as doggedly they stumble on.

“ Wherefore lift up …” We are to renew our energies just because we know what God's discipline is designed to effect. We might have imagined that to talk to a poor feeble stumbling believer about God's chastening would be just the thing to cast him down, whereas it is just the thing, if rightly understood, to lift him up. What can be more encouraging than to discover that all God's dealings have as their object the promotion of holiness and righteousness, and also our being preserved from the sin and the weights which would impede our progress in the race?

Moreover we are to consider the welfare of others and not merely our own. Verses 13 to 17 turn our thoughts in this direction; and two classes are spoken of – the lame and the profane. By the former we understand believers who are weak in faith; and by the latter those who may have made a profession and come amongst Christians, but all the while they really prefer the world. Verses 16 and 17, in fact, contemplate just that class that already has been alluded to in this Epistle – chapters 6 and 10 – who cannot be renewed to repentance, and who have nothing but judgment in prospect. Esau is the great Old Testament example of such, and Judas Iscariot is the example in the New.

We need to watch against those profane people lest they damage others beside themselves, by becoming roots of bitterness. If we read John 12:1-8, we may see how very easily Judas might have become a root of bitter­ness, had not the Lord at once intervened. Those who are spoken of as lame need however very different treatment. We should aim at the healing of such and take every care that straight paths are set before them. We all need these straight paths, and we are to make them. There are some, alas! who seem to find a joy in making things as difficult and complicated as possible, whereas the path of righteousness and holiness is ever a very straight and simple one. And all this we are to do because we are come, not to the order of things connected with the law, but to that connected with grace.

The two systems are summed up for us in verses 18 to 24 – Sinai on the one hand and Sion on the other. Now the forefathers of these Hebrews had come to Sinai, and the Hebrews themselves, before their conversion, had come to it in this sense; that it was to God, known according to the display of Himself at Sinai, that they came, when they drew near to Him, as far as they might do so in those days.

But now all was changed, and in drawing near to God in the wonder­fully intimate way which the Gospel permits, they came upon another ground, and in connection with another order of things entirely. Mount Sion had become symbolic of grace just as Sinai had become symbolic of law; so that believing the Gospel, and standing in the grace of God, we may be said to have come to Sion.

It is not easy to see the connection between all the things mentioned in verses 22 to 24, but it may help us to notice that the little word “and” divides the different items the one from the other. Hence for instance, it is the innumerable company of angels which is spoken of as “the general assembly,” and not the church which is mentioned immediately following.

We are regarded here as being under the new covenant, and hence as having come to all that which is clearly revealed in connection with it. Eight things are mentioned, and each is stated in a way calculated to bring home their superiority, as compared with the things which the Hebrews knew in connection with the law.

The Jew could boast in the earthly Jerusalem, which was intended to be the centre of Divine rule on the earth: but we have come to the heavenly city whence God's rule will extend over heaven as well as earth. The Jew knew that angels had served in the giving of the law: but we have come to the universal gathering of the angels in their myriads, all of them the servants of God and of His saints. Israel was God's assembly in the wilderness and in the land: but we belong to His assembly of firstborn ones whose names are written in heaven. A heavenly citizenship is ours.

So too, Moses had told Israel that, “The Lord shall judge His people” (Deut.32:36): but we have come to God as the Judge of all – a vastly greater thing. The old order dealt with just men living on the earth: we have come to the same, but as made perfect in glory. Lastly, for us it is not Moses the mediator of the law covenant, and the blood of bulls and of goats, but Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and His precious blood of infinite value.

To all this have we come in faith, and we await the hour of manifes­tation which is surely drawing nigh. Israel came to Sinai in a visible way and were greatly affrighted. Our coming in faith to Sion, and all con­nected therewith, is no less real, and in coming we are greatly comforted and established.

Yet there is a serious side to this matter, inasmuch as it adds great emphasis and solemnity to all that God says to us today. He spoke in time past to the fathers through Moses and the prophets, but now He has spoken from heaven. The fact that He has now spoken in His Son, making known to us His grace, does not lessen the solemnity of His utterance but rather increases it, as we saw when reading the second and third verses of chapter 2.

If we turn away from His heavenly voice we certainly shall not escape. At Sinai He spoke, formulating His demands upon men, and then His voice shook the earth. Now He has spoken in the riches of His mercy. But in the days between these two occasions He spoke through Haggai the prophet, announcing His determination to shake not only the earth but the heavens also. He will in fact so shake that everything that can be shaken will be shaken. Only the unshakeable things will remain. Our God – the Christian's God – is a consuming fire, and everything that is un­suited to Him will be devoured in His judgment.

Can we contemplate that day with calmness of spirit? Indeed we can. The feeblest believer is entitled to do so, for we receive, one and all, a kingdom which cannot be shaken. And just because we have an immovable kingdom we are to have grace to serve God with reverence and true piety. Let us all take it to heart that reverence becomes us in our attitude towards God, even though He has brought us into such nearness to Himself. Indeed it becomes us because we are brought into such nearness.

Also let us take note that we are exhorted to serve God acceptably, not in order to have the kingdom made sure to us, but because we have received it, and it never can be moved. The very certainty of it, far from making us careless, only incites us to serve.