Commentary on Hebrews 12:12-14
AW Pink (1886-1952)
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A Call to Steadfastness
(Hebrews 12:12, 13)
The didactic (teaching) portions of Scripture are very much more than abstract statements of truth: they are designed not only for the instructing of the mind, but also for the influencing of the heart. This is far too little recognized in our day, when the craving for information is so often divorced from any serious concern as to the use to be made of the same. This, no doubt, is one of the evil fruits borne by the modern school-methods, where instead of seeking to draw out (the meaning of the word “educate”) and develop the mind of the pupil, he is made to “cram” or fill his head with a mass of facts and figures, most of which are of no service to him in the later life. Not such is God’s method. His method of instruction is to set before us moral and spiritual principles, and then show us how to apply them in a practical way; inculcate a motive, and thereby call into exercise our inward faculties. Hence, the test of Christian knowledge is not how much we understand, but how far our knowledge is affecting our lives.
It is one thing to possess a clear intellectual grasp of the doctrines of grace, it is quite another to experience the grace of the doctrines in a spiritual way. It is one thing to believe the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God, it is another for the soul to live under the awe of their Divine authority, realizing that one day we shall be judged by them. It is one thing to be convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, it is another to surrender to His scepter and live in personal subjection to Him. What does it profit me to be convinced that God is omnipotent, unless I am learning to lean upon His mighty arm? What avail is it to me that I am assured of God’s omniscience unless the knowledge that His eye is ever upon me acts as a salutary restraint to my actions? What does it advantage me to know that without holiness no man shall see the Lord, unless I am making the acquirement of holiness my chief concern and aim!
That which has been pointed out above has to do with no obscure and intricate subject which lies far above the reach of the rank and file of the common people, but is plain, self-evident, simple. Alas, that our hearts are so little impressed by it and our consciences so rarely exercised over it. When we measure ourselves by that standard, have we not all of us much cause to hang our heads in shame? Our intellects are stored with Scripture truth, but how little are our lives moulded thereby. Our doctrinal views are sound and orthodox, but how little we know experimentally of “the truth which is after godliness” (Titus 1:1). Has not the Savior much ground for saying to both writer and reader, “Why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). O that we may be duly humbled over our sad failures.
The above reflections have been suggested by the use which the apostle makes in our text of the subject he had been discussing in the previous verses. His opening “Wherefore” denotes that he was now going to make a practical application unto those whom he was writing to of the exposition just given of the truth of Divine chastisement. In this we may see him following out the course he pursued in all his epistles, and which the servants of God are required to emulate today. No matter what was the doctrine under consideration, the apostle always turned it to a practical end, as his oft-repeated “Therefore” and “Wherefore” intimate. Was he contending for the Christian’s emancipation from the ceremonial law, then he adds, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Gal. 5:1). Was he opening up the glorious truth of resurrection, then he concludes with “therefore… be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). Was he setting forth the blessed hope of Christ’s return, then he finishes with “Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).
It is this which urgently needs to be laid to heart—the use we make of the precious truths which the Most High has so graciously revealed to us. That is (partly, at least) what the Savior had in mind when He said, “Take heed therefore how ye hear” (Luke 8:18)—see to it that your hearts are duly affected, so that the truth will regulate all your conduct. It is not sufficient that I assume a reverent demeanor when attending the means of grace, that I pay close attention to what I hear: it is the assimilation of the same, so that I go forth and live under the power thereof, which is the all-important matter. The same is true of our reading; it is not the book which adds to my store of information, or which entertains and thrills, but the one which stirs me up to godly living, which proves the most helpful. So it is with our response to the Scriptures, it is not how many difficult passages do I have light upon, nor how many verses have I memorized, but how many of its commands and percepts am I honestly endeavoring to obey.
This is the keynote struck by the apostle in the verses which are now to engage our attention. He had thrown not a little light on the distressing circumstances in which the Hebrews then found themselves, namely, the bitter persecution they were encountering at the hands of their unbelieving countrymen. He had pointed out that so far from their afflictions being exceptional, and a warrantable ground for consternation, they were, in some form or other, the common portion of all God’s people, while they are left in this scene. He had set before them some most blessed truths, which were well calculated to strengthen their faith, comfort their hearts, and raise their drooping spirits. He had given an exposition of the subjection of Divine chastisement, such as must bring peace and consolation to all who mix faith therewith. He had silenced every objection which could well be made against the duty to which he had called them. And now he presses upon them the practical profit to which they must turn the doctrine inculcated.
“Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed” (verses 12, 13). Here we have, First, the conclusion drawn from the preceding premises. Second, the several duties enjoined. Third, the reason by which they are enforced. The duties are expressed in figurative language, yet in such terms as the meaning is not difficult to perceive. The enforcing reason or motive for compliance is taken from the evil effects which a non-compliance of one’s duty would have upon others, which plainly inculcates the importance and value of personal example, and the influence which it exerts upon our fellows.
“Wherefore” means, in view of what has been said: because of the preceding considerations a certain course of conduct ought to follow. There is, we believe, a double reference in this opening “wherefore,” namely, an immediate and a remote one. Immediately, it connects with the preceding verse, the most important word of which is “exercised.” The apostle was alluding again to the well-known Grecian “Games.” In the gymnasium, the instructor would challenge the youth to combat. He was an experienced man, and knew how to strike, guard, wrestle. Many severe blows would the combatants receive from him, but it was part of their training, preparing them for their future appearance in the public contests. The youth whose athletic frame was prepared for the coming great venture, would boldly step forward, willing to be “exercised” by his trainer; but he who shirked the trial and refused to encounter the master, received no help at his hands; but the fault was entirely his own.
This, it seems to us, is the figure carried forward in our text; “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down.” The Christian who gives way before trial, who sinks under affliction, who sulks or repines beneath persecution, will bring forth none of the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.” If he “faints” under chastisement, if his hands become idle and his legs no longer capable of supporting him, a profitable use cannot be made of the tribulation through which he is called upon to pass. Then let him pull himself together, gird up the loins of his mind and “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3). Let his attitude be, Now is the time of my training, so I will seek to play the man; I will seek grace from God to muster all my faith and courage and valiantly wrestle with whatever opposes and oppresses me.
More remotely, our opening “Wherefore” looks back unto all that has been said in the previous verses. Hebrews 12 opens with a stirring call for God’s people to persevere in the course of Christian duty, to go forward in the spiritual life, no matter what impediments might stand in their way; to “run with patience (or perseverance) the race which is set before us,” drawing strength from the Christ for enablement (verses 1, 2). Then he anticipated an objection: We are being sorely oppressed, tempted to renounce our profession, hounded by our unbelieving brethren. To this he replies, Consider your Master, who went before you in the same path of suffering (verse 3). Bear in mind that your lot has not become extreme: ye have not yet been called upon to experience a martyr’s death (verse 4). Furthermore, you are losing sight of that scriptural exhortation, “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord” (verse 5). This led the apostle to open to them, in a most precious manner, the whole subject of Divine chastisement. Let us present a brief summary of the same.
The trials through which the children of God are called upon to pass are not Divine punishments, but gracious discipline designed for their good. We are expressly bidden “not to faint” beneath them (verse 5). The rod is wielded not in wrath, but in tender solicitude, and is a manifestation not of God’s anger but of His love (verse 6). Our duty then is to “endure” chastening as becometh the children of God (verse 7). To be without chastisement, so far from being an evidence of our spiritual sonship, would demonstrate we were not sons at all (verse 8). Inasmuch as we gave reverence to our earthly parents when they corrected us, how much more ought we to be in subjection to our heavenly Father (verse 9). God’s design in our afflictions is our “profit,” that by them we might become increasingly “partakers of His holiness” in an experimental way. Though these chastenings are unpleasant to flesh and blood, nevertheless “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” issues therefrom when we are suitably “exercised thereby” (verse 11).
Now from these considerations a very obvious conclusion is drawn, and by them a bounden duty is enforced. In view of the “great cloud of witnesses” by which we are encompassed (verse 1), seeing that the saints of other days—in themselves as weak, as sinful, as much oppressed by the world as we are—fought a good fight, kept the faith, and finished their course, let us gird ourselves for the contest and strain every effort to persevere in the path of duty. In view of the fact that our Leader, the Captain of our salvation, has left us such an example of heroic endurance (verse 3), let us earnestly seek to follow His steps and acquit ourselves like men. Finally, because God Himself is the Author and Regulator of our trials—the severest of our chastenings proceed from a loving Father, seeking our good—then let us not be cast down by the difficulties of the way nor discouraged by the roughness of the path; but let us nerve ourselves to steadfastness in the faith and fidelity to our Redeemer.
Thus the coherence of our opening “Wherefore” is perfectly obvious and the duty it presses so plain that there cannot be misunderstanding. In view of all the above-mentioned considerations, and particularly in view of the fact that the most precious fruits issue from afflictions when we are duly “exercised” by them, then let us not be dejected in our minds nor faint in our spirits by reason thereof. As the champions in the public “Games” used their hands and arms to the very best of their ability, and as the runners in the races used their legs and knees to the best possible effect—and in case their hands and knees began to fail and flag, exerted their wills to the utmost to rouse up their members to renewed effort—so should we be very courageous, zealous and active, and in case our hearts begin to fail us through multiplied discouragements, we must marshal all our resolution and strive prayerfully and manfully against giving way to despair.
“Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down.” The duty here enjoined is set forth in figurative language, but the meaning is nonetheless obvious because of the graphic metaphors used. The apostle transferred unto members of our physical body the condition in which the faculties of our souls are liable to fall under certain trials. For the hands to hang down and the knees to become feeble are figurative expressions, denoting the tendency to abandon the discharge of our Christian duty because of the opposition encountered. For the hands of a boxer or fencer to hang down means that his arms are become weary to the point of exhaustion; for the knees to be feeble signifies that through the protracted exertions of the runner his legs have been debilitated by their nervous energy being spent. The spiritual reference is to a decay in the Christian’s courage and resolution. Two evils produce this: despondency as to success—when hope is gone effort ceases; weariness in the performance of duty.
This same figure is employed in other passages of Scripture. In Ezekiel 7:16, 17 we read, “But they that escape of them shall escape, and shall be on the mountains like doves of the valleys, all of them mourning, every one for his iniquity. All hands shall be feeble, and all knees shall be as weak as water:” here the reference is to that inertia which is produced by poignant conviction of sin after a season of backsliding. Again, in Ezekiel 21:7 we are told, “When they shall say unto thee, Wherefore sighest thou? that thou shalt answer, For the tidings, because it cometh: and every heart shall melt, and all hands shall be feeble, and every spirit shall fail, and all knees shall be as weak as water:” where we behold the paralyzing effects of consternation in view of the tidings of sore judgment. But in our text the reference is to the disheartenment caused by fierce opposition and persecution. Despair and becoming weary of well doing are the two evils in all our afflictions which we most need to guard against. It is failure at this point which has led to so many scandalous backslidings and cursed apostasies. Such an exhortation as the one before us intimates that the Hebrews had either already given way to an enervating spirit of gloom or were in great danger of so doing.
Now “It is the duty of all faithful ministers of the Gospel to consider diligently what failures or temptations their flocks are liable or exposed to, so as to apply suitable means for their preservation” (John Owen). This is what the apostle is seen doing here. In view of the lethargy of the Hebrews he exhorts them to “lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees.” The word “lift up” signifies not simply to elevate, but to “rectify” or set right again, restoring them to their proper state, so as to apply them to duty. It was a call to steadfastness and resolute perseverance: be not dejected in your minds nor faint in your spirits by reason of the present distress, nor be so terrified of the threatening danger as to give up hope and be completely overwhelmed. Under sore trial and affliction, persecution and the prospect of yet sorer opposition, the temptation is for the heart to sink within us and the path of duty to be forsaken.
“Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees:” literally, “hands which are loose” or slack, dangling inert; “feeble knees” is still stronger in the Greek, being almost the equivalent of palsied knees—enervated knees which need bandages to brace them. In view of which he calls them to arouse themselves, to stir up all their graces unto exercise, to refuse taking the line of least resistance, to renew their courage and bear up under their trials. Resolution will accomplish much to stimulate jaded nerves and flagging energies. The Christian life, from start to finish is a struggle, a fight, an unceasing warfare against foes within and without, and only be who endures to the end shall receive the crown of life. To give way to dejection is harmful, to sink into despair is dangerous, to quit the discharge of our duties is the fore-runner of apostasy.
But the question arises how are we to set about this particular task? To say that we are helpless in ourselves affords no encouragement; in fact to affirm that the Christian is utterly impotent is to deny that there is any vital difference between himself and those who are dead in sins. Christians in their greatest weakness have some strength, some grace, some spiritual life; and where there is some life, there is some ability to stir and move. And God is pleased to assist where there is sincere endeavor. The believer is responsible to arm his mind against discouragements by considering God’s design in them, and the blessed fruits which issue from trials and afflictions when we are duly exercised by them. Of what value is a clear intellectual grasp of the nature and end of Divine chastisements unless it produces a practical effect upon the heart and life? Let the distressed saint ponder anew the blessed considerations set before him in Hebrews 12:1-11 and find in them motives and incentives unto renewed courage, fidelity and perseverance.
Let the hope of ultimate victory nerve you. Look forward to the goal: the determination to reach home is a powerful stimulus to a weary traveler. Earnestly endeavor to counteract every disposition to faintness and despondency by viewing your trials and persecutions as a part of God’s discipline for your soul: then submit to them as such, and seek to get them sanctified to your spiritual profit. Remember that you cannot fight with hands hanging down, nor run the race set before us if your knees give way; so summon all your resolution to remain steadfast in the discharge of every duty God has appointed and assigned you. Rest in the love of your heavenly Father, assured that all of the present distress is designed for your ultimate good, and this will reinvigorate the soul. Finally, seek grace to lay hold of and plead the promise, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isa. 40:31).
It is to be noted that this exhortation is couched abstractly. It is not “lift up your hands,” which would restrict it individually; nor is it “lift up the hands of those who are dejected,” which would limit the exhortation to a ministry unto others. Worded as it is there is a double reference: it is a call to the individual Christian to persevering activity, and it is an exhortation for him to seek the well being of his fellow-Christians. That our text has a reference to our seeking to encourage and strengthen fellow-pilgrims is clear from a comparison of Job 4:3, 4 and Isaiah 35:3, 4, with which 1 Thessalonians 5:14 may be compared. The best way for the individual Christian to strengthen the hands of his feeble fellows is by setting before them a worthy example of faith, courage, and steadfastness. In addition, he is to pray for them, speak words of encouragement, remind them of God’s promises, relate to them His gracious dealings and powerful deliverances in his own life.
“And make straight paths for your feet.” The previous verse concerns the inward frame and spirit of the believer’s mind; this one has respect to his outward conduct. As Barnes has well pointed out, the term used here signifies “straight” horizontally, that is level and plain, all obstacles are to be removed so that we do not stumble and fall—cf. Proverbs 4:25-27. The word for “paths” is derived from one meaning “a wheel” and signifies here “the marks made by a wheel”—it is paths marked out for others, leaving the tracks which may be followed by them. The reference, then, is to the believer so manifesting his course that his fellows may see and follow it. The Christian course is exemplary, that is, it is one which impresses and influences others. How very careful should we be then as to our conduct!
Here, then, is an exhortation unto the Christian to see well to his walk, which means the regulating of all his actions by the revealed will of God, to be obedient unto the Divine precepts, to follow not the ways and fashions of an evil world, but to cleave to the narrow way, and turn not aside from the Highway of Holiness. “It is our duty not only to be found in the ways of God in general but to take care that we walk carefully, circumspectly, uprightly and diligently in them. Hereon depends our own peace, and all our usefulness toward others. It is a sad thing when some men’s walk in the ways of God shall deter others from them or turn them out of them” (John Owen).
“And make straight paths for your feet.” A most timely word for us today when iniquity abounds and the love of many waxes cold, when the poor and afflicted in Zion stand in need of all the godly encouragement they can obtain. We are surrounded by a “crooked generation,” both of professing and profane, whose evil ways we are but too apt to learn; we are beset on every hand by temptations to turn aside into what Bunyan termed “By-path Meadow,” to enter paths which God has prohibited, to feed on pride and indulge our lusts. How the heart of the mature Christian aches for the lambs of Christ’s flock, and how it behooves him to walk softly and carefully lest he put some stumbling-block in their way. Solemn indeed is “As for such as turn aside unto their crooked ways, the Lord shall lead them forth with the workers of iniquity” (Ps. 125:5), and also “They have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace” (Isa. 59:8).
“Lest that which is lame be turned out of the way.” The word “lest” is a translation of two Greek words, “that not.” It is a word of caution and prevention, warning each of us that carelessness as to our own walk is likely to have an ill effect upon weaker Christians. The word “lame” is transferred from the body to some defect of our graces which unfits the soul for the discharge of Christian duty: one who is lame is ill-capacitated to run in a race, and one who is lacking in courage, zeal, and perseverance is ill-fitted to fight the good fight of faith. Walk carefully then, my brother, if for no reason than for the sake of the feebler saints. Backslidden Christians are the plague of the church: inconsistencies in God’s people spread discouragements among weak believers.
There are always some “lame” sheep in God’s earthly flock. While there are some Christians with strong and vigorous faith, so that they “mount up with wings as eagles, run and are not weary,” and make steady progress in practical holiness, all are not so highly favored. In most families of any size there is one frail and sickly member; so it is in the various branches of the Household of Faith. Some are constitutionally gloomy, temperamentally vacillating, physically infirm, and these have a special claim upon the strong. They are not to be snubbed and shunned: they need an example of cheerfulness set before them, wise counsel given to them, their arms supported by prayer and love’s solicitude for their good. Whatever is weak in their faith and hope, whatever tends to dishearten and discourage them, should be carefully attended to, so far as lies in our power. A stitch in time saves nine: many a sheep might have been kept from falling into the ditch, had one with a shepherd’s heart gone after it at the first sign of straying.
“But let it rather be healed.” “Heal” signifies to correct that which is amiss. It is the recovering of a lapsed one which is here in view. Instead of despising sickly Christians, exercise love’s sympathy toward them. While we should be thankful if God has granted us healthy graces, we must beware of presumption: “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). To those groaning under the burden of sin, tell them of the sufficiency of Christ’s blood. To those fearful about the future, remind them of God’s faithfulness. To those who are despondent, seek to cheer by citing some of God’s precious promises. Study the holy art of speaking a word in season to the needy. You will be of great value to the church if you develop a spirit of compassion and the gift of lifting up those fallen by the wayside.”
A Call to Diligence
The connection between the verses which were before us on the last occasion and that which is now to engage our attention is not apparent at the first glance. There the apostle made a practical application to his readers of the important considerations he had been setting before them in the preceding verses, calling them unto the duty of steadfastness. Here there is a lively exhortation unto the pursuit of peace and holiness. The relation between these exhortations and those which follow, is more intimate than a number of pearls strung together, rather is it more like that of the several members of our physical body, which are vitally joined and dependent upon one another. Failure to observe this fact results in loss, for not only do we fail to appreciate the living connection of one part with another, but we lose the motive and incentive which they mutually supply. It is the business of the teacher to point this out, that we may be duly affected thereby and rejoice together in the perfect handiwork of God.
“From his exhortation unto patient perseverance in the profession of the Gospel under sufferings and affliction, the apostle proceeds unto a prescription of practical duties; and although they are such as are absolutely necessary in themselves at all times, yet they are here peculiarly enjoined with respect to the same end, or our constancy in professing the Gospel. For no light, no knowledge of the truth, no resolution or courage, will preserve any man in his profession, especially in times of trial, without a diligent attention unto the duties of holiness and Gospel obedience. And he begins with a precept, general and comprehensive of all others” (John Owen).
The connection between Hebrews 12:14, etc., and verses 12, 13, is threefold. First, the diligent pursuit of peace toward our fellows and of holiness toward God are timely aids unto perseverance in the faith and in consequence, powerful means for preservation from apostasy. The one is so closely joined to the other that the former cannot be realized without an eager striving after the latter. Second, inasmuch as love toward our neighbor (“peace,” with all that that involves and includes) and love toward God (“holiness”) is the sum of our duty, it is impossible that we should devote ourselves unto their cultivation and exercise so long as we axe permitting afflictions and persecution to paralyze the mind: the spirit of resolute determination must possess us before we can develop our spiritual graces. Third, oppression and suffering provide an opportunity for the exercise and manifestation of our spiritual graces, and are to be improved by us to this very end. “If the children of God grow impatient under afflictions, they will neither walk so quietly and peaceably towards men nor so piously toward God as they should do” (Matthew Henry).
The first thing which needs to be borne in mind as we approach each verse of this epistle is the special circumstances of those immediately addressed, and to perceive the peculiar pertinency of the apostle’s instruction to those who were so situated, for this will the better enable us to make a correct application unto ourselves. Now the Hebrews were living among a people where their own espousal of Christianity had produced a serious breach, which had stirred up the fierce opposition of their fellow-countrymen. The attitude of these Hebrews towards Christ was neither understood nor appreciated by the unbelieving Jews; so far from it, they were regarded as renegades and denounced as apostates from the faith of their fathers. Every effort was made to poison their minds against the Gospel, and where this failed, relentless persecution was brought to bear upon them. Hence, it was by no means an easy matter for them to maintain the spirit of the Gospel and live amicably with those who surrounded them; instead, they were sorely tempted to entertain a bitter spirit toward those who troubled them so unjustly, to retaliate and avenge their wrongs. Here, then, was the need for them to be exhorted “follow peace with all men!”
Now while it be true that Christians are now, for the most part, spared the severe suffering which those Hebrews were called upon to endure, yet faithfulness to Christ is bound to incur the hostility of those who hate Him, and will in some form or other issue in opposition. There is a radical difference in nature between those treading the narrow way to Heaven and those following the broad road to Hell. The character and conduct of the former condemn and rile the self-pleasing disposition and flesh-indulging ways of the latter. The children of the Devil have no love for the children of God, and they delight in doing whatever they can to annoy and aggravate them; and nothing gives them more pleasure than to see successful their efforts to tempt them to compromise or stir up unto angry retaliation. Thus it is a timely injunction for all believers, in any age and in any country, to strive earnestly to live in peace with all men.
“Follow peace with all men.” This is a very humbling word that Christians require to be told to do this. Its implication is clear: by nature men are fractious, wrathful, revengeful creatures. That is one reason why Christ declared “it must needs be that offenses come” (Matthew 18:7)—”must” because of the awful depravity of fallen human nature; yet forget not that He at once added, “But woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” It is because of this contentious, envious, revengeful, spirit which is in us, that we need the exhortation of our text, and in view of what is recorded in Scripture, even of saints, its timeliness is the more apparent. Have we not read of “the strife” between the herdsmen of Abraham and Lot which caused the patriarch and his nephew to part asunder? Have we not read of the discords and fightings between the tribes of Israel issuing in their kingdom being rent in twain? Have we not read of the “contention” between Paul and Barnabas which issued in their separating? These are solemn warnings, danger-signals, which we all do well to take to heart.
“It is the duty of Christians to be at peace among themselves, to be on their guard against all alienation of affection towards each other; and there can be no doubt that the maintenance of this brotherly-kindness is well fitted to promote steadfastness in the faith and profession of the Gospel. But in the words before us there seems to be a reference not so much to the peace which Christians should endeavor to maintain among themselves, as that which they should endeavor to preserve in reference to the world around them. They are to ‘follow peace with all men.’
“They live amidst men whose modes of thinking, and feeling and acting are very different from—are in many points directly opposite to—theirs. They have been fairly warned, that ‘if they would live godly in this world, they must suffer persecution.’ They have been told that ‘if they were of the world, the world would love its own; but because they are not of the world, therefore the world hateth them.’ ‘In the world,’ says their Lord and Master, ‘ye shall have tribulation.’ But this, so far from making them reckless as to their behavior towards the men of the world, ought to have the directly opposite effect. If the world persecute them, they must take care that this persecution has in no degree been provoked by their improper or imprudent behavior. They must do everything that lies in their power, consistent with duty, to live in peace with their ungodly neighbors. They must carefully abstain from injuring them; they must endeavor to promote their happiness. They must do everything but sin in order to prevent a quarrel.
“This is of great importance, both to themselves and to their unbelieving brethren. A mind harassed by those feelings which are almost inseparable from a state of discord is not by any means in the fittest state for studying the doctrines, cherishing the feelings, enjoying the comforts, performing the duties of Christianity; and, on the other hand, the probability of our being useful to our unbelieving brethren is greatly diminished when we cease to be on good terms with them. As far as lies in us, then, if it be possible, we are to ‘live peaceably with all men’” (John Brown, 1872).
“Follow peace with all men.” The Greek word for “follow” is a very emphatical one, signifying an “earnest pursuit:” it is the eager chasing after something which flies from one, being used of hunters and hounds after game. The Christian is to spare no effort to live amicably with all men, and no matter how contentious and unfriendly they may be, he is to strive and overtake that which seeks to flee from him. Peace is one of the outstanding graces which the Christian is called upon to exercise and manifest. All things pertaining to the Church are denominated things of peace. God is “the God of peace” (Heb. 13:20), Christ is “the Prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6), a believer is designated “the son of peace” (Luke 10-6), and Christians are bidden to have their “feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15).
In this term “follow,” or pursue, the apostle continues to preserve the central figure of the entire passage, introduced in the first verse of our chapter, of the running of a race: the same word is rendered “I press forward” in Philippians 3:14. Peace may be elusive and hard to capture, nevertheless strive after it, run hard in the chase thereof, for it is well worth overtaking. Spare no pains, strain every nerve to attain unto it. If this exhortion be duly heeded by us then Christians are plainly forbidden to embroil themselves or take any part in the strifes and quarrels of the world: thus they are hereby forbidden to engage in politics, where there is little else than envy, contention and anger. Still less may the Christian take any part in war: there is not a single word in all the N.T. which warrants a follower of the Prince of peace slaying his fellowmen. “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14).
The word “follow” or pursue does not imply the actual obtainment of peace: the most eager hunters and hounds often miss their prey. Nevertheless, nothing short of our utmost endeavors are required of us. “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18): with fellow-Christians, with those who are strangers to Christ (Eph. 2:19), with our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Few things more adorn and beautify a Christian profession than exercising and manifesting the spirit of peace. Then let us prayerfully strive to avoid those things which occasion strife. Remember the old adage that “It takes two to make a quarrel:” therefore see to it that you provoke not others. Give no encouragement to those who love contention; refrain from all argument—the things of God are too holy: debating is a work of the flesh. To “follow peace with all men” presupposes righteousness in our dealings with them, for we most certainly are not entitled to expect them to treat us amicably unless we give unto each his due, and treat others as we would have them treat us.
Do not merely be placid when no one irritates you, but go out of your way to be gracious unto those who oppose. Be not fretful if others fail to render the respect which you consider to be your due. Do not be so ready to “stand up for your rights,” but yield everything except truth and the requirements of holiness. “If we would follow peace, we must gird up our loins with the girdle of forbearance: we must resolve that as we will not give offense, so neither will take offense, and if offense be felt, we must resolve to forgive” (C.H. Spurgeon). Remember we cannot successfully “pursue peace” if the heavy burden of pride be on our shoulder: pride ever stirs up strife. Nor can we “pursue peace” if the spirit of envy fills the heart: envy is sure to see faults where they exist not, and make trouble. Nor can we “pursue peace” if we are loose-tongued, busybodies, talebearers.
Even when opposed, our duty is to be peaceful toward those who persecute—a hard lesson, a high attainment, yet Divine grace (when earnestly sought) is “sufficient” even here. Remember the example which the Savior has left us: and cry mightily unto God for help to emulate the same. “When He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not” (1 Pet. 2:23): He prayed for God to forgive His very murderers. “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). Ah, there are the prerequisities for the procuring of peace—the lack of which being the cause of so much confusion, strife and war. If love reigns our skirts will be dear, for “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; doth not behave itself unseemly; seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked; thinketh no evil, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
“Follow peace with all men.” This includes even more than we have intimated above: the Christian is not only to be a peace-keeper, but he should seek to be a peace-maker: such have the express benediction of Christ—”Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Seek, then, to restore amicable relations between those who are at enmity and be used of God as a medium of their reconciliation. Instead of fanning the flames of dissension or driving the wedge of division further in, endeavor to cool them by the water of the Word, and by a gracious demeanor and wise counsel seek to smooth out difficulties and heal wounds. “And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:18). “Peaceable men do sow a seed that afterward will yield sheaves of comfort into their own bosoms” (T. Manton).
“Follow peace with all men and holiness.” First, the cultivation of peace is a great aid unto personal and practical holiness: where discontent, envy, and strife dominate the heart, piety is choked. The two things are inseparably connected: where love to our neigh-bout is lacking, love to God will not be in exercise. The two tables of the law must not be divorced: God will not accept our worship in the house of prayer while we entertain in our heart the spirit of bitterness toward another (Matthew 5:23, 24). “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20). O my reader, if we imagine that we are sincere in our quest after holiness while striving not to live peaceably with all men, we are cherishing a vain deceit.
“Some who have aimed at holiness have made the great mistake of supposing it needful to be morose, contentious, faultfinding, and censorious with everybody else. Their holiness has consisted of negatives, protests, and oppositions for oppositions sake. Their religion mainly lies in contrarieties and singularities; to them the text offers this wise counsel, follow holiness, but also follow peace. Courtesy is not inconsistent with faithfulness. It is not needful to be savage in order to be sanctified. A bitter spirit is a poor companion for a renewed heart. Let your determination principle be sweetened by tenderness towards your fellow-men. Be resolute for the right, but be also gentle, pitiful, courteous. Consider the meekness as well as the boldness of Jesus. Follow peace, but not at the expense of holiness. Follow holiness, but do not needlessly endanger peace” (C.H. Spurgeon, on text, 1870).
“Follow peace with all men, and holiness.” By a harmless, kind, and useful behavior toward their unbelieving neighbors the people of God are to conduct themselves. They must avoid that which fosters bitterness and strife, and make it manifest they are followers of the Prince of peace. Yet in pursuing this most needful and inestimable policy there must be no sacrifice of principle. While peace is a most precious commodity nevertheless, like gold, it may be purchased too dearly. “The wisdom which is from above is first pure, then peaceable” (James 3:17). Peace must not be severed from holiness by a compliance with any evil or a neglect of any duty. “First being by interpretation king of righteousness, and after that also King of peace” (Heb. 7:2). “Peace has special relation to man and his good, holiness to God and His honor. These two may no more be severed than the two tables of the law. Be sure then that peace lacks not this companion of holiness: if they cannot stand together, let peace go and holiness be cleaved unto” (W. Gouge).
There may be the former without the latter. Men may be so determined to maintain peace that they compromise principle, sacrifice the truth, and ignore the claims of God. Peace must never be sought after a price of unfaithfulness to Christ. “Buy the truth and sell it not” (Prov. 23:23) is ever binding upon the Christian. Thus, important though it be to “follow peace with all men,” it is still more important that we diligently pursue “holiness.” Holiness is devotedness to God and that temper of mind and course of conduct which agrees with the fact that we are “not our own, but bought with a price.” Peace with men, then, is not to be purchased at the expense of devotedness to God: “infinitely better to have the whole world for our enemies and God for our friend, than to have the whole world for our friends and God for our enemy” (John Brown).
The Christian is not only to be diligent in his quest for peace, but he is to be still more earnest in his pursuit after personal and practical holiness. Seeking after the good will of our fellows must be subordinated unto seeking the approbation of God. Our chief aim must be conformity to the image of Christ. If He has delivered us from wrath to come, we must endeavor by all that is within us to follow Him along the narrow way which leadeth unto Life. If He be our Lord and Master, then He is to be unreservedly obeyed. To “follow” holiness is to live like persons who are devoted to God—to His glory, to His claims upon us, to His cause in this world. It is to make it evident that we belong to Him. It is to separate ourselves from all that is opposed to Him. It is to mortify the flesh, with its affections and lusts. It is to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit” (2 Cor. 7:1). It is a life task from which there is no discharge while we remain in the body.
To urge us the more after holiness, the apostle at once adds “without which no man shall see the Lord”—”which” is in the singular number, showing that the antecedent is “holiness.” The believer may fail to “follow peace with all men,” and though he will suffer loss thereby and bring himself under the chastening rod of his Father, yet this will not entail the Loss of Heaven itself. But it is otherwise with holiness: unless we are made partakers of the Divine nature, unless there be personal devotedness to God, unless there be an earnest striving after conformity to His will, then Heaven will never be reached. There is only one route which leads to the Country of everlasting bliss, and that is the Highway of Holiness; and unless (by grace) we tread the same, our course must inevitably terminate in the caverns of eternal woe.
The negative here is fearfully emphatic: “without which (namely, “holiness”) no man shall see the Lord”—in the Greek it is still stronger the negative being threefold—”not, without, no man.” God Himself is essentially, ineffably, infinitely holy, and only holy characters shall ever “see” Him. Without holiness no man shall see Him: no, no matter how orthodox his beliefs, how diligent his attendance upon the means of grace, how liberal he may be in contributing to the cause, nor how zealous in performing religious duties. How this searching word should make everyone of us quail! Even though I be a preacher, devoting the whole of my life to study and laboring for the good of souls, even though I be blest with much light from the Word and be used of God in turning many from Satan to Christ, yet without holiness—both inward and outward—I shall never see the Lord. Unless the earnest pursuit of holiness occupy all my powers, I am but a formal professor, having a name to live while being spiritually dead.
Without holiness men are strangers to God and cannot be admitted to His fellowship, still less to His eternal habitation. “Thus saith the Lord God; No stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh shall enter into My sanctuary” (Ezek. 44:9): such as have no holiness within and without, in heart or in life, cannot be admitted into the sanctuary. If God shut the door of His earthly sanctuary against such as were strangers to holiness, will He not much more shut the doors of His celestial tabernacle against those who are strangers to Christ? “For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial?” (2 Cor. 6:14, 15).
Unholy persons have fellowship and are familiar with Satan: “Ye are of your father the Devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (John 8:44); and again “The whole world lieth in the Wicked one” (1 John 5:19). It would be awful blasphemy to affirm that the thrice holy God would have fellowship with those who are in covenant with the Devil. O make no mistake upon this point, dear reader: if you are not walking after the Spirit, you are walking after the flesh: if you are not living to please Christ, you are living to please self; if you have not been delivered from the power of Darkness, you cannot enjoy the Light. Listen to those piercing words of the Redeemer, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3), and the new birth is holiness begun, it is the implantation of a principle of holiness in the heart, which is the life task of the Christian to cultivate.
The “holiness” referred to in our text is not imputed holiness, for we cannot be exhorted to “follow after” that! No, it is personal and practical holiness, which is not attained by standing still, but by an earnest, diligent, persistent pursuit after the same. “It will be well for us to remember that the religion of Jesus Christ is not a matter of trifling, that the gaining of Heaven is not to be achieved by a few half-hearted efforts; and if we will at the same time recollect that all-sufficient succor is prepared for us in the covenant of grace we shall be in a right state of mind: resolute, yet humble, leaning upon the merits of Christ, and yet aiming at personal holiness. I am persuaded that if self-righteousness be deadly, self-indulgence is indeed ruinous. I desire to maintain always a balance in my ministry, and while combating self-righteousness, to war perpetually with loose living” (C.H. Spurgeon).
But for the comfort of the poor and afflicted people of God, who find sin their greatest burden and who grieve sorely over their paucity of holiness, let it be pointed out that our text does not say “without the perfection of holiness no man shall see the Lord.” Had it done so, we would not be writing this article, for then the editor had been entirely without hope. There is none upon earth who is fully conformed to God’s will. Practical holiness is a matter of growth. In this life holiness is but infantile, and will only be matured in glory. At present it exists more in the form of longings and strivings, hungerings and efforts, rather than in realizations and attainments. The very fact that the Christian is exhorted to “follow” or pursue holiness, proves that he has not yet reached it.
“Without holiness no man shall see the Lord” spiritually, not corporeally: with an enlightened understanding and with love’s discernment, so as to enjoy personal communion with Him. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6): how clear is that! “The pure in heart shall see God” (Matthew 5:8): see Him in His holy ordinances, see His blessed image reflected, though dimly, by his saints, see Him by faith with the eyes of the heart, as Moses, who “endured as seeing Him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27); and thus be prepared and capacitated to “see” Him in His unveiled glory in the courts above. O to be able to truthfully say, “As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness” (Ps. 17:15). How we should labor after holiness, using all the means appointed thereto, since it is the medium for the soul’s vision of God.