AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:1-2

Commentary on Hebrews 12:1-2

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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The Demands of Faith

(Hebrews 12:1)

Our present verse is a call to constancy in the Christian profession; it is an exhortation unto steadfastness in the Christian life; it is a pressing appeal for making personal holiness our supreme business and quest. In substance our text is parallel with such verses as Matthew 16:24, Romans 6:13, 2 Corinthians 7:1, Philippians 3:12-14, Titus 2:12, 1 Peter 2:9-12. This summarization of the Christian’s twofold duty is given again and again in the Scriptures: the duty of mortification and of vivification, the putting off of the “old man” and the putting on of the “new man” (Eph. 4:22-24). Analyzing the particular terms of our text, we find there is, first, the duty enjoined: to “run the race that is set before us.” Second, the obstacles to be overcome: “lay aside every weight” etc. Third, the essential grace which is requisite thereto: “patience.” Fourth, the encouragement given: the “great cloud of witnesses.”

The opening “Wherefore” in our text looks back to Hebrews 10:35, 36, where the apostle had urged, “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.” That exhortation had been followed by a lengthy proof of the efficacy of persevering faith to enable its possessors to do whatever God commands, however difficult; to endure whatever God appoints, however severe; to obtain what He promises, however seemingly unattainable. All of this had been copiously illustrated in chapter 11, by a review of the history of God’s people in the past, who had exemplified so strikingly and so blessedly the nature, the trails, and the triumphs of a spiritual faith. Having affirmed the unity of the family of God, the oneness of the O. T. and N. T. saints, assuring the latter that God has provided some better thing for us, the apostle now repeats the exhortation unto steadfast perseverance in the path of faith and obedience.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us.” Here the apostle applies the various illustrations given in the preceding chapter, making use of them as a grand motive to perseverance in the Christian faith and state. “If all the saints of God lived, suffered, endured, and conquered by faith, shall not we also? If the saints who lived before the Incarnation, before the redemption was accomplished, before the High Priest entered the heavenly sanctuary, trusted in the midst of discouragements and trials, how much more aught we who know the name of Jesus, who have received the beginning, the installment of the great Messianic promise?” (Adolph Saphir). Herein we are shown that only then do we read the O. T. narratives unto profit when we draw from them incentives to practical godliness.

In Hebrews 11 we have had described at length many aspects and characteristics of the life of faith. There we saw that a life of faith is an intensely practical thing, consisting of very much more than day-dreaming, or being regaled with joyous emotions, or even resting in orthodox views of the truth. By faith Noah built an ark, Abraham separated from his idolatrous neighbors and gained a rich inheritance, Moses forsook Egypt and became leader of Israel’s hosts. By faith the Red Sea was crossed, Jericho captured, Goliath slain, the mouths of lions were closed, the violence of fire was quenched. A spiritual faith, then, is not a passive thing, but an active, energetic, vigorous, and fruitful one. The same line of thought is continued in the passage which is now before us, the same branch of truth is there in view again, only under a figure—a figure very emphatic and graphic.

“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” Here the Christian is likened unto an athlete, and his life unto the running of a race. This is one of a number of figures used in the N.T. to describe the Christian life. Believers are likened to shining lights, branches of the vine, soldiers, strangers and pilgrims: the last-mentioned more closely resembling the figure employed in our text, but with this difference: travelers may rest for awhile, and refresh themselves, but the racer must continue running or he ceases to be a “racer.” The figure of the race occurs frequently, both in the O. T. and N. T.: Psalm 119:32, Song of Solomon 1:4, 1 Corinthians 9:24, Philippians 3:14, 2 Timothy 4:7. Very solemn is that word in Galatians 5:7, “ye did run well”: the Lord, in His mercy, grant that that may never be said of writer or reader.

The principal thoughts suggested by the figure of the “race” are rigorous self-denial and discipline, vigorous exertion, persevering endurance. The Christian life is not a thing of passive luxuriation, but of active “fighting the good fight of faith!” The Christian is not called to lie down on flowery beds of ease, but to run a race, and athletics are strenuous, demanding self-sacrifice, hard training, the putting forth of every ounce of energy possessed. I am afraid that in this work-hating and pleasure-loving age, we do not keep this aspect of the truth sufficiently before us: we take things too placidly and lazily. The charge which God brought against Israel of old applies very largely to Christendom today: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1): to be “at ease” is the very opposite of “running the race.”

The “race” is that life of faith and obedience, that pursuit of personal holiness, to which the Christian is called by God. Turning from sin and the world in penitence and trust to Christ is not the finishing-post, but only the starting-point. The Christian race begins at the new birth, and ends not till we are summoned to leave this world. The prize to be run for is heavenly glory. The ground to be covered is our journey through this life. The track itself is “set before us”: marked out in the Word. The rules to be observed, the path which is to be traversed, the difficulties to be overcome, the dangers to be avoided, the source and secret of the needed strength, are all plainly revealed in the holy Scriptures. If we lose, the blame is entirely ours; if we succeed, the glory belongs to God alone.

The prime thought suggested in the figure of running the race set before us is not that of speed, but of self-discipline, whole-hearted endeavor, the calling into action of every spiritual faculty possessed by the new man. In his helpful commentary, J. Brown pointed out that a race is vigorous exercise. Christianity consists not in abstract speculations, enthusiastic feelings, or specious talk, but in directing all our energies into holy actions. It is a laborious exertion: the flesh, the world, the devil are like a fierce gale blowing against us, and only intense effort can overcome them. It is a regulated exertion: to run around in a circle is strenuous activity, but it will not bring us to the goal; we must follow strictly the prescribed course. It is progressive exertion: there is to be a growth in grace, an adding to faith of virtue, etc. (2 Pet. 1:5-7), a reaching forth unto those things which are before.

“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” We only “run” when we are very anxious to get to a certain place, when there is some attraction stimulating us. That word “run” then presupposes the heart eagerly set upon the goal. That “goal” is complete deliverance from the power of indwelling sin, perfect conformity to the lovely image of Christ, entrance into the promised rest and bliss on High. It is only as that is kept steadily in view, only as faith and hope are in real and daily exercise, that we shall progress along the path of obedience. To look back will cause us to halt or stumble; to look down at the roughness and difficulties of the way will discourage and produce slackening, but to keep the prize in view will nerve to steady endeavor. It was thus our great Exemplar ran: “Who for the JOY that was set before Him” (verse 2).

But let us now consider, secondly, the means prescribed: “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” That might be tersely expressed in several different forms: let us relinquish those things which would impede our spiritual progress; let us endeavor with might and main to overcome every hindering obstacle; let us attend diligently unto the way or method which will enable us to make the best speed. While sitting at our ease we are hardly conscious of the weight of our clothes, the articles held in our hands, or the cumbersome objects we may have in our pockets. But let us be aroused by the howlings of fierce animals, let us be pursued by hungry wolves, and methinks that none of us would have much difficulty in understanding the meaning of those words “let us lay aside every weight!”

“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” While no doubt each of these expressions has a definite and separate force, yet we are satisfied that a certain school of writers err in drawing too sharp and broad a line of distinction between them, for a careful examination of their contentions will show that the very things they consider to be merely “weights,” are, in reality, sins. The fact is that in most quarters there has been, for many years past, a deplorable lowering of the standard of Divine holiness, and numerous infractions of God’s righteous law have been wrongly termed “failures,” “mistakes,” and “minor blemishes,” etc. Anything which minimizes the reality and enormity of sin is to be steadfastly resisted; anything which tends to excuse human “weaknesses” is to be rejected; anything which reduces that standard of absolute perfection which God requires us to constantly aim at—every missing of which is a sin—is to be shunned.

“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” is parallel with, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24), and “let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit” (2 Cor. 7:1). In other words, this dehortation is a calling upon the Christian to “mortify the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13), to “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). There are two things which racers discard: all unnecessary burdens, and long flowing garments which would entangle them. Probably there is a reference to both of these in our text: the former being considered under “weights,” or those things we voluntarily encumber ourselves with, but which should be dropped; the latter, “the sin which doth so easily beset us” referring to inward depravity.

“Let us lay aside every weight” is a call to the sedulous and daily mortification of our hearts to all that would mar communion with Christ: it is parallel with “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Titus 2:12). Everything which requires us to take time and strength away from God-appointed duties, everything which tends to bind the mind to earthly things and hinders our affections from being set upon things above, is to be cheerfully relinquished for Christ’s sake. Everything which impedes my progress in running the race which God has set before me is to be dropped. But let it be carefully recognized that our text makes no reference to the dropping of duties which we have no right to lay aside. The performing of real and legitimate duty is never a hindrance to the spiritual life, though from a wrong attitude of mind and the allowance of the spirit of discontent, they often become so.

Many make a great mistake in entertaining the thought that their spiritual life is being much hindered by the very things which should, by Divine grace, be a real help to them. Opposition in the home from ungodly relatives, trials in connection with their daily work, the immediate presence of the wicked in the shop or office, are a real trial (and God intends they should be—to remind us we are still in a world which lieth in the Wicked one, to exercise our graces, to prove the sufficiency of His strength), but they need not be hindrances or “weights.” Many erroneously suppose they would make much more progress spiritually if only their “circumstances” were altered. This is a serious mistake, and a murmuring against God’s providential dealings with us. He shapes our “circumstances” as a helpful discipline to the soul, and only as we learn to rise above “circumstances,” and walk with God in them, are we “running the race that is set before us.” The person is the same no matter what “circumstances” he may be in!

While the “weights” in our text have no reference to those duties which God requires us to discharge—for He never calls us to any thing which would draw us away from communion with Himself; yet they do apply in a very real sense unto a multitude of cares which many of God’s people impose upon themselves—cares which are a grievous drag upon the soul. The artificial state in which many people now live, which custom, society, the world, imposes, does indeed bind many heavy burdens on the backs of their silly victims. If we accept that scale of “duties” which the fashion of this world imposes, we shall find them “weights” which seriously impede our spiritual progress: spending valuable time in reading newspapers and other secular literature in order to “keep up with the times,” exchanging “social calls” with worldlings, spending money on all sorts of unnecessary things so as to be abreast of our neighbors, are “weights” burdening many, and those “weights” are sins.

By “weights,” then, may be understood every form of intemperance or the immoderate and hurtful use made of any of those things which God has given us “richly to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Yes, to “enjoy” be it noted, and not only to use. The Creator has placed many things in this world—like the beautiful flowers and the singing birds—for our pleasure, as well as for the bare supply of our bodily needs. This should be borne in mind, for there is a danger here, as every where, of lopsidedness. We are well aware that in this age of fleshly indulgence the majority are greatly in danger of erring on the side of laxity, yet in avoiding this sin, others are in danger of swinging to the other extreme and being “righteous over much” (Ecclesiastes 7:16), adopting a form of monastic austerity, totally abstaining from things which Scripture in nowise prohibits.

Each Christian has to decide for himself, by an honest searching of Scripture and an earnest seeking of wisdom from God, what are “weights” which hinder him. While on the one hand it is wrong to assume an haughty and independent attitude, refusing to weigh in the balances of the sanctuary the conscientious scruples and prejudices of fellow-Christians; on the other hand it is equally wrong to suffer any to lord it over our consciences, and deprive us of our Christian liberty. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” It is not the lawful use of God’s creatures, but the intemperate abuse of them which Scripture condemns. More die from over eating than over drinking. Some constitutions are injured as much by coffee as by whiskey. Some are undermining their health by a constant round of exertions; others enervate themselves by spending too much time in bed.

The Greek word for “weights” is “tumor or swelling,” so that an excresence, a superfluity, is what is in view. A “weight” is something which we are at liberty to cast aside, but which instead we choose to retain. It is anything which retards our progress, anything which unfits us for the discharge of our God-assigned duties, anything which dulls the conscience, blunts the edge of our spiritual appetite, or chokes the spirit of prayer. The “cares of this world” weigh down the soul just as effectually as does a greedy grasping after the things of earth. The allowance of the spirit of envy will be as injurious spiritually as would an attendance at the movies. Fellowshipping at a Christ-dishonoring “church” quenches that Spirit as quickly as would seeking diversion at the dance hall. The habit of gossiping may do more damage to the Spiritual life than the excessive smoking of tobacco.

One of the best indications that I have entered the race is the discovery that certain things, which previously never exercised my conscience, are a hindrance to me; and the further I “run,” the more conscious shall I be of the “weights”; and the more determined I am, by God’s grace, to reach the winning post, the more readily shall I drop them. So many professing Christians never seem to have any “weights,” and we never see them drop anything. Ah, the fact is, they have never entered the race. O to be able to say with Paul, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). When this is true of us, we shall not find it difficult, but rather easy to obey that injunction, “Go from the presence of a foolish man (or woman) when thou perceivest not in him the lips of knowledge” (Prov. 14:7); and so with many other scriptural exhortations.

“And the sin which doth so easily beset (Greek “encompass”) us.” As we have already pointed out, the writer regards the “weights” as external temptations which have to be resisted, evil habits which are to be dropped; and “the sin” as referring to indwelling corruption, with a special reference (as the whole context suggests) to the workings of unbelief: compare Hebrews 3:13. It is true that each of us has some special form of sin to which we are most prone, and that he is more sorely tempted from one direction than another; but we think it is very clear from all which precedes our text that what the apostle has particularly in mind here is that which most seeks to hinder the exercise of faith. Let the reader ponder John 16:8, 9.

“This is confirmed by the experience of all who have been exercised in this case, who have met with great difficulties in, and have been called to suffer for, the profession of the Gospel. Ask of them what they have found in such cases to be their most dangerous enemy; what hath had the most easy and frequent access unto their minds, to disturb and dishearten them, of the power thereof they have been most afraid; they will all answer with one voice, it is the evil of their own unbelieving hearts. This hath continually attempted to entangle them, to betray them, in taking part with all outward temptations. When this is conquered, all things are plain and easy unto them. It may be some of them have had their particular temptations which they may reflect upon; but any other evil by sin, which is common unto them all, as this is, they can fix on none” (John Owen).

But how is the Christian to “lay aside” indwelling sin and its particular workings of unbelief? This injunction is parallel with Ephesians 4:22, “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” And how is that to be done? By heeding the exhortation of Romans 6:11, 12, “Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.” In other words, by faith’s recognition of my legal oneness with Christ, and by drawing from His fullness. Indwelling sin is to be “laid aside” by daily mortification (Rom. 8:13), by seeking grace to resist its solicitations (Titus 2:11, 12), by repenting, confessing, and forsaking the effects of its activities (Prov. 28:13), by diligently using the means which God has provided for holy living (Gal. 5:16).

“Run with patience the race that is set before us.” Perseverance or endurance is the prime prerequisite for the discharge of this duty. The good-ground hearer brought forth fruit “with patience” (Luke 8:15). We are bidden to be “followers of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). The “race” appointed is a lengthy one, for it extends throughout the whole of our earthly pilgrimage. The course is narrow, and to the flesh, rough. The racer often becomes disheartened by the difficulties encountered. But “Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).

But how is this needed “patience” to be acquired? A twofold answer is given, the second part of which will be before us in the next article. First, by heeding the encouragement which is here set before us: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses let us lay aside… let us run.” The reference is to the heroes of faith mentioned in the previous chapter: they compose a testimony for God, and speak unto future generations to be constant as they were. They witness to how noble a thing life may be when it is lived by faith. They witness to the faithfulness of God who sustained them, and enabled them to triumph over their foes, and overcome their difficulties. In likening these numerous witnesses unto a “cloud” there is no doubt a reference unto the Cloud which guided Israel in the wilderness: they followed it all the way to Canaan! So must we follow the noble example of the O.T. saints in their faith, obedience, and perseverance.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us.” This is mentioned as an incentive, to console and assure us we are not alone. As we look around at the empty profession on every side, and behold the looseness and laxity of so many who bear the name of Christ, Satan seeks to make us believe that we are wrong, too “strict,” and rebukes us for our “singularity.” No doubt he employed the same tactics with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses; but they heeded him not. Nor should we. We are not “singular”: if faithful to Christ we are following “the footsteps of the flock” (Song 1:8). Others before us have trod the same path, met with the same hindrances, fought the same fight. They persevered, conquered, and won the crown: then “let us run.” That is the thought and force of the opening words of our text.

“We who have still to walk in the narrow path which alone leads to glory are encouraged and instructed by the cloud of witnesses, the innumerable company of saints, who testified amid the most varied circumstances of suffering and temptation, that the just live by faith, and that faith is the victory which overcometh the world. The memory of those children of God, whose lives are recorded for our learning and consolation, animates us, and we feel upheld as it were by their sympathy and by the consciousness, that although few and weak, strangers and pilgrims on earth, we belong to a great and mighty, nay, a victorious army, part of which has already entered into the land of peace” (Adolph Saphir).

The Object of Faith

(Hebrews 12:2)

The verse which is now to engage our attention continues and completes the important exhortation found in the one which was before us in the last article. The two verses are so closely related that only the requirements of space obliged us to separate them. The latter supplies such a blessed sequel to the former that it will be necessary to present a summary of our comments thereon. We saw that the Christian life, the life of faith and obedience, is presented under the figure of a “race,” which denotes that so far from its being a thing of dreamy contemplation or abstract speculation, it is one of activity, exertion, and progressive motion, for faith without works is dead. But the “race” speaks not only of activity, but of regulated activity, following the course which is “set before us.” Many professing Christians are engaged in multitudinous efforts which God has never bidden them undertake: that is like running round and round in a circle. To follow the appointed track means that our energies be directed by the precepts of Holy Writ.

The order presented in Hebrews 12:1 is the negative before the positive: there must be the “laying aside” of hindering weights, before we can “run” the race set before us. This order is fundamental, and is emphasized all through Scripture. There must be a turning from the world, before there can be a real turning unto the Lord (Isa. 55:7); self must be denied before Christ can be followed (Matthew 16:24). There must be a putting off the old man, before there can be any true putting on of the new man (Eph. 4:22-24). There has to be a “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts,” before we can “live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world” (Titus 3:12). There has to be a “cleansing of ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” before there can be any “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). We must “be not conformed to this world,” before we can be “transformed by the renewing of our mind,” so that we may “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2, 3).

Before the plants and flowers will flourish in the garden weeds must be rooted up, otherwise all the labors of the gardener will come to naught. As the Lord Jesus taught so plainly in the Parable of the Sower, where the “thorns” are permitted to thrive, the good Seed, the Word, is “choked” (Matthew 13:22); and it is very searching and solemn to note, by a careful comparison of the three records of it, that Christ interpreted this figure of the “thorns” more fully than any other single detail. He defined those choking “thorns” as “the cares of this life and the deceitfulness of riches,” “the lust of other things and pleasures of this life.” If those things fill and rule our hearts, our relish for spiritual things will be quenched, our strength to perform Christian duties will be sapped, our lives will be fruitless, and we shall be merely cumberers of the ground—the garden of our souls being filled with briars and weeds.

Hence it is that the first call in Hebrews 12:1 is “let us lay aside every weight.” “Inordinate care for the present life, and fondness for it, is a dead weight for the soul, that pulls it down when it should ascend upwards and pulls it back when it should press forwards” (Matthew Henry). It is the practical duty of mortification which is here inculcated, the abstaining from those fleshly lusts “which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). The racer must be as lightly clad as possible if he is to run swiftly: all that would cumber and impede him must be relinquished. Undue concern over temporal affairs, inordinate affection for the things of this life, the intemperate use of any material blessings, undue familiarity with the ungodly, are “weights” which prevent progress in godliness. A bag of gold would be as great a handicap to a runner as a bag of lead!

It is to be carefully noted that the laying aside of “every weight” precedes “and the sin which does so easily beset us”, which has reference to indwelling corruption. Each Christian imagines that he is very anxious to be completely delivered from the power of indwelling sin: ah, but our hearts are very deceitful, and ever causing us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. A criterion is given in this passage by which we may gauge the sincerity of our desires: our longing to be delivered from indwelling evil is to be measured by our willingness and readiness to lay aside the “weights.” I may think I am earnestly desirous of having a beautiful garden, and may go to much expense and trouble in purchasing and planting some lovely flowers; but if I am too careless and lazy to diligently fight the weeds, what is my desire worth? So, if I disregard that word “make not provision for the flesh unto the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:14), how sincere is my desire to be delivered from “the flesh!”

“And let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” For this two things are needed: speed and strength—”rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race” (Ps. 19:5): the one being opposed to sloth and negligence, the other to weakness. These are the prime requisites: strength in grace, diligence in exercise. Speed is included in the word “run”, but how is the strength to be obtained? This “race” calls for both the doing and suffering for Christ, the pressing forward toward the mark set before us, the progressing from one degree of strength to another, the putting forth of our utmost efforts, the enduring unto the end. Ah, who is sufficient for such a task? First, we are reminded of those who have preceded us, many, a “great cloud”: and their faith is recorded for our instruction, their victory for our encouragement. Yet that is not sufficient: their cases afford us a motive, but they do not supply the needed power. Hence, we are next told:

“Looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (verse 2). “The cloud of witnesses is not the object on which our heart is fixed. They testify of faith, and we cherish their memory with gratitude, and walk with a firmer step because of the music of their lives. Our eye, however, is fixed, not on many, but on One; not on the army, but the Leader; not on the servants, but the Lord. We see Jesus only, and from Him we derive our true strength, even as He is our light of life” (Adolph Saphir). In all things Christ has the pre-eminence: He is placed here not among the other “racers,” but as One who, instead of exemplifying certain characteristics of faith, as they did, is the “Author and Finisher” of faith in His own person.

Our text presents the Lord as the supreme Example for racers, as well as the great Object of their faith, though this is somewhat obscured by the rendering of the A.V. Our text is not referring to Christ begetting faith in His people and sustaining it to the end, though that is a truth plainly enough taught elsewhere. Instead, He is here viewed as the One, who Himself began and completed the whole course of faith, so as to be Himself the one perfect example and witness of what faith is. It was because of “the joy set before Him”—steadily and trustfully held in view—that He ran His race. His “enduring of the cross” was the completest trial and most perfect exemplification of faith. In consequence, He is now seated at the right hand of God, as both the Pattern and Object of faith, and His promise is “to him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne” (Rev. 3:21).

It is to be duly noted that the little word “our” is a supplement, being supplied by the translators: it may without detriment, and with some advantage, be omitted. The Greek word for “Author” does not mean so much one who “causes” or “originates,” as one who “takes the lead.” The same word is rendered “Captain of our salvation” in Hebrews 2:10, and in Acts 3:15, the “Prince of life.” There its obvious meaning is Leader or Chief, one going in advance of those who follow. The Savior is here represented as the Leader of all the long procession of those who had lived by faith, as the great Pattern for us to imitate. Confirmation of this is found in the Spirit’s use of the personal name “Jesus” here, rather than His title of office—”Christ.” Stress is thereby laid upon His humanity. The Man Jesus was so truly made like unto His brethren in all things that the life which He lived was the life of faith.

Yes, the life which Jesus lived here upon earth was a life of faith. This has not been given sufficient prominence. In this, as in all things, He is our perfect Model. “By faith He walked, looking always unto the Father, speaking and acting in filial dependence on the Father, and in filial reception out of the Father’s fullness. By faith He looked away from all discouragements, difficulties, and oppositions, committing His cause to the Lord, who had sent Him, to the Father, whose will He had come to fulfill. By faith He resisted and overcame all temptation, whether it came from Satan, or from the false Messianic expectations of Israel, or from His own disciples. By faith He performed the signs and wonders, in which the power and love of God’s salvation were symbolized. Before He raised Lazarus from the grave, He, in the energy of faith, thanked God, who heard Him alway. And here we are taught the nature of all His miracles: He trusted in God. He gave the command, ‘Have faith in God’, out of the fullness of His own experience” (Adolph Saphir).

But let us enter into some detail. What is a life of faith? First, it is a life lived in complete dependence upon God. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding… in all thy ways acknowledge Him” (Prov. 3:5, 6.) Never did any so entirely, so unreservedly, so perfectly cast himself upon God as did the Man Christ Jesus; never was another so completely yielded to God’s will. “I live by the Father” (John 6:57) was His own avowal. When tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy His hunger, He replied “man shall not live by bread alone.” So sure was He of God’s love and care for Him that He held fast to His trust and waited for Him. So patent to all was His absolute dependence upon God, that the very scorners around the cross turned it into a bitter taunt.—”He trusted in the Lord that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, seeing He delighted in Him” (Ps. 22:8).

Second, a life of faith is a life lived in communion with God. And never did another live in such a deep and constant realization of the Divine presence as did the Man Christ Jesus. “I have set the Lord always before Me” (Ps. 16:8) was His own avowal. “He that sent Me is with Me” (John 8:29) was ever a present fact to His consciousness. He could say, “I was cast upon Thee from the womb: Thou art My God from My mother’s belly” (Ps. 22:10). “And in the morning, rising a great while before day, He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed” (Mark 1:35). From Bethlehem to Calvary He enjoyed unbroken and unclouded fellowship with the Father; and after the three hours of awful darkness was over, He cried “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.”

Third, a life of faith is a life lived in obedience to God. Faith worketh by love (Gal. 5:6), and love delights to please its object. Faith has respect not only to the promises of God, but to His precepts as well. Faith not only trusts God for the future, but it also produces present subjection to His will. Supremely was this fact exemplified by the Man Christ Jesus. “I do always those things which please Him” (John 8:29) He declared. “I must be about My Father’s business” (Luke 2:49) characterized the whole of His earthly course. Ever and anon we find Him conducting Himself. “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.” He lived by every word of God. At the close He said, “I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love” (John 15:10).

Fourth, a life of faith is a life of assured confidence in the unseen future. It is a looking away from the things of time and sense, a rising above the shows and delusions of this world, and having the affections set upon things above. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), enabling its possessor to live now in the power and enjoyment of that which is to come. That which enthralls and enchains the ungodly had no power over the perfect Man: “I have overcome the world” (John 16:31), He declared. When the Devil offered Him all its kingdoms, He promptly answered, “Get thee hence, Satan.” So vivid was Jesus’ realization of the unseen, that, in the midst of earth’s engagements, He called Himself “the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).

“And so, dear brethren, this Jesus, in the absoluteness of His dependence upon the Father, in the completeness of His trust in Him, in the submission of His will to that Supreme command, in the unbroken communion which He held with God, in the vividness with which the Unseen ever burned before Him, and dwarfed and extinguished all the lights of the present, and in the respect which He had ‘unto the recompense of the reward’; nerving Him for all pain and shame, has set before us all the example of a life of faith, and is our Pattern as in everything, in this too.

“How blessed it is to feel, when we reach out our hands and grope in the darkness for the unseen hand, when we try to bow our wills to that Divine will; when we seek to look beyond the mists of ‘that dim spot which men call earth,’ and to discern the land that is very far off; and when we endeavor to nerve ourselves for duty and sacrifice by bright visions of a future hope, that on this path of faith too, when He ‘putteth forth His sheep, He goeth before them,’ and has bade us do nothing which He Himself has not done! ‘I will put My trust in Him,’ He says first, and then He turns to us and commands, ‘Believe in God, believe also in Me’” (A. Maclaren, to whom we are indebted for much in this article).

Alas, how very little real Christianity there is in the world today! Christianity consists in being conformed unto the image of God’s Son. “Looking unto Jesus” constantly, trustfully, submissively, lovingly; the heart occupied with, the mind stayed upon Him—that is the whole secret of practical Christianity. Just in proportion as I am occupied with the example which Christ has left me, just in proportion as I am living upon Him and drawing from His fullness, am I realizing the ideal He has set before me. In Him is the power, from Him must be received the strength for running “with patience” or steadfast perseverance, the race. Genuine Christianity is a life lived in communion with Christ: a life lived by faith, as His was. “For to me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21); “Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20)—Christ living in me and through me.

There are four things said in our text about the Savior’s life, each of which we need to ponder carefully. First, the motive or reason which prompted Jesus to do and suffer, wherein He is presented as our example and encouragement: “who for the joy that was set before Him.” Here is made known to us what was the final moving cause in His mind which sustained the Savior to a persevering performance of duty, and of the endurance of all sufferings that duty entailed. Various definitions have been given of that “joy,” and probably all of them are included within its scope. The glory of God was what the Redeemer preferred above all things: Hebrews 10:5-9, but that glory was inseparably bound up with the personal exaltation of the Redeemer and the salvation of His Church following the accomplishment of the work given Him to do. This was “set before Him” in the everlasting covenant.

Thus the “joy” that was set before Jesus was the doing of God’s will, and His anticipation of the glorious reward which should be given Him in return. Hebrews 12:2 sustains the figure used in the previous verse: it is as the model Racer our Savior is here viewed. At the winning-post hung a crown, in full view of the racers, and this was ever before the eye of the Captain of our salvation, as He pursued the course appointed Him by the Father. He steadily kept before Him the cheering and blissful reward: His heart laid hold of the Messianic promises and prophecies recorded in Holy Writ: He had in steady prospect that satisfaction with which the travail of His soul would be fully compensated. By faith Abraham looked forward to a “City” (11:10); by faith Isaac anticipated “things to come” (11:20); by faith Moses “had respect unto the recompense of the reward” (11:26); and by faith, Jesus lived and died in the enjoyment of that which was “set before Him.”

Second, He “endured the cross.” Therein we have the Commander’s example to His soldiers of heroic fortitude. Those words signify far more than that He experienced the shame and pain of crucifixion: they tell us that He stood steadfast under it all. He endured the cross not sullenly or even stoically, but in the highest and noblest sense of the term:—with holy composure of soul. He never wavered or faltered, murmured or complained: “The cup which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it” (John 18:11)! And He has left us an example that we should “follow His steps” (1 Pet. 2:21), and therefore does He declare, “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24). Strength for this task is to be found by “looking unto Jesus,” by keeping steadily before faith’s eye the crown, the joy awaiting us.

Third, “despising the shame.” Therein we see the Captain’s contempt of whatever sought to bar His progress. We scarcely think of associating this word “despising” with the meek and lowly Jesus. It is an ugly term, yet there are things which deserve it. The Savior viewed things in their true perspective; He estimated them at their proper worth: in the light of the joy set before Him, He regarded hardship, ignominy, persecution, sufferings from men, as trifles. Here, too, He has left us “an example.” But alas, instead of scorning it, we magnify and are intimidated by “the shame.” How many are ashamed to be scripturally baptized and wear His uniform. How many are ashamed to openly confess Christ before the world. Meditate more upon the reward, the crown, the eternal joy—that outweighs all the little sacrifices we are now called upon to make.

Fourth, “and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Here we witness the Captain’s triumph, His actual entrance into the joy anticipated, His being crowned with glory and honor. His “sitting down” denoted three things. First, rest after finished work, the race run. Second, being invested with dominion: He now occupies the place of supreme sovereignty: Matthew 28:18, Philippians 2:10. Third, being intrusted with the prerogative of judgment: John 17: 2, Acts 17:30. And what have these three things to do with us, His unworthy followers? Much indeed: eternal rest is assured the successful racer: Revelation 13:14. A place on Christ’s throne is promised the overcomer: Revelation 3:21. Dominion too is the future portion of him who vanquishes this world: Revelation 2:26, 27. Finally, it is written “Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? “Do ye not know we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:2, 3). “Joint heirs with Christ: if so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together” (Rom. 8:17).

One other word in our text yet remains to be considered: “looking unto Jesus the Author (Captain) and Finisher (Perfecter) of our faith.” We have already seen from the other occurrences of this term (in its various forms) in our Epistle, that it is a very full one. Here, we believe, it has at least a twofold force. First, Completer: Jesus is the first and the last as an example of confidence in and submission unto God: He is the most complete model of faith and obedience that can be brought before us. Instead of including Him with the heroes of faith in chapter 11, He is here distinguished from them, as being above them. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the Ending: as there was none hitherto who could be compared with Him, so there will be none hereafter. “Author and Finisher” or “Captain and Completer” means Jesus is beyond all comparison.

The fact that we are bidden to be looking unto Jesus as “the Leader and Finisher of faith” also denotes that He perfects our faith. How? First, by His grace flowing into us. We need something more than a flawless Model set before us: who can in his own strength imitate the perfect Man? But Christ has not only gone before His own, He also dwells in their hearts by faith, and as they yield themselves to His control (and only so) does He live through them. Second, by leading us (Ps. 23:3) along the path of discipline and trial, drawing our hearts away from the things of earth, and fixing them upon Himself. He often makes us lonesome here that we may seek His companionship. Finally, by actually conducting us to glory: He will “come again” (John 14:2) and conform us to His image.

“Looking unto Jesus.” The person of the Savior is to be the “mark” on which the eyes of those who are pressing forward for the prize of the high calling of God, are to be fixed. Be constantly “looking” to Him, trustfully, submissively, hopefully, expectantly. He is the Fountain of all grace (John 1:16): our every need is supplied by God “according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). Then seek the help of the Holy Spirit that the eye of faith be steadfastly fixed on Christ. He has declared “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee,” then let us add, “The Lord is my Helper, I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:5, 6). Salvation is by grace, through faith: it is through “faith” we are saved, not only from Hell, but also from this world (1 John 5:4), from temptation, from the power of indwelling sin—by coming to Christ, trusting in Him, drawing from Him.

What are the things which hinder us running? An active Devil, an evil world, indwelling sin, mysterious trials, fierce opposition, afflictions which almost make us doubt the love of the Father. Then call to mind the “great cloud of witnesses”: they were men of like passions with us, they encountered the same difficulties and discouragements, they met with the same hindrances and obstacles. But they ran “with patience,” they overcame, they won the victor’s crown. How? By “looking unto Jesus”: see Hebrews 11:26. But more: look away from difficulties (Rom. 4:19), from self, from fellow-racers, unto Him who has left us an example to follow, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, so that He is able to succor the tempted, strengthen the weak, guide the perplexed, supply our every need. Let the heart be centered in and the mind stayed upon HIM.

The more we are “looking unto Jesus” the easier will it be to “lay aside every weight.” It is at this point so many fail. If the Christian denies self of different things without an adequate motive (for Christ’s sake), he will still secretly hanker after the things relinquished, or ere long return to them, or become proud of his little sacrifices and become self-righteous. The most effective way of getting a child to drop any dirty or injurious object, is to proffer him something better. The best way to make a tired horse move more quickly, is not to use the whip, but to turn his head toward home! So, if our hearts be occupied with the sacrificial love of Christ for us, we shall be “constrained” thereby to drop all that which displeases Him; and the more we dwell upon the Joy set before us, the more strength shall we have to run “with patience the race that is set before us.”


AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:3-4

Commentary on Hebrews 12:3-4

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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A Call to Steadfastness

(Hebrews 12:3, 4)

At first sight it is not easy to trace the thread which unites the passage that was last before us and the verses which are now to engage our attention: there appears to be no direct connection between the opening verses of Hebrews 12 and those which follow. But a closer examination of them shows they are intimately related: in verses 3, 4 the apostle completes the exhortation with which the chapter opens. In verse 1 the apostle borrowed a figure from the Grecian Games, namely, the marathon race, and now in verse 4 he refers to another part of those games—the contest between the gladiators in the arena. Second, he had specified the principal grace required for the Christian race, namely, “Patience” or perseverance; so now in verse 3 he is urging them against faintness of mind or impatience. Third, he had enforced his exhortation by bidding the saints to “look unto Jesus” their great Exemplar; so here he calls on them to “consider Him” and emulate His steadfastness.

Yet, the verses which are now before us are not a mere repetition of those immediately preceding: rather do they present another, though closely related aspect of the Christian life or “race.” In verse 1 the racers are bidden to “lay aside every weight,” and in verse 3 it is the “contradiction of sinners” which has to be endured: the former, are hindrances which proceed more from within; the latter, are obstacles which are encountered from without. In the former case, it is the evil solicitations of the flesh which would have to be resisted; in the other, it is the persecutions of the world which have to be endured. In verse 1 it is “the sin which doth so easily beset” or “encircle us”—inward depravity—which must be “laid aside”; in verse 4 it is martyrdom which must be prepared for, lest we yield to the “sin” of apostasy.

Now the secret of success, the way to victory, is the same in either case. To enable us to “lay aside” all that hinders from within, there has to be a trustful “looking unto Jesus,” and to enable us to “endure” the oppositions encountered from without and to “strive” against inconstancy and wavering in our profession, we must thoughtfully “consider Him” who was hounded and persecuted as none other ever was. As the incentive to self-denial we are to be occupied with our great Leader, and remember how much He “laid aside” for us—He who was rich for our sakes became poor; He who was “in the form of God” divested Himself of His robes of glory and took upon Him “the form of a servant.” We are not called on to do something which He did not He vacated the throne and took up His cross! Likewise, the chief source of comfort and encouragement when we are called upon to suffer for His sake, is to call to mind the infinitely greater sufferings which He endured for our sakes.

The more we endeavor to emulate the example which the Lord Jesus has left us, the more shall we be opposed from without; the more closely we follow Him, the greater will be the enmity of our fellow-men against us. Our lives will condemn theirs, our ways will be a perpetual rebuke to them, and they will do all they can to discourage and hinder, provoke and oppose. And the tendency of such persecution is to dishearten us, to tempt us to compromise, to ask “What is the use?” Because of this, the blessed Spirit bids us, “Consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” Let the experiences through which Christ passed be the subject of daily contemplation. The record of His unparalleled temptations and trials, His endurance, and His victory, is to be the grand source of our instruction, comfort and encouragement. If we have grown “faint and weary” in our minds, it is because we have failed to properly and profitably “consider Him.”

Supremely important is a knowledge of the Scriptures concerning the Lord Jesus: there can be no experimental holiness, no growth in grace apart from the same. Vital godliness consists in a practical conformity to the image of God’s Son: it is to follow the example which He has left us, to take His yoke upon us and learn of Him. For this, there must needs be an intimate knowledge of His ways, a prayerful and believing study of the record of His life, a daily reading of and meditating thereon. That is why the four Gospels are placed at the beginning of the N.T.—they are of first importance. What we have in the Epistles is principally an interpretation and application of the four Gospels to the details of our walk. O that we may say with ever-deepening purpose of heart, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). O that we may “follow on to know the Lord” (Hos. 6:3)

“For consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb. 12:3, 4). The whole of this is a dehortation or caution against an evil, which if yielded to will prevent our discharge of the duty inculcated in verses 1, 2. That which is dehorted against is “be not wearied”—give not up the race, abandon not your Christian profession. The way whereby we may fall into that evil is by becoming “faint” in our minds. The means to prevent this is the diligent contemplation of our great Exemplar.

In verses 1, 2 the apostle had exhorted unto a patient or persevering pressing forward in the path of faith and obedience. In verses 3-11 he presents a number of considerations or motives to hearten us in our course, seeking particularly to counteract the enervating influence which difficulties are apt to exert upon the minds of God’s tried people. The tendency of strong and lasting opposition and persecution is to discourage, which if yielded unto leads to despair. To strengthen the hearts of those tried Hebrews, the apostle bade them consider the case of Christ Himself: He encountered far worse sufferings than we do, yet He patiently “endured” them (verse 3). Then they were reminded that their case was by no means desperate and extreme—they had not yet been called to suffer a death of martyrdom. Finally, their very difficulties were the loving chastisement of their Father, designed for their profit (verses 5-11). By what a variety of means does the blessed Spirit strengthen, stablish, and comfort tried believers!

Are you, dear reader, disheartened by the hard usage you are receiving from men, yea, from the religions world; are you fearful as you anticipate the persecutions which may yet attend your Christian profession; or, are you too ready to show resentment against those who oppose you? Then “consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself.” The connecting “For” has the force here of “moreover:” in addition to “looking unto Jesus” as your Leader and Perfecter, consider Him in His steadfastness under relentless persecution. Faith has many actings or forms of exercise: it is to reflect, contemplate, call to mind—God’s past ways with us, His dealings with His people of old, and particularly the recorded history of His beloved and incarnate Son. We are greatly the losers if we fail to cultivate the habit of devout consideration and holy meditation. The Greek word for “consider” is not the same as the one used in Hebrews 3:1 and Hebrews 10:24; in fact it is a term which occurs, in this form, nowhere else in the N.T.

The Greek word for “consider” in our text is derived from the one rendered “proportion” in Romans 12:6. It is a mathematical term, signifying to compute by comparing things together in their due proportions. It means: form a just and accurate estimate. “For consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself:” draw an analogy between His sufferings and yours, and what proportion is there between them! Weigh well who He was, the place He took, the infinite perfection of His character and deeds; and then the base ingratitude, the gross injustice, the cruel persecution He met with. Calculate and estimate the constancy of the opposition He encountered, the type of men who maligned Him, the variety and intensity of His sore trials, and the spirit of meekness and patience with which He bore them. And what are our trifling trials when compared with His agonies, or even to our deserts! O my soul blush with shame because of thy murmurings.

“Consider Him” in the ineffable excellency of His person. He was none other than the Lord of glory, the Beloved of the Father, the second person in the sacred Trinity, the Creator of heaven and earth. Now, since He suffered here on earth, why should you, having enlisted under His banner, think it strange that you should be called on to endure a little hardness in His service! Consider his relationship to you: He is your Redeemer and Proprietor: is it not sufficient for the disciple to be as his Master, the servant as his Lord? If the Head was spared not trial and shame, shall the members of His body complain if they be called on to have some fellowship with Him in this? When you are tempted to throw down your colors and capitulate to the Enemy, or even to murmur at your hard lot, “Consider Him” who when here “had not where to lay His head.”

The particular sufferings of Christ which are here singled out for our consideration are, the “contradiction of sinners” which He encountered. He was opposed constantly, by word and action; He was opposed by His own people according to the flesh; He was opposed by the very ones to whom He ministered in infinite grace and loving-kindness. That opposition began at His birth, when there was no room in the inn—He was not wanted. It was seen again in His infancy, when Herod sought to slay Him, and His parents were forced to flee with Him into Egypt. Little else is told us in the N.T., about His early years, but there is a Messianic prophecy in Psalm 88:15 where we hear Him pathetically saying, “I am afflicted and ready to die from My youth up!” As soon as His public ministry commenced, and during the whole of its three years’ course, He endured one unbroken, relentless, “contradiction of sinners against Himself.”

The Lord Jesus was derided as the Prophet, mocked as the King, and treated with the utmost contempt as the Priest and Savior. He was accused of deceiving (John 7:12) and perverting the people (Luke 23:14). His teaching was opposed, and His person was insulted. Because He conversed with and befriended publicans and sinners, He was “murmured” at (Luke 15:2). Because He performed works of mercy on the sabbath day, He was charged with breaking the law (Mark 3:2). The gracious miracles which He wrought upon the sick and demon-possessed, were attributed to His being in league with the Devil (Matthew 12:24). He was regarded as a low-born fanatic. He was branded as a “glutton and winebibber.” He was accused of speaking against Caesar (John 19:12), whereas He had expressly bidden men to render unto Caesar what rightly belonged to him (Matthew 22:21). Though He was the Holy One of God, there was scarcely anything about Him that was not opposed.

“For consider Him who endured such contradiction” Here is emphasized the greatness of Christ’s sufferings: “such contradiction”—so bitter, so severe, so malicious, so protracted; everything which the evil wits of men and Satan could invent. That word “such” is also added to awaken our wonderment and worship. Though the incarnate Son of God, He was spat upon, contemptuously arrayed in a purple robe and His enemies bowed the knee before Him in mockery. They buffeted Him and smote Him on the face. They tore His back with scourgings, as was foretold by the Psalmist (Ps. 129:3). They condemned Him to a criminal’s death, and nailed Him to the Cross, and that, between two thieves, to add to His shame. And this, at the hands of men who, though they made a great show of sanctity, were “sinners.”

Christ felt keenly that “contradiction,” for He was the Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. At the end, He exclaimed “reproach hath broken My heart” (Ps. 69:20). Nevertheless, He turned not aside from the path of duty, still less did He abandon His mission. He fled not from His enemies, and fainted not under their merciless persecution: instead, He “endured” it. As we pointed out in our exposition of the previous verse, that word is used of Christ in its highest and noblest sense. He bore patiently every ignominy that was heaped upon Him. He never retaliated or reviled His traducers. He remained steadfast unto the end, and finished the work which had been given Him to do. When the supreme crises arrived, He faltered not, but “set His face as a flint to go up to Jerusalem” (Isa. 50:7, Luke 9:51).

Do you, tried reader, feel that your cup of opposition is a little fuller than that of some of your fellow Christians? Then look away to the cup which Christ drank! Here is the Divine antidote against weariness: Christ meekly and triumphantly “endured” far, far worse than anything you are called on to suffer for His sake; yet He fainted not. When you are weary in your mind because of trials and injuries from the enemies of God, “consider” Christ, and this will quieten and suppress thy corrupt propensities to murmuring and impatience. Set Him before thy heart as the grand example and encouragement—example in patience, encouragement in the blessed issue: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Tim. 2:12). Faith’s consideration of Him will work a conformity unto Him in our souls which will preserve from fainting.

“Lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” There is no connecting “and” in the Greek: two distinct thoughts are presented: “lest ye be wearied,” that is, so discouraged as to quit; “faint in your mind,” states the cause thereof. The word for “weary” here is a strong one: it signifies exhausted, being so despondent as to break one’s resolution. In its ultimate meaning, it refers to such a state of despondency as an utter sinking of spirit, through the difficulties, trials, opposition and persecution encountered as to “look back” (Luke 9:62), and either partially or wholly abandon one’s profession of the Gospel. In other words, it is another warning against apostasy. What we are cautioned against here is the opposite of that which the Lord commended in the Ephesian Church, “And for My name’s sake hast labored, and hast not fainted” (Rev. 2:3)—here there is perseverance in the Christian profession despite all opposition.

At different periods of history God has permitted fierce opposition to break out against His people, to test the reality and strength of their attachment to Christ. This was the case with those to whom our Epistle was first addressed: they were being exposed to great trials and sufferings, temptations and privations; hence the timeliness of this exhortation, and its accompanying warning. Reproaches, losses, imprisonments, scourgings, being threatened with death, have a strong tendency to produce dejection and despair; they present a powerful temptation to give up the fight. And naught but the vigorous activity of faith will fortify the mind under religious persecution. Only as the heart is encouragingly occupied with Christ’s endurance of the “contradiction of sinners against Himself,” will our resolution be strong to endure unto the end: “In the world ye shall have tribulations: but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

“Faint in your minds.” This it is which, if not resisted and corrected, leads to the “weariness” or utter exhaustion of the previous clause. This faintness of mind is the reverse of vigor and cheerfulness. If, under the strong opposition and fierce persecution, we are to “endure unto the end,” then we must watch diligently against the allowance of such faintness of mind. There is a spiritual vigor required in order to perseverence in the Christian profession during times of persecution. Hence it is that we are exhorted, “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind” (1 Pet. 4:1); “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against wicked spirits in the heavenlies. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand” (Eph. 6:12, 13); “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13).

Any degree of faintness of mind in the Christian results from and consists in a remitting of the cheerful actions of faith in the various duties which God has called us to discharge. Nothing but the regular exercise of faith keeps the soul calm and restful, patient and prayerful. If faith ceases to be operative, and our mind be left to cope with difficulties and trials in our own natural strength, then we shall soon grow weary of a persecuted Christian profession. Herein lies the beginning of all spiritual declension—a lack of the due exercise of faith, and that in turn, is the result of the heart growing cold toward Christ! If faith be in healthy exercise, we shall say, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), realizing that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17); ah, but that consciousness is only “while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (verse 18).

“Consider Him:” there is the remedy against faintness of mind; there is the preservative from such “weariness” of dejection of spirits that we are ready to throw down our weapons and throw up our hands in utter despair. It is the diligent consideration of the person of Christ, the Object of faith, the Food of faith, the Supporter of faith. It is by drawing an analogy between His infinitely sorer sufferings and our present hardships. It is by making application unto ourselves of what is to be found in Him suitable to our own case. Are we called on to suffer a little for Him, then let our eye be turned on Him who went before us in the same path of trial. Make a comparison between what He “endured” and what you are called to struggle with, and surely you will be ashamed to complain! “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). Admire and imitate His meekness—weeping over His enemies, and praying for His murderers!

“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (verse 4). The persons here immediately addressed—the “ye”—were the Hebrews themselves. Because of their profession of Christianity, because of their loyalty to Christ, they had suffered severely in various ways. Plain reference to something of what they had already been called on to endure is made in 10:32-34, “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly whilst ye were made a gazing-stock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods.” Thus, the Hebrew saints had been sorely oppressed by their unbelieving brethren among the Jews; it is that which gave such point to the exhortation and warning in the previous verse.

“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” Here is the second consideration which the apostle pressed upon his afflicted brethren: not only to ponder the far greater opposition which their Savior encountered, but also to bear in mind that their own sufferings were not so severe as they might have been, or as possibly they would yet be. It is an argument made by reasoning from the greater to the less, and from comparing their present state with that which might await them: what could be expected to sustain their hearts and deliver from apostasy when under the supreme test of death by violence, if they fainted beneath lesser afflictions? We, too, should honestly face the same alternative: if unkind words and sneers make us waver now, how would we acquit ourselves if called on to face a martyr’s death!

The present state of the oppressed Hebrews is here expressed negatively: “ye have not yet resisted unto blood.” True, they had already met with various forms of suffering, but not yet had they been called upon to lay down their lives. As Hebrews 10:32-34 clearly intimates, they had well acquitted themselves during the first stages of their trials, but their warfare was not yet ended. They had need to bear in mind that word of Christ, “Men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1); and that exhortation of the Holy Spirit, “let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).

“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood.” The apostle here hinted to the Hebrews what might yet have to be endured by them, namely a bloody and violent death—by stoning, or the sword, or fire. That is the utmost which fiendish persecutors can afflict. Men may kill the body, but when they have done that, they can do no more. God has set bounds to their rage: none will hound or harm His people in the next world! Those who engage in the Christian profession, who serve under the banner of Christ, have no guarantee that they may not be called unto the utmost suffering of blood on account of their allegiance to him; for that is what His adversaries have always desired. Hence, Christ bids us to “sit down and count the cost” (Luke 14:28), of being His disciples. God has decreed that many, in different ages should be martyred for His own praise, the glory of Christ and the honor of the Gospel.

“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.” “Sin” is here personified, regarded as a combatant which has to be overcome. The various persecutions, hardships, afflictions, difficulties of the way, in consequence of our attachment to Christ, become so many occasions and means which sin seeks to employ in order to hinder and oppose us. The Christian is called to a contest with sin. The apostle continues his allusion to the Grecian Games, changing from the racer to the combatant. The great contest is in the believer’s heart between grace and sin, the flesh and the spirit (Gal. 5:17). Sin seeks to quench faith and kill obedience: therefore sin is to be “striven against” for our very souls are at stake. There is no place for sloth in this deadly contest; no furloughs are granted!

“Striving against sin.” That which the Hebrews were striving against was apostasy, going to the full lengths of sin—abandoning their Christian profession. Persecution was the means which indwelling depravity sought to use, to employ in slaying faith and fidelity to Christ. That terrible wickedness was to be steadfastly resisted, by fighting against weariness in the conflict. O to say with the apostle, “I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13): but in order to reach that state of soul, there has to be a close walking with Him day by day, and a patient bearing of the minor trials. “If thou hast run with the footmen and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses? and if in the land of peace, wherein thou trustedst, they wearied thee, then how wilt thou do in the swelling of Jordan?” (Jer. 12:5).

AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:5-6

Commentary on Hebrews 12:5-6

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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Divine Chastisement

(Hebrews 12:5)

The grand truth of Divine Chastisement is inexpressibly blessed, and one which we can neglect only to our great loss. It is of deep importance, for when Scripturally apprehended it preserves from some serious errors by which Satan has succeeded (as “an angel of light”) in deceiving and destroying not a few. For example, it sounds the death-knell to that wide-spread delusion of “sinless perfectionism.” The passage which is to be before us unmistakably exposes the wild fanaticism of those who imagine that, as the result of some “second work of grace,” the carnal nature has been eradicated from their beings, so that, while perhaps not so wise, they are as pure as the angels which never sinned, and lead lives which are blameless in the sight of the thrice holy God. Poor blinded souls: such have not even experienced a first “work of Divine grace” in their souls: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

“My son despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him; for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (Heb. 12:5, 6). How plain and emphatic is that! God does find something to “rebuke” in us, and uses the rod upon every one of His children. Chastisement for sin is a family mark, a sign of sonship, a proof of God’s love, a token of His Fatherly kindness and care; it is an inestimable mercy, a choice new-covenant blessing. Woe to the man whom God chastens not, whom He suffers to go recklessly on in the boastful and presumptuous security which so many now mistake for faith. There is a reckoning to come of which he little dreams. Were he a son, he would be chastened for his sin; he would be brought to repentance and godly sorrow, he would with grief of heart confess his backslidings, and then be blest with pardon and peace.

The truth of Divine chastisement corrects another serious error, which has become quite common in certain quarters, namely, that God views His people so completely in Christ that He sees no sin in them. It is true, blessedly true, that of His elect it is stated, “He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel” (Num. 23:21) and that Christ declares of His spouse “Thou art all fair, My love; there is no spot in thee” (Song 4:7). The testimony of Scripture is most express that in regard to the justification or acceptance of the persons of the elect, they are “complete in Him”-Christ (Col. 2:10); “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6)-washed in Christ’s blood, clothed with His righteousness. In that sense, God sees no sin in them; none to punish. But we must not use that precious truth to set aside another, revealed with equal clearness, and thus fall into serious error.

God does see sin in His children and chastises them for it. Even though the non-imputation of sin to the believer (Rom. 4:8) and the chastisement of sin in believers (1 Cor. 11:30-32) were irreconcilable to human reason, we are bound to receive both on the authority of Holy Writ. Let us beware lest we fall under the solemn charge of Malachi 2:9, “Ye have not kept My ways, but have been partial in the law.” What could be plainer than this, “I will make Him my Firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for Him for evermore, and My covenant shall stand fast with Him. His seed also will I make to endure forever and His throne as the days of heaven. If His children forsake My law, and walk not in My judgments; if they break My statutes, and keep not My commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless My loving kindness will I not utterly take from Him, nor suffer My faithfulness to fail” (Ps. 89:27-33). Five things are clearly revealed there. First Christ Himself is addressed under the name of “David.” Second, His children break God’s statutes. Third, in them there is “iniquity” and “transgression.” Fourth, God will “visit” their transgression “with the rod!” Fifth, yet will He not cast them off.

What could express more clearly the fact that God does see sin in believers, and that He does chastise them for it? For, be it noted, the whole of the above passage speaks of believers. It is the language, not of the Law, but of the Gospel. Blessed promises are there made to believers in Christ: the unchanging loving-kindness of God, His covenant-faithfulness toward them, His spiritual blessing of them. But “stripes” and the “rod” are there promised too! Then let us not dare to separate what God has joined together. How do we know anything concerning the acceptance of the elect in Christ? The answer must be, Only on the testimony of Holy Writ. Very well; from the same unerring Testimony we also know that God chastises His people for their sins. It is at our imminent peril that we reject either of these complementary truths.

The same fact is plainly presented again in Hebrews 12:7-10, “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons: for what son is he whom the Father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily, for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness.” The apostle there draws an analogy from the natural relationship of father and child. Why do earthly parents chastise their children? Is it not for their faults? Can we justify a parent for chastening a child where there was no fault, nothing in him which called for the rod? In that case, it would be positive tyranny, actual cruelty. If the same be not true spiritually, then the comparison must fall to the ground. Hebrews 12 proves conclusively that, if God does not chastise me then I am an unbeliever, and I sign my own condemnation as a bastard.

Yet it is very necessary for us to point out, at this stage, that all the sufferings of believers in this world are not Divine rebukes for personal transgressions. Here too we need to be on our guard against lopsidedness. After we have apprehended the fact that God does take notice of the iniquities of His people and use the rod upon them, it is so easy to jump to the conclusion that when we see an afflicted Christian, God must be visiting His displeasure upon him. That is a sad and serious error. Some of the very choicest of God’s saints have been called on to endure the most painful and protracted sufferings; some of the most faithful and eminent servants of Christ have encountered the most relentless and extreme persecution. Not only is this a fact of observation, but it is plainly revealed in Holy Writ.

As we turn to God’s Word for light on the subject of suffering among the saints, we find it affirmed, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth him out of them all” (Ps. 34:19). Those “afflictions” are sent by God upon different ones for various reasons. Sometimes for the prevention of sin: the experience of the beloved apostle was a case in point, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure” (2 Cor. 12:7). Sometimes sore trials are sent for the testing and strengthening of our graces: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (James 1:2, 3). Sometimes God’s servants and people axe called on to endure fierce persecution for a confirmatory testimony to the Truth “And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41).

Yet here again we need to be much on our guard, for the flesh is ever ready to pervert even the holy things of God, and make an evil use of that which is good. When God is chastising a Christian for his sins, it is so easy for him to suppose such is not the case, and falsely comfort himself with the thought that God is only developing his graces, or permitting him to have closer fellowship with the sufferings of Christ. Where we are visited with afflictions personally, it is always the safest policy to assume that God has a controversy with us; humble ourselves beneath His mighty hand, and say with Job, “Show me wherefore Thou contendest with me” (10:2); and when He has convicted me of my fault, to penitently confess and forsake it. But where others are concerned, it is not for us to judge-though sometimes God reveals the cause to His servants (Amos 3:7).

In the passage which is to be before us, the apostle presents a third consideration why heed should be given unto the exhortation at the beginning of Hebrews 12, which calls to patient perseverance in the path of faith and obedience, notwithstanding all the obstacles, difficulties, and dangers which may be encountered therein. He now draws a motive from the nature of those sufferings considered in the light of God’s end in them: all the trials and persecutions which He may call on His people to endure are necessary, not only as testimonies to the truth, to the reality of His grace in them, but also as chastisements which are required by us, wherein God has a blessed design toward us. This argument is enforced by several considerations to the end of verse 13. How we should admire and adore the consummate wisdom of God which has so marvelously ordered all, that the very things which manifest the hatred of men against us, are evidences of His love toward us! How the realization of this should strengthen patience!

O how many of God’s dear children have found, in every age, that the afflictions which have come upon them from a hostile world, were soul-purging medicines from the Lord. By them they have been bestirred, revived, and mortified to things down here; and made partakers of God’s holiness, to their own unspeakable advantage and comfort. Truly wondrous are the ways of our great God. Hereby doth He defeat the counsels and expectations of the wicked, having a design to accomplish by their agency something which they know not of. These very reproaches, imprisonments, stripes, with the loss of goods and danger of their lives, with which the world opposed them for their ruin; God makes use of for their refining, consolation and joy. Truly He “maketh the wrath of man to praise Him” (Ps. 76:10). O that our hearts and minds may be duly impressed with the wisdom, power and grace of Him who bringeth a clean thing out of an unclean.

“In all these things is the wisdom and goodness of God, in contriving and effecting these things, to the glory of His grace, and the salvation of His Church, to be admired” (John Owen). But herein we may see, once more, the imperative need for faith-a God-given, God-sustained, spiritual, supernatural FAITH. Carnal reason can see no more in our persecutions than the malice and rage of evil men. Our senses perceive nothing beyond material losses and painful physical discomforts. But faith discovers the Father’s hand directing all things: faith is assured that all proceeds from His boundless love: faith realizes that He has in view the good of our souls. The more this is apprehended by the exercise of faith, not only the better for our peace of mind, but the readier shall we be to diligently apply ourselves in seeking to learn God’s lessons for us in every chastisement He lays upon us.

The opening “And” of verse 5 shows the apostle is continuing to present motives to stir unto a perseverance in the faith, notwithstanding sufferings for the same. The first motive was taken from the example of the O.T. worthies (verse 1). The second, from the illustrious pattern of Jesus (verses 2-4). This is the third: the Author of these sufferings-our Father-and His loving design in them. There is also a more immediate connection with 5:4 pointed by the “And:” it presents a tacit rebuke for being ready to faint under the lesser trials, wherewith they were exercised. Here He gives a reason how and why it was they were thus making that reason the means of introducing a new argument. The reason why they were ready to faint was their inattention to the direction and encouragement which God has supplied for them-our failure to appropriate God’s gracious provisions for us is the rise of all our spiritual miscarriages.

The Hebrew Christians to whom this epistle was first addressed were passing through a great fight of afflictions, and miserably were they acquitting themselves. They were the little remnant out of the Jewish nation who had believed on their Messiah during the days of His public ministry, plus those Jews who had been converted under the preaching of the apostles. It is highly probable that they had expected the Messianic kingdom would at once be set up on earth, and that they would be allotted the chief places of honor in it. But the millennium had not begun, and their own lot became increasingly bitter. They were not only hated by the Gentiles, but ostracized by their unbelieving brethren, and it became a hard matter for them to make even a bare living. Providence held a frowning face. Many who had made a profession of Christianity had gone back to Judaism and were prospering temporally. As the afflictions of the believing Jews increased they too were sorely tempted to turn their back upon the new Faith. Had they been wrong in embracing Christianity? Was high heaven displeased because they had identified themselves with Jesus of Nazareth? Did not their sufferings go to show that God no longer regarded them with favor?

Now it is most blessed and instructive to see how the apostle met the unbelieving reasoning of their hearts. He appealed to their own scriptures, reminding them of an exhortation found in Proverbs 3:11, 12: “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastenings of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him” (Heb. 12:5). As we pointed out so often in our exposition of the earlier chapters of this Epistle, at every critical point in his argument the apostle’s appeal was to the written Word of God-an example which is binding on every servant of Christ to follow. That Word is the final court of appeal for every controversial matter, and the more its authority is respected, the more is its Author honored. Not only so, but the more God’s children are brought to turn to its instruction, the more will they be built up and established in the true faith. Moreover, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4): it is to them alone we must turn for solid comfort. Great will be our loss if we fail to do so.

“And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you.” Note well the words we have placed in italics. The exhortation to which the apostle referred was uttered over a thousand years previously, under the Mosaic dispensation; nevertheless the apostle insists that it was addressed equally unto the New T. saints! How this exposes the cardinal error of modern “dispensationalists,” who seek to rob Christians of the greater part of God’s precious Word. Under the pretense of “rightly dividing” the Word, they would filch from them all that God gave to His people prior to the beginning of the present era. Such a devilish device is to be steadfastly resisted by us. All that is found in the book of Proverbs is as much God the Father’s instruction to us as are the contents of the Pauline epistles! Throughout that book God addresses us individually as “My son:” see Hebrews 1:8, 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, etc. Surely that is quite sufficient for every spiritual mind-no labored argument is needed.

The appositeness of Proverbs 3:11, 12 to the case of the afflicted Hebrews gave great force to the apostle’s citing of it here. That passage would enable them to perceive that their case was by no means unprecedented or peculiar, that it was in fact no otherwise with them than it had been with others of God’s children in former ages and that long before the Lord had graciously laid in provision for their encouragement: “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of His correction: For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth, even as a Father the son in whom He delighteth” (Prov. 3:11, 12). It has ever been God’s way to correct those in whom He delights, to chastise His children; but so far from that salutary discipline causing us to faint, it should strengthen and comfort our hearts, being assured that such chastening proceeds from His love, and that the exhortation to perseverance in the path of duty is issued by Him. It is the height of pride and ingratitude not to comply with His tender entreaties.

But the apostle had to say to the suffering Hebrews, “Ye have forgotten the exhortation.” To forget God’s gracious instruction is at least an infirmity, and with it they are here taxed. To forget the encouragements which the Father has given us is a serious fault: it is expressly forbidden: “Beware lest thou forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:12). It was taxed upon the Jews of old, “They soon forgat His works… They forgat God their Savior, which had done great things in Egypt” (Ps. 106:13, 21). Forgetfulness is a part of that corruption which has seized man by his fall: all the faculties of his soul have been seriously injured-the memory, which was placed in man to be a treasury, in which to lay up the directions and consolations of God’s Word, has not escaped the universal wreckage. But that by no means excuses us: it is a fault, to be striven and prayed against. As ministers see occasion, they are to stir up God’s people to use means for the strengthening of the memory-especially by the formation of the habit of holy meditation in Divine things.

Thus it was with the Hebrews, in some measure at least: they had “forgotten” that which should have stood in good stead in the hour of their need. Under their trials and persecution, they ought, in an especial manner, to have called to mind that Divine exhortation of Proverbs 3:11, 12 for their encouragement: had they believingly appropriated it, they had been kept from fainting. Alas, how often we are like them! “The want of a diligent consideration of the provision that God hath made in the Scripture for our encouragement to duty and comfort under difficulties, is a sinful forgetfulness, and is of dangerous consequence to our souls” (John Owen).

“Which speaketh unto you as unto children.” It is very striking indeed to observe the tense of the verb here: the apostle was quoting a sentence of Scripture which had been written a thousand years previously, yet he does not say “which hath spoken,” but “which speaketh unto you!” The same may be seen again in that sevenfold exhortation of Revelation 2 and 3, “He that hath an ear let him hear what the Spirit saith (not “said”) unto the churches.” The Holy Scriptures are a living Word, in which God speaks to men in every generation. Holy Writ is not a dumb or dead letter: it has a voice in it, ever speaking of God Himself. “The Holy Spirit is always present in the Word, and speaks in it equally and alike to the church in all ages. He doth in it speak as immediately to us, as if we were the first and only persons to whom He spake. And this should teach us, with what reverence we ought to attend to the Scriptures, namely, as to the way and means whereby God Himself speaks directly to us” (John Owen.)

“Which speaketh unto you as unto children.” The apostle emphasizes the fact that God addresses an exhortation in Proverbs 3:11 to “My son,” which shows plainly that His relation to the O.T. saints was that of a Father to His children. This at once refutes a glaring error made by some who pose as being ultra-orthodox, more deeply taught in the Word than others. They have insisted that the Fatherhood of God was never revealed until the Son became incarnate; but every verse in the Proverbs where God says “My son” reveals their mistake. That the O.T. saints were instructed in this blessed relationship is clear from other passages: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him” (Ps. 103:13). This relation unto God is by virtue of their (and our) union with Christ: He is “the Son,” and being one with Him, members of His body, they were “sons” too.

This precious relationship is the ground of the soul’s confidence in God. “If God speaks to them as to children, they have good ground to fly to God as to a Father. and in all time of need to ask and seek of Him all needful blessings (Matthew 7:11), yea, and in faith to depend on Him for the same (Matthew 6:31, 32). What useful things shall they want? What hurtful thing need such to fear? If God deal with us as with children, He will provide for them every good thing, He will protect them from every hurtful thing, He will hear their prayers, He will accept their services, He will bear with their infirmities, He will support them under all their burdens, and assist them against all their assaults; though through their own weakness, or the violence of some temptation, they should be drawn from Him, yet will He be ready to meet them in the mid-way, turning to Him-instance the mind of the father of the prodigal towards him” (W. Gouge).

Divine Chastisement

(Hebrews 12:6)

The problem of suffering is a very real one in this world, and to not a few of our readers a personal and acute one. While some of us are freely supplied with comforts, others are constantly exercised over procuring the bare necessities of life. While some of us have long been favored with good health, others know not what it is to go through a day without sickness and pain. While some homes have not been visited by death for many years, others are called upon again and again to pass through the deep waters of family bereavement. Yes, dear friend; the problem of suffering, the encountering of severe trials, is a very personal thing for not a few of the members of the household of faith. Nor is it the external afflictions which occasion the most anguish: it is the questionings they raise, the doubts they stimulate, the dark clouds of unbelief which they so often bring over the heart.

Very often it is in seasons of trial and trouble that Satan is most successful in getting in his evil work. When he perceives the uselessness of attempting to bring believers under the bondage in which he keeps unbelievers, he bides his time for the shooting at them of other arrows which he has in his quiver. Though he is unable to drag them down to the commission of the grosser outward forms of sin, he waits his opportunity for tempting them to be guilty of inward sins. Though he cannot infect them with the poison of evolutionism and higher criticism, he despairs not of seducing them with questions of God’s goodness. It is when adversity comes the Christian’s way, when sore trials multiply, when the soul is oppressed and the mind distressed, that the Devil seeks to instill and strengthen doubtings of God’s love, and to call into question the faithfulness of His promises.

Moreover, there come seasons in the lives of many saints when to sight and sense it seems as though God Himself had ceased to care for His needy and afflicted child. Earnest prayer is made for the mitigation of the sufferings, but relief is not granted. Grace is sought to meekly bear the burden which has been laid upon the suffering one; yet, so far from any sensible answer being received, self-will, impatience, unbelief, are more active than ever. Instead of the peace of God ruling the heart, unrest and enmity occupy its throne. Instead of quietness within, there is turmoil and resentment. Instead of “giving thanks always for all things unto God” (Eph. 5:20), the soul is filled with unkind thoughts and feelings against Him. This is cause for anguish unto the renewed heart; yet, at times, struggle against the evil as the Christian may, he is overcome by it.

Then it is that the afflicted one cries out, “Why standest Thou afar off, O Lord, why hidest Thou Thyself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1). To the distressed saint, the Lord seems to stand still, as if He coldly looked on from a distance, and did not sympathize with the afflicted one. Nay, worse, the Lord appears to be afar off, and no longer “a very present help in trouble,” but rather an inaccessible mountain, which it is impossible to reach. The felt presence of the Lord is the stay, the strength, the consolation of the believer; the lifting up of the light of His countenance upon us, is what sustains and cheers us in this dark world. But when that is withheld, when we no longer have the joy of His presence with us, drab indeed is the prospect, sad the heart. It is the hiding of our Father’s face which cuts to the quick. When trouble and desertion come together, it is unbearable.

Then it is that the word comes to us, “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him” (Heb. 12:5). Ah, it is easy for us to perceive the meetness of such an admonition as this while things are going smoothly and pleasantly for us. While our lot is congenial, or at least bearable, we have little difficulty in discerning what a sin it is for any Christian to either “despise” God’s chastenings or to “faint” beneath them. But when tribulation comes upon us, when distress and anguish fill our hearts, it is quite another matter. Not only do we become guilty of one of the very evils here dehorted from, but we are very apt to excuse and extenuate our peevishness or faintness. There is a tendency in all of us to pity ourselves, to take sides with ourselves against God, and even to justify the uprisings of our hearts against Him.

Have we never, in self-vindication, said, “Well, after all we are human; it is natural that we should chafe against the rod or give way to despondency when we are afflicted. It is all very well to tell us that we should not, but how can we help ourselves? we cannot change our natures; we are frail men and women, and not angels.” And what has been the issue from the fruit of this self-pity and self-vindication? Review the past, dear friend, and recall how you felt and acted inwardly when God was tearing up your cozy nest, overturning your cherished plans, dashing to pieces your fondest hopes, afflicting you painfully in your affairs, your body, or your family circle. Did it not issue in calling into question the wisdom of God’s ways, the justice of His dealings with you, His kindness towards you? Did it not result in your having still stronger doubts of His very goodness?

In Hebrews 12:5 the Christian is cautioned against either despising the Lord’s chastenings or fainting beneath them. Yet, notwithstanding this plain warning, there remains a tendency in all of us not only to disregard the same, but to act contrary thereto. The apostle anticipates this evil, and points out the remedy. The mind of the Christian must be fortified against it. But how? By calling to remembrance the source from which all his testings, trials, tribulations and troubles proceed, namely, the blessed, wondrous, unchanging love of God. “My son, despise not thou the chastenings of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him. FOR whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth.” Here a reason is advanced why we should not despise God’s chastening nor faint beneath it—all proceeds from His love. Yes, even the bitter disappointments, the sore trials, the things which occasion an aching heart, are not only appointed by unerring wisdom, but are sent by infinite Love! It is the apprehension and appropriation of this glorious fact, and that alone, which will preserve us from both the evils forbidden in 5:5.

The way to victory over suffering is to keep sorrow from filling the soul: “Let not your heart be troubled” (John 14:1). So long as the waves wash only the deck of the ship, there is no danger of its foundering; but when the tempest breaks through the hatches and submerges the hold, then disaster is nigh. No matter what floods of tribulation break over us, it is our duty and our privilege to have peace within: “keep thy heart with all diligence” (Prov. 4:23): suffer no doubtings of God’s wisdom, faithfulness, goodness, to take root there. But how am I to prevent their so doing? “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), is the inspired answer, the sure remedy, the way to victory. There, in one word, we have made known to us the secret of how to overcome all questionings of God’s providential ways, all murmurings against His dealings with us.

“Keep yourselves in the love of God.” It is as though a parent said to his child, “Keep yourself in the sunshine:” the sun shines whether he enjoys it or not, but he is responsible not to walk in the shade and thus lose its genial glow. So God’s love for His people abides unchanging, but how few of them keep themselves in the warmth of it. The saint is to be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17); “rooted” like a tree in rich and fertile soil; “grounded” like a house built upon a rock. Observe that both of these figures speak of hidden processes: the root-life of a tree is concealed from human eyes, and the foundations of a house are laid deep in the ground. Thus it should be with each child of God: the heart is to be fixed, nourished by the love of God.

It is one thing to believe intellectually that “God is love” and that He loves His people, but it is quite another to enjoy and live in that love in the soul. To be “rooted and grounded in love” means to have a settled assurance of God’s love for us, such an assurance as nothing can shake. This is the deep need of every Christian, and no pains are to be spared in the obtaining thereof. Those passages in Scripture which speak of the wondrous love of God, should be read frequently and meditated upon daily. There should be a diligent striving to apprehend God’s love more fully and richly. Dwell upon the many unmistakable proofs which God has made of His love to you: the gift of His Word, the gift of His Son, the gift of His Spirit. What greater, what clearer proofs do we require! Steadfastly resist every temptation to question His love: “keep yourselves in the love of God.” Let that be the realm in which you live, the atmosphere you breathe, the warmth in which you thrive.

This life is but a schooling. In saying this we are uttering a platitude, yet it is a truth of which all Christians need to be constantly reminded. This is the period of our childhood and minority. Now in childhood everything has, or should have, the character of education and discipline. Dear parents and teachers are constantly directing, warning, rebuking; the whole of the child-life is under rule, restraint and guidance. But the only object is the child him-self—his good, his character, his future; and the only motive is love. Now as childhood is to the rest of our life, so is the whole of our earthly sojourn to our future and heavenly life. Therefore let us seek to cultivate the spirit of childhood. Let us regard it as natural that we should be daily rebuked and corrected. Let us behave with the docility and meekness of children, with their trustful and sweet assurance that love is behind all our chastenings, that we are in the tender hands of our Father.

But if this attitude is to be maintained, faith must be kept in steady exercise: only thus shall we judge aright of afflictions. Sense is ever ready to slander and belie the Divine perfections. Sense beclouds the understanding and causes us to wrongly interpret God’s dispensations with us. Why so? Because sense estimates things from their outside and by their present feeling. “No chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous” (Heb. 12:11), and therefore if when under the rod we judge of God’s love and care for us by our sense of His present dealings, we are likely to conclude that He has but little regard for us. Herein lies the urgent need for the putting forth of faith, for “faith is the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is the only remedy for this double evil. Faith interprets things not according to the outside or visible, but according to the promise. Faith looks upon providences not as a present disconnected piece, but in its entirety to the end of things.

Sense perceives in our trials naught but expressions of God’s disregard or anger, but faith can discern Divine wisdom and love in the sorest troubles. Faith is able to unfold the fiddles and solve the mysteries of providence. Faith can extract honey and sweetness out of gall and wormwood. Faith discerns that God’s heart is filled with love toward us, even when His hand is heavy and smarts upon us. The bucket goes down into the well the deeper, that it may come up the fuller. Faith perceives God’s design in the chastening is our good. It is through faith “that He would show thee the secrets of wisdom, that they are double to that which is” (Job 11:6). By the “secrets of wisdom” is meant the hidden ways of God’s providence. Divine providence has two faces: the one of rigor, the other of clemency; sense looks upon the former only, faith enjoys the latter.

Faith not only looks beneath the surface of things and sees the sweet orange beneath the bitter rind, but it looks beyond the present and anticipates the blessed sequel. Of the Psalmist it is recorded, “I said in my haste, I am cut off from before Thine eyes” (Ps. 31:22). The fumes of passion dim our vision when we look only at what is present. Asaph declared, “My feet were almost gone, my steps had well-nigh slipped; for I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps. 73:2, 3); but when he went into the sanctuary of God he said, “Then understood I their end” (verse 17), and that quieted him. Faith is occupied not with the scaffolding, but with the completed building; not with the medicine, but with the healthful effects it produces; not with the painful rod, but with the peaceable fruit of righteousness in which it issues.

Suffering, then, is a test of the heart; chastisement is a challenge to faith—our faith in His wisdom, His faithfulness, His love. As we have sought to show above the great need of the Christian is to keep himself in the love of God, for the soul to have an unshaken assurance of His tender care for us: “casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). But the knowledge of that “care” can only be experimentally maintained by the exercise of faith—especially is this the case in times of trouble. A preacher once asked a despondent friend, “Why is that cow looking over the wall?” And the answer was, “Because she cannot look through it.” The illustration may be crude, yet it gives point to an important truth. Discouraged reader, look over the things which so much distress you, and behold the Father’s smiling face; look above the frowning clouds of His providence, and see the sunshine of His never changing love.

“For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (verse 6). There is something very striking and unusual about this verse, for it is found, in slightly varied form, in no less than five different books of the Bible:—”Happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty” (Job 5:17); “Blessed is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest him out of Thy law” (Ps. 94:12); “Whom the Lord loveth He correcteth, even as a father the son in whom he delighteth” (Prov. 3:12); “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rev. 3:19). Probably there is a twofold reason for this reiteration. First, it hints at the importance and blessedness of this truth. God repeats it so frequently lest we should forget, and thus lose the comfort and cheer of realizing that Divine chastisement proceeds from love. This must be a precious word if God thought it well to say it five times over! Second, such repetition also implies our slowness to believe it; by nature our evil hearts are inclined in the opposite direction. Though our text affirms so emphatically that the Christian’s chastisements proceed from God’s love, we are ever ready to attribute them to His harshness. It is really very humbling that the Holy Spirit should deem it necessary to repeat this statement so often.

“For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.” Four things are to be noted. First, the best of God’s children need chastisement—”every son.” There is no Christian but what has faults and follies which require correcting: “in many things we all offend” (James 3:2). Second, God will correct all whom He adopts into His family. However He may now let the reprobate alone in their sins, He will not ignore the failings of His people—to be suffered to go on unrebuked in wickedness is a sure sign of alienation from God. Third, in this God acts as a Father: no wise and good parent will wink at the faults of his own children: his very relation and affection to them oblige him to take notice of the same. Fourth, God’s disciplinary dealings with His sons proceed from and make manifest His love to them: it is this fact we would now particularly concentrate upon.

1. The Christian’s chastisements flow from God’s love. Not from His anger or hardness, nor from arbitrary dealings, but from God’s heart do our afflictions proceed. It is love which regulates all the ways of God in dealing with His own. It was love which elected them. The heart is not warmed when our election is traced back merely to God’s sovereign will, but our affections are stirred when we read “in love having predestinated us” (Eph. 1:4, 5). It was love which redeemed us. We do not reach the center of the atonement when we see nothing more in the Cross than a vindication of the law and a satisfaction of justice: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). It is love which regenerates or effectually calls us: “with loving kindness have I drawn thee” (Jer. 31:3). The new birth is not only a marvel of Divine wisdom and a miracle of Divine power, but it is also and superlatively a product of God’s affection.

In like manner it is love which ordained our trials and orders our chastisements. O Christian, never doubt the love of God. A quaint old Quaker, who was a farmer, had a weather-vane on the roof of his barn, from which stood out in clear-cut letters “God is love.” One day a preacher was being driven to the Quaker’s home; his host called attention to the vane and its text. The preacher turned and said, “I don’t like that at all: it misrepresents the Divine character—God’s love is not variable like the weather.” Said the Quaker, “Friend you have misinterpreted its significance; that text on the weather-vane is to remind me that, no matter which way the wind is blowing, no matter from which direction the storm may come, still, “God is love.”

2. The Christian’s chastisements express God’s love. Oftentimes we do not think so. As God’s children we think and act very much as we did when children naturally. When we were little and our parents insisted that we should perform a certain duty we failed to appreciate the love which had respect unto our future well-being. Or, when our parents denied us something on which we had set our hearts, we felt we were very hardly dealt with. Yet was it love which said “No” to us. So it is spiritually. The love of God not only gives, but also withholds. No doubt this is the explanation for some of our unanswered prayers: God loves us too much to give what would not really be for our profit. The duties insisted upon, the rebukes given, the things withheld, are all expressions of His faithful love.

Chastisements manifest God’s care of us. He does not regard us with unconcern and neglect, as men usually do their illegitimate children, but He has a true parent’s solicitation for us: “Like as a father pitieth his children so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him” (Ps. 103:13). “And He humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live” (Deut. 8:3). There are several important sermons wrapped up in that verse, but we have not the space here to even outline them. God brings into the wilderness that we may be drawn nearer Himself. He dries up cisterns that we may seek and enjoy the Fountain. He destroys our nest down here that our affection may be set upon things above.

3. The Christian’s chastisements magnify God’s love. Our very trials make manifest the fullness and reveal the perfections of God’s love. What a word is that in Lamentations 3:33; “He doth not afflict willingly”! If God consulted only His own pleasure, He would not afflict us at all: it is for our profit that He “scourges.” Ever remember that the great High Priest Himself is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities”; yet, notwithstanding, He employs the rod! God is love, and nothing is so sensitive as love. Concerning the trials and tribulations of Israel of old, it is written, “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (Isa. 63:9); yet out of love He chastens. How this manifests and magnifies the unselfishness of God’s love!

Here, then is the Christian supplied with an effectual shield to turn aside the fiery darts of the wicked one. As we said at the beginning, Satan ever seeks to take advantage of our trials: like the fiend that he is, he makes his fiercest assaults when we are most cast down. Thus it was that he attacked Job—”Curse God and die.” And thus some of us have found it. Did he not, in the hour of suffering and sorrow, seek to remind you that when you had become increasingly diligent in seeking to please and glorify God, the darkest clouds of adversity followed; and say, How unjust God is; what a miserable reward for your devotion and zeal! Here is your recourse, fellow-Christian: say to the Devil, “It is written, ‘Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.’ “

Again; if Satan cannot succeed in traducing the character of God and cause us to doubt His goodness and question His love, then he will assail our assurance. The Devil is most persevering: if a frontal attack falls, then he will make one from the rear. He will assault your assurance of sonship: he will whisper “You are no child of His: look at your condition, consider your circumstances, contrast those of other Christians. You cannot be an object of God’s favor; you are deceiving yourself; your profession is an empty one. If you were God’s child, He would treat you very differently. Such privations, such losses, such pains, show that you cannot be one of His.” But say to him, “It is written, ‘Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.’”

Let our final thought be upon the last word of our text: “For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.” The one whom God scourges is not rejected, but “received”—received up into glory, welcomed in His House above. First the cross, then the crown, is God’s unchanging order. This was vividly illustrated in the history of the children of Israel: God “chose them in the furnace of affliction,” and many and bitter were their trials ere they reached the promised land. So it is with us. First the wilderness, then Canaan; first the scourging, and then the “receiving.” May we keep ourselves more and more in the love of God.

AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:7-9

Commentary on Hebrews 12:7-9

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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Divine Chastisement

(Hebrews 12:7, 8)

The all-important matter in connection with Divine chastenings, so far as the Christian is concerned, is the spirit in which he receives them. Whether or not we “profit” from them, turns entirely on the exercises of our minds and hearts under them. The advantages or disadvantages which outward things bring to us, is to be measured by the effects they produce in us. Material blessings become curses if our souls are not the gainers thereby, while material losses prove benedictions if our spiritual graces are enriched therefrom. The difference between our spiritual impoverishment or our spiritual enrichment from the varied experiences of this life, will very largely be determined by our heart-attitude toward them, the spirit in which they are encountered, and our subsequent conduct under them. It is all summed up in that word “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7).

As the careful reader passes from verse to verse of Hebrews 12:3-11, he will observe how the Holy Spirit has repeatedly stressed this particular point, namely, the spirit in which God’s chastisements are to be received. First, the tried and troubled saint is bidden to consider Him who was called upon to pass through a far rougher and deeper sea of suffering than any which His followers encounter, and this contemplation of Him is urged “lest we be wearied and faint in our minds” (verse 3.). Second, we are bidden to “despise not” the chastenings of the Lord, “nor faint” when we are rebuked of Him (verse 5). Third, our Christian duty is to “endure” chastening as becometh the sons of God (verse 7). Fourth, it is pointed out that since we gave reverence to our earthly fathers when they corrected us, much more should we “rather be in subjection” unto our heavenly Father (verse 9). Finally, we learn there will only be the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” issuing from our afflictions, if we are duly “exercised thereby” (verse 11).

In the previous articles we have sought to point out some of the principal considerations which should help the believer to receive God’s chastisements in a meet and becoming spirit. We have considered the blessed example left us by our Captain: may we who have enlisted under His banner diligently follow the same. We have seen that, however severe may be our trials, they are by no means extreme: we have not yet “resisted unto blood”—martyrdom has not overtaken us, as it did many who preceded us: shall we succumb to the showers, when they defied the fiercest storms! We have dwelt upon the needs-be for Divine reproof and correction. We have pointed out the blessed distinction there is between Divine punishment and Divine chastisement. We have contemplated the source from which all proceeds, namely, the love of our Father. We have shown the imperative necessity for the exercise of faith, if the heart is to be kept in peace while the rod is upon us.

“If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (verses 7, 8). In these verses another consideration is presented for the comfort of those whom God is chastening. That of which we are here reminded is, that, when the Christian comports himself properly under Divine correction, he gives proof of his Divine sonship. If he endure them in a manner becoming to his profession, he supplies evidence of his Divine adoption. Blessed indeed is this, an unanswerable reply to Satan’s evil insinuation: so far from the disciplinary afflictions which the believer encounters showing that God loves him not, they afford a golden opportunity for him to exercise and display his unquestioning love of the Father. If we undergo chastisements with patience and perseverance, then do we make manifest, both to ourselves and to others, the genuineness of our profession.

In the verses which are now before us the apostle draws an inference from and makes a particular application of what had been previously affirmed, thereby confirming the exhortation. There are three things therein to be particularly noted. First, the duty which has been enjoined: Divine chastisements are to be “endured” by us: that which is included and involved by that term we shall seek to show in what follows. Second, the great benefit which is gained by a proper endurance of those chastisements: evidence is thereby obtained that God is dealing with us as “sons:” not as enemies whom He hates, but as dear children whom He loves. Third, a solemn contrast is then drawn, calculated to unmask hypocrites and expose empty professors: those who are without Divine chastisement are not sons at all, but “bastards”—claiming the Church for their mother, yet having not God for their Father: what is signified thereby will appear in the sequel.

“If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons.” This statement supplements what was before us in verse 5. Both of them speak of the spirit in which chastisements are to be received by the Christian, only with this difference: verse 5 gives the negative side, verse 7 the positive. On the one hand, we are not to “despise” or “faint” under them; on the other hand, they are to be “endured.” It has become an English proverb that “what cannot be cured must be endured,” which is but another way of saying that we must grit our teeth and make the best of a bad job. It scarcely needs pointing out that the Holy Spirit has not used the term here in its lowest and carnal sense, but rather in its noblest and spiritual signification.

In order to ascertain the force and scope of any word which is used in Holy Scripture neither its acceptation in ordinary speech nor its dictionary etymology is to be consulted; instead, a concordance must be used, so as to find out how it is actually employed on the sacred page. In the case now before us, we do not have far to seek, for in the immediate context it is found in a connection where it cannot be misunderstood. In verse 2 we read that the Savior “endured the cross,” and in verse 3 that He “endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself.” It was in the highest and noblest sense that Christ “endured” His sufferings: He remained steadfast under the sorest trials, forsaking not the path of duty. He meekly and heroically bore the acutest afflictions without murmuring against or fainting under them. How, then, is the Christian to conduct himself in the fires? We subjoin a sevenfold answer.

First, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement inquiringly. While it be true that all chastisement is not the consequence of personal disobedience or sinful conduct, yet much of it is so, and therefore it is always the part of wisdom for us to seek for the why of it. There is a cause for every effect, and a reason for all God’s dealings. The Lord does not act capriciously, nor does He afflict willingly (Lam. 3:33). Every time the Father’s rod fails upon us it is a call to self-examination, for pondering the path of our feet, for heeding that repeated word in Haggai “Consider your ways.” It is our bounden duty to search ourselves and seek to discover the reason of God’s displeasure. This may not be a pleasant exercise, and if we are honest with ourselves it is likely to occasion us much concern and sorrow; nevertheless, a broken and contrite heart is never despised by the One with whom we have to do.

Alas, only too often this self-examination and inquiring into the cause of our affliction is quite neglected, relief therefrom being the uppermost thought in the sufferer’s mind. There is a most solemn warning upon this point in 2 Chronicles 16:12, 13, “And Asa in the thirty and ninth year of his reign was diseased in his feet, until his disease was exceeding great; yet in his disease he sought not to the Lord, but the physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers.” How many professing Christians do likewise today. As soon as sickness strikes them, their first thought and desire is not that the affliction may be sanctified unto their souls, but how quickly their bodies may be relieved. We do not fully agree with some brethren who affirm that the Christian ought never to call in a doctor, and that the whole medical fraternity is of the Devil—in such case the Holy Spirit had never denominated Luke “the beloved physician,” nor had Christ said the sick “need” a physician. On the other hand, it is unmistakably evident that physical healing is not the first need of an ailing saint.

Second, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement prayerfully. If our inquiry is to be prosecuted successfully, then we are in urgent need of Divine assistance. Those who rely upon their own judgment are certain to err. As our hearts are exercised as to the cause of the chastening, we need to seek earnestly unto God, for it is only in His light that we “see light” (Ps. 36:9). It is not sufficient to examine ourselves: we must request the Divine physician to diagnose our case, saying “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23, 24). Nevertheless, let it be pointed out that such a request cannot be presented sincerely unless we have personally endeavored to thoroughly search ourselves and purpose to continue so doing.

Prayer was never designed to be a substitute for the personal discharge of duty: rather is it appointed as a means for procuring help therein. While it remains our duty to honestly scrutinize our hearts and inspect our ways, measuring them by the holy requirements of Scripture, yet only the immediate assistance of the Spirit will enable us to prosecute our quest with any real profit and success. Therefore we need to enter the secret place and inquire of the Lord “show me wherefore Thou contendest with me” (Job 10:2). If we sincerely ask Him to make known unto us what it is in our ways He is displeased with, and for which He is now rebuking us, He will not mock us. Request of Him the hearing ear, and He will tell what is wrong. Let there be no reserve, but an honest desire to know what needs correcting, and He will show you.

Third, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement humbly. When the Lord has responded to your request and has made known the cause of His chastening, see to it that you quarrel not with Him. If there be any feeling that the scourging is heavier than you deserve, the thought must be promptly rejected. “Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment (or chastisement) of his sins?” (Lam. 3:39). If we take issue with the Most High, we shall only be made to smart the more for our pains. Rather must we seek grace to heed that word, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet. 5:6). Ask Him to quicken conscience, shine into your heart, and bring to light the hidden things of darkness, so that you may perceive your inward sins as well as your outward. And then will you exclaim, “I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are right, and that Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75).

Fourth, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement patiently. Probably that is the prime thought in our text: steadfastness, a resolute continuance in the path of duty, an abiding service of God with all our hearts, notwithstanding the present trial, is what we are called unto. But Satan whispers, “What is the use? you have endeavored, earnestly, to please the Lord, and how is He rewarding you? You cannot satisfy Him: the more you give, the more He demands; He is a hard and tyrannical Master.” Such vile suggestions must be put from us as the malicious lies of him who hates God and seeks to encompass our destruction. God has only your good in view when the rod is laid upon you. Just as the grass needs to be mown to preserve its freshness, as the vine has to be pruned to ensure its fruitfulness, as friction is necessary to produce electric power, as fire alone will consume the dross, even so the discipline of trial is indispensable for the education of the Christian.

“Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9). Keep before you the example of Christ: He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, yet before His shearers He was “dumb.” He never fretted or murmured, and we are to “follow His steps.” “Let patience have her perfect work” (James 1:4). For this we have to be much in prayer; for this we need the strengthening help of the Holy Spirit. God tells us that chastisement is not “joyous” but “grievous”: if it were not, it would not be “chastening.” But He also assures us that “afterwards it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11). Lay hold of that word “afterward”: anticipate the happy sequel, and in the comfort thereof continue pressing forward along the path of duty. “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Ecclesiastes 7:8).

Fifth, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement believingly. This was how Job endured his: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Heb. 1:21). Ah, he looked behind all secondary causes, and perceived that above the Sabeans and Chaldeans was Jehovah Himself. But is it not at this point we most often fail? Only too frequently we see only the injustice of men, the malice of the world, the enmity of Satan, in our trials: that is walking by sight. Faith brings God into the scene. “I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). It is an adage of the world that “Seeing is believing:” but in the spiritual realm, the order is reversed: there we must “believe” in order to “see.” And what is it which the saint most desires to “see”? Why, “the goodness of the Lord,” for unless he sees that, he “faints.” And how does faith see “the goodness of the Lord” in chastisements? By viewing them as proceeding from God’s love, as ordered by His wisdom, and as designed for our profit.

As the bee sucks honey out of the bitter herb, so faith may extract much good from afflictions. Faith can turn water into wine, and make bread out of stones. Unbelief gives up in the hour of trial and sinks in despair; but faith keeps the head above water and hopefully looks for deliverance. Human reason may not be able to understand the mysterious ways of God, but faith knows that the sorest disappointments and the heaviest losses are among the “all things” which work together for our good. Carnal friends may tell us that it is useless to strive any longer; but faith says, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15). What a wonderful promise is that in Psalm 91:15, “I will be with him in trouble: I will deliver him.” Ah, but faith alone can feel that Presence, and faith alone can enjoy now the assured deliverance. It was because of the joy set before Him (by the exercise of faith) that Christ “endured the cross,” and only as we view God’s precious promises will we patiently endure our cross.

Sixth, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement hopefully. Though quite distinct, the line of demarcation between faith and hope is not a very broad one, and in some of the things said above we have rather anticipated what belongs to this particular point. “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Rom. 8:24, 25). This passage clearly intimates that “hope” relates to the future. “Hope” in Scripture is far more than a warrantless wish: it is a firm conviction and a comforting expectation of a future good. Now inasmuch as chastisement, patiently and believingly endured, is certain to issue in blessing, hope is to be exercised. “When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10): that is the language of confident expectation.

While it be true that faith supports the heart under trial, it is equally a fact—though less recognized—that hope buoys it up. When the wings of hope are spread, the soul is able to soar above the present distress, and inhale the invigorating air of future bliss. “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 unseen” (2 Cor. 4:17, 18): that also is the language of joyous anticipation. No matter how dark may the clouds which now cover thy horizon, ere long the Sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings. Then seek to walk in the steps of our father Abraham, “who against hope, believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:18).

Seventh, the Christian is to “endure” chastisement thankfully. Be grateful, my despondent brother, that the great God cares so much for a worm of the earth as to be at such pains in your spiritual education. O what a marvel that the Maker of heaven and earth should go to so much trouble in His son-training of us! Fail not, then, to thank Him for His goodness, His faithfulness, His patience, toward thee. “We are chastened of the Lord (now) that we should not be condemned with the world” in the day to come (1 Cor. 11:32): what cause for praise is this! If the Lord Jesus, on the awful night of His betrayal, “sang a hymn” (Matthew 26:30), how much more should we, under our infinitely lighter sorrows, sound forth the praises of our God. May Divine grace enable both writer and reader to “endure chastening” in this sevenfold spirit, and then will God be glorified and we advantaged.

“If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons.” This does not mean that upon our discharge of the duty enjoined God will act toward us “as with sons”; for this He does in the chastisements themselves, as the apostle has clearly shown. No, rather, the force of these words is, If ye endure chastening, then you have the evidence in yourselves that God deals with you as sons. In other words, the more I am enabled to conduct myself under troubles as becometh a child of God, the clearer is the proof of my Divine adoption. The new birth is known by its fruits, and the more my spiritual graces are exercised under testing, the more do I make manifest my regeneration. Furthermore, the clearer the evidence of my regeneration, the clearer do I perceive the dealings of a Father toward me in His discipline.

The patient endurance of chastenings is not only of great price in the sight of God, but is of inestimable value unto the souls of them that believe. While it be true that the sevenfold description we have given above depicts not the spirit in which all Christians do receive chastening, but rather the spirit in which they ought to receive it, and that all coming short thereof is to be mourned and confessed before God; nevertheless, it remains that no truly born-again person continues to either utterly “despise” the rod or completely “faint” beneath it. No, herein lies a fundamental difference between the good-ground hearer and the stony-ground one: of the former it is written, “The righteous also shall hold on his way” (Job. 17:9); of the latter, it is recorded, “Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the Word, immediately he is offended” (Matthew 13:21).

A mere suffering of things calamitous is not, in itself, any evidence of our acceptance with God. Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upwards, so that afflictions or chastisements are no pledges of our adoption; but if we “endure” them with any measure of real faith, submission and perseverance, so that we “faint not” under them—abandon not the Faith or entirely cease seeking to serve the Lord—then do we demonstrate our Divine sonship. So too it is the proper frame of our minds and the due exercise of our hearts which lets in a sense of God’s gracious design toward us in His chastenings. The Greek word for “dealeth with us as with sons” is very blessed: literally it signifies “he offereth Himself unto us:” He proposeth Himself not as an enemy, but as a Friend; not as toward strangers, but as toward His own beloved children.

“But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (verse 8). These words present the reverse side of the argument established in the preceding verse: since it be true, both in the natural and in the spiritual realm, that disciplinary dealing is inseparable from the relation between fathers and sons, so that an evidence of adoption is to be clearly inferred therefrom, it necessarily follows that those who are “without chastisement” are not children at all. What we have here is a testing and discriminative rule, which it behoves each of us to measure himself by. That we may not err therein, let us attend to its several terms.

When the apostle says, “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers,” it is obvious that his words are not to be taken in their widest latitude: the word “all” refers not to all men, but to the “sons” of whom he is speaking. In like manner, “chastisement” is not here to be taken for everything that is grievous and afflictive, for none entirely escape trouble in this life. But comparatively speaking, there are those who are largely exempt: such the Psalmist referred to when he said, “For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men” (Ps. 73:4, 5). No, it is God’s disciplinary dealings which the apostle is speaking of, corrective instruction which promotes holiness. There are many professors who, whatever trials they may experience, are without any Divine chastisement for their good.

Those who are “without chastisement” are but “bastards.” It is common knowledge that bastards are despised and neglected—though unjustly so—by those who illegitimately begot them: they are not the objects of that love and care as those begotten in wedlock. This solemn fact has its counterpart in the religious realm. There is a large class who are destitute of Divine chastisements, for they give no evidence that they receive them, endure them, or improve them. There is a yet more solemn meaning in this word: under the law “bastards” had no right of inheritance: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:2): No cross, no crown: to be without God’s disciplinary chastenings now, means that we must be excluded from His presence hereafter. Here, then, is a further reason why the Christian should be contented with his present lot: the Father’s rod upon him now evidences his title unto the Inheritance in the day to come.

Divine Chastisement

(Hebrews 12:9)

The apostle Paul did not, like so many of our moderns, hurry through a subject and dismiss an unpleasant theme with a brief sentence or two. No, he could say truthfully, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you.” His chief concern was not to please, but to help his hearers and readers. Well did he know the tendency of the heart to turn away quickly from what is searching and humbling, unto that which is more attractive and consoling. But so far from acceding to this spirit, he devoted as much attention unto exhortation as instruction, unto reproving as comforting, unto duties as expounding promises; while the latter was given its due place the former was not neglected. It behooves each servant of God to study the methods of the apostles, and seek wisdom and grace to emulate their practice; only thus will they preserve the balance of Truth, and be delivered from “handling the Word deceitfully” (2 Cor. 4:2).

Some years ago, when the editor was preaching a series of sermons on Hebrews 12:3-11, several members of the congregation intimated they were growing weary of hearing so much upon the subject of Divine chastisement. Alas, the very ones who chafed so much at hearing about God’s rod, have since been smitten the most severely by it. Should any of our present readers feel the same way about the writer’s treatment of this same passage, he would lovingly warn them that, though these articles may seem gloomy and irksome while prosperity be smiling upon them, nevertheless they will be well advised to “hearken and hear for the time to come” (Isa. 42:23). The sun will not always be shining upon you, dear reader, and if you now store these thoughts up in your memory, they may stand you in good stead when your sky becomes overcast.

Sooner or later, this portion of Holy Writ will apply very pertinently unto each of our cases. God “scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.” None of the followers of “The Man of sorrows” are exempted from sorrow. It has been truly said that “God had one Son without sin, but none without suffering.” So much depends upon how we “endure” suffering: the spirit in which it be received, the graces which are exercised by it, and the improvement which we make of it. Our attitude toward God, and the response which we make unto His disciplinary dealings with us, means that we shall either honor or dishonor Him, and suffer loss or reap gain therefrom. Manifold are our obligations to comport ourselves becomingly when God is pleased to scourge us, and many and varied are the motives and arguments which the Spirit, through the apostle, here presents to us for this end.

In the verse which is now to be before us a further reason is given showing the need of the Christian’s duty to meekly bear God’s chastenings. First, the apostle had reminded the saints of the teaching of Scripture, verse 5: how significant that he began with that! Second, he had comforted them with the assurance that the rod is wielded not by wrath, but in tender solicitude, verse 6. Third, he affirmed that God chastens all His children without exception, bastards only escaping, verses 7, 8. Now he reminds us that we had natural parents who corrected us, and we gave them reverence. Our earthly fathers had the right, because of their relationship, to discipline us, and we acquiesced. If, then, it was right and meet for us to submit to their corrections, how much more ought we to be in subjection unto our heavenly Father when He reproves us.

“Furthermore, we have had fathers of our flesh, which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” (verse 9). The opening “Furthermore” is really humbling and searching. One would think sufficient had been said in the previous verses to make us be submissive under and thankful for the tender discipline of our God. Is it not enough to be told that the Scriptures teach us to expect chastisements, and exhort us not to despise them? Is it not sufficient to be assured that these chastisements proceed from the very heart of our Father, being appointed and regulated by His love? No, a “furthermore” is needed by us! The Holy Spirit deigns to supply further reasons for bringing our unruly hearts into subjection. This should indeed humble us, for the implication is clear that we are slow to heed and bow beneath the rod. Yea, is it not sadly true that the older we become, the more need there is for our being chastened?

The writer has been impressed by the fact, both in his study of the Word and his observation of fellow-Christians, that, as a general rule, God uses the rod very little and very lightly upon the babes and younger members of His family, but that He employs it more frequently and severely on mature Christians. We have often heard older saints warning younger brethren and sisters of their great danger, yet it is striking to observe that Scripture records not a single instance of a young saint disgracing his profession. Recall the histories of young Joseph, the Hebrew maid in Naaman’s household, David as a stripling engaging Goliath, Daniel’s early days, and his three youthful companions in the furnace; and it will be found that all of them quitted themselves nobly. On the other hand, there are numerous examples where men in middle life and of grey hairs grievously dishonored their Lord.

It is true that young Christians are feeblest, and with rare exceptions, they know it; and therefore does God manifest His grace and power by upholding them: it is the “lambs” which He carries in His arms! But some older Christians seem far less conscious of their danger, and so God often suffers them to have a fall, that He may stain the pride of their self-glory, and that others may see it is nothing in the flesh—standing, rank, age, or attainments—which insures our safety; but that He upholds the humble and casts down the proud. David did not fall into his great sin till he had reached the prime of life. Lot did not transgress most grossly till he was an old man. Isaac seems to have become a glutton in his old age, and was as a vessel no longer “meet for the Master’s use,” which rusted out rather than wore out. It was after a life of walking with God, and building the ark, that Noah disgraced himself. The worst sin of Moses was committed not at the beginning but at the end of the wilderness journey. Hezekiah became puffed up with pride near the sunset of his life. What warnings are these!

God thus shows us there is no protection in years. Yea, added years seem to call for increased chastenings. Often there is more grumbling and complaining among the aged pilgrims than the younger ones: it is true their nerves can stand less, but God’s grace is sufficient for worn-out nerves. Often there is more occupation with self and circumstances among the fathers and mothers in Israel, and less talking of Christ and His wondrous love, than there is among the babes. Yes, there is, much need for all of us to heed the opening “furthermore” of our text. Every physician will tell us there are some diseases which become more troublesome in middle life, and others which are incident to old age. The same is true of different forms of sinning. If we are more liable to certain sins in our youth, we are in greater danger of others in advanced years. Undoubtedly it is the case that the older we get, the more need there is to heed this “furthermore” which prefaces the call of our being in subjection to the Father of spirits. If we do not need more grace, certain it is that we need as much grace, when we are grown old as while we are growing up.

The aged meet with as many temptations as do young Christians. They are tempted to live in the past, rather than in the future. They are tempted to take things easier, spiritually as well as temporally, so that it has to be said of some “ye did run well.” O to be like Paul “the aged,” who was in full harness to the end. They are tempted to be unduly occupied with their increasing infirmities; but is it not written “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities”! Yet, because this is affirmed, we must not think there is no longer need to earnestly seek His help. This comforting word is given in order that we should frequently and confidently pray for this very thing. If it were not recorded, we might doubt His readiness to do so, and wonder if we were asking “according to His will.” Because it is recorded, when feeling our “infirmities” press most heavily upon us, let us cry, “O Holy Spirit of God, do as Thou hast said, and help us.”

In this connection let us remind ourselves of that verse, “Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things: so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps. 103:5) The eagle is a bird renowned for its longevity, often living to be more than a hundred years old. The eagle is also the high-soaring bird, building its nest on the mountain summit. But how is the eagle’s youth renewed? By a new crop of feathers, by the rejuvenation of its wings. And that is precisely what some middle-aged and elderly Christians need: the rejuvenation of their spiritual wings—the wings of faith, of hope, of zeal, of love for souls, of devotedness to Christ. So many leave their first love, lose the joy of their espousals, and instead of setting before younger Christians a bright example of trustfulness and cheerfulness, they often discourage by gloominess and slothfulness. Thus God’s chastenings increase in severity and frequency!

Dear friend, instead of saying, “The days of my usefulness are over,” rather reason, The night cometh when no man can work; therefore I must make the most of my opportunities while it is yet called day. For your encouragement let it be stated that the most active worker in a church of which the editor was pastor was seventy-seven years old when he went there, and during his stay of three and a half years she did more for the Lord, and was a greater stimulus to him, than any other member of that church. She lived another eight years, and they were, to the very end, filled with devoted service to Christ. We believe that the Lord will yet say of her, as of another woman, “She hath done what she could.” O brethren and sisters, especially you who are feeling the weight of years, heed that word, “Be not weary in well doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:9).

“Furthermore, we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us and we gave them reverence.” It is the duty of children to give the reverence of obedience unto the just commands of their parents, and the reverence of submission to their correction when disobedient. As parents have a charge from God to minister correction to their children when it is due—and not spoil them unto their ruin—so children have a command from God to receive parental reproof in a proper spirit, and not to be discontented, stubborn, or rebellious. For a child to be insubordinate under correction, evidences a double fault; the very correction shows a fault has been committed, and insubordination under correction is only adding wrong to wrong. “We gave them reverence,” records the attitude of dutiful children toward their sires: they neither ran away from home in a huff, nor became so discouraged as to quit the path of duty.

From this law of the human home, the apostle points out the humble and submissive conduct which is due unto God when He disciplines His children: “Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits?” The “much rather” points a contrast suggested by the analogy: that contrast is at least fourfold. First, the former chastening proceeded from those who were our fathers according to the flesh; the other is given by Him who is our heavenly Father. Second, the one was sometimes administered in imperfect knowledge and irritable temper; the other comes from unerring wisdom and untiring love. Third, the one was during but a brief period, when we were children; the other continues throughout the whole of our Christian life. Fourth, the one was designed for our temporal good; the other has in view our spiritual and eternal welfare. Then how much more should we readily submit unto the latter.

“Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits?” By nature we are not in subjection. We are born into this world filled with the spirit of insubordination: as the descendants of our rebellious first parents, we inherit their evil nature. “Man is born like a wild ass’s colt” (Job 11:12). This is very unpalatable and humbling, but nevertheless it is true. As Isaiah 53:6 tells us, “we have turned every one to his own way,” and that is one of opposition to the revealed will of God. Even at conversion this wild and rebellious nature is not eradicated. A new nature is given, but the old one lusts against it. It is because of this that discipline and chastisement are needed by us, and the great design of these is to bring us into subjection unto the Father of spirits. To be “in subjection unto the father” is a phrase of extensive import, and it is well that we should understand its various significations.

1. It denotes an acquiescence in God’s sovereign right to do with us as He pleases. “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth: because thou didst it” (Ps. 39:9). It is the duty of saints to be mute under the rod and silent beneath the sharpest afflictions. But this is only possible as we see the hand of God in them. If His hand be not seen in the trial, the heart will do nothing but fret and fume. “And the king said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? so let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so? And David said to Abishai, and to all his servants, Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: How much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord hath bidden him” (2 Sam. 16:10, 11). What an example of complete submission to the sovereign will of the Most High was this! David knew that Shimei could not curse him without God’s permission.

“This will set my heart at rest,

What my God appoints is best.”

But with rare exceptions many chastenings are needed to bring us to this place, and to keep us there.

2. It implies a renunciation of self-will. To be in subjection unto the Father presupposes a surrendering and resigning of ourselves to Him. A blessed illustration of this is found in Leviticus 10:1-3, “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh Me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.” Consider the circumstances. Aaron’s two sons, most probably intoxicated at the time, were suddenly cut off by Divine judgment. Their father had no warning to prepare him for this trial; yet he “held his peace!” O quarrel not against Jehovah: be clay in the hands of the Potter: take Christ’s yoke upon you, and learn of Him who was “meek and lowly in heart.”

3. It signifies an acknowledgment of God’s righteousness and wisdom in all His dealings with us. We must vindicate God. This is what the Psalmist did: “I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are right, and that Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75). Let us see to it that Wisdom is ever justified by her children: let our confession of her be, “Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and upright are Thy judgments” (Ps. 119:137). Whatever be sent, we must vindicate the Sender of all things: the Judge of all the earth cannot do wrong. Stifle, then, the rebellious murmur, What have I done to deserve such treatment by God? and say with the Psalmist, “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). Why, my reader, if God dealt with us only according to the strict rule of His justice, we had been in Hell long ago: “If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark (“impute”) iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Ps. 130:3).

The Babylonian captivity was the severest affliction which God ever brought upon His earthly people during O.T. times, yet even then a renewed heart acknowledged God’s righteousness in it: “Now therefore, our God, the great, the mighty and the terrible God, who keepest covenant and mercy, let not all the trouble seem little before Thee, that hath come upon us, on our kings, on our princes, and our priests, and on our prophets, and on our fathers, and on all Thy people, since the time of the kings of Assyria unto this day. Howbeit Thou art just in all that is brought upon us: for Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly” (Nehemiah 9:32, 33). God’s enemies may talk of His injustice; but let His children proclaim His righteousness. Because God is good, He can do nothing but what is right and good.

4. It includes a recognition of His care and a sense of His love. There is a sulking submission, and there is a cheerful submission. There is a fatalistic submission which takes this attitude—this is inevitable, so I must bow to it; and there is a thankful submission, receiving with gratitude whatever God may be pleased to send us. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71). The Psalmist viewed his chastisements with the eye of faith, and doing so he perceived the love behind them. Remember that when God brings His people into the wilderness it is that they may learn more of His sufficiency, and that when He casts them into the furnace, it is that they may enjoy more of His presence.

5. It involves an active performance of His will. True submission unto the “Father of spirits” is something more than a passive thing. The other meanings of this expression which we have considered above are more or less of a negative character, but there is a positive and active side to it as well, and it is important that this should be recognized by us. To be “in subjection” to God also means that we are to walk in His precepts and run in the way of His commandments. Negatively, we are not to be murmuring rebels; positively, we are to be obedient children. We are required to be submissive unto God’s Word, so that our thoughts are formed and our ways regulated by it. There is not only a suffering of God’s will, but a doing of it—an actual performance of duty. When we utter that petition in the prayer which the Savior has given us, “Thy will be done,” something more is meant than a pious acquiescence unto the pleasure of the Almighty: it also signifies, may Thy will be performed by me. Subjection “unto the Father of spirits,” then, is the practical owning of His Lordship.

Two reasons for such subjection are suggested in our text. First, because the One with whom we have to do is our Father. O how profoundly thankful we should be that the Lord God stands revealed to us as the “Father”—our Father, because the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and He rendered perfect obedience unto Him. It is but right and meet that children should honor their parents by being in complete subjection to them: not to do so is to ignore their relationship, despise their authority, and slight their love. How much more ought we to be in subjection unto our heavenly Father: there is nothing tyrannical about Him: His commandments are not grievous: He has only our good at heart. “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 John 3:1), then let us earnestly endeavor to express our gratitude by dutifully walking before Him as obedient children, and no matter how mysterious may be His dealings with us, say with the Savior, “The cup which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).

The particular title of God found in our text calls for a brief comment. It is placed in antithesis from “fathers of our flesh,” which has reference to their begetting of our bodies. True, our bodies also are a real creation on the part of God, yet in connection therewith He is pleased to use human instrumentalities. But in connection with the immaterial part of our beings, God is the immediate and alone Creator of them. As the renowned Owen said, “The soul is immediately created and infused; having no other father but God Himself,” and rightly did that eminent theologian add, “This is the fundamental reason of our perfect subjection unto God in all afflictions, namely, that our very souls are His, the immediate product of His Divine power, and under his rule alone. May He not do as He wills with His own?” The expression “Father of spirits,” refutes, then, the error of traducianists, who suppose that the soul, equally with the body, is transmitted by our parents. In Numbers 16:22 He is called “the God of the spirits of all flesh” which refers to all men naturally; while the “Father of spirits” in our text includes the new nature in the regenerate.

The second reason for our subjection to the Father is, because this is the secret of true happiness, which is pointed out in the final words of our text “and live.” The first meaning of those words is, “and be happy.” This is clear from Deuteronomy 5:33, “Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess:” observe the words “prolong your days” are added to “that ye may live,” which obviously signifies “that ye may be happy”—compare Exodus 10:17, where Pharaoh called the miseries of the plagues “this death.” Life ceases to be life when we are wretched. It is the making of God’s will our haven, which secures the true resting-place for the heart. The rebellious are fretful and miserable, but “great peace have they which love Thy law and nothing shall offend them” (Ps. 119:165). “Take My yoke upon you,” said Christ, “and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” Alas, the majority of professing Christians are so little in subjection to God, they have just enough religion to make them miserable.

“Shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits and live?” No doubt words of this verse point these to a designed contrast from Deuteronomy 21:18-21, “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place . . . And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die.” “The increase of spiritual life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, is that whereunto they (the words “and live”) tend” (John Owen).

AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:10-11

Commentary on Hebrews 12:10-11

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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Divine Chastisement– Continued

(Hebrews 12:10)

Would any Christian in his right mind dare to pray, Let me not be afflicted, no matter what good it should do me? And if he were unwilling and afraid to pray thus, why should he murmur when it so falls out? Alas, what a wide breach there is, usually, between our praying and the rest of our conduct. Again; if our rescuer dislocated our shoulder when pulling us out of the water in which we were drowning, would we be angry with him? Of course not. Then why fret against the Lord when He afflicts the body in order to better the soul? If God takes away outward comforts and fills us with inward peace, if he removes our worldly wealth but imparts to us more of the true riches, then, instead of having ground for complaint, we have an abundant cause for thanksgiving and praise. Then why should I fear to enter the dark shaft of tribulation if persuaded that it leads to the gold mines of spiritual experience.

In Scripture, afflictions are compared to fire that purges away the dross (1 Pet. 1:7), to the fan which drives away the chaff (Matthew 3:12), to a pruning-hook which cuts off superfluous branches and makes more fruitful the others that remain (John 15:2), to physic that purges away poisonous matter (Isa. 27:9), to plowing and harrowing the ground that it may be prepared to receive good seed (Jer. 4:3). Then why should we be so upset when God is pleased to use the fire upon us in order to remove our dross, to employ the fan so as to winnow away the chaff, to take the pruning-hook to lop off the superfluities of our souls, to give us physic to purge out our corruptions and filth, to drive the plow into us so as to break up our fallow ground and to destroy the weeds which grow in our souls? Should we not rather rejoice that He will not leave us alone in our carnality, but rather fit us to become partakers of His holiness?

A little child requires much coaxing (at times, something more!) in order to make him take his medicine. He may be very ill, and mother may earnestly assure him that the unpleasant potion will bring sure relief; but the little one cries out, “I cannot take it, it is so nasty.” But adults, generally, need not have the doctor argue and plead with them: they will swallow the bitterest remedy if convinced that it will do them good. The application of this to spiritual matters is obvious. Those Christians who are but spiritual babes, fret and fume when called upon to endure Divine chastisement, knowing not the gains they will receive if it be accepted in the right spirit. But those who have grown in grace, and become men in Christ, who know that all things work together for good to them that love God, and who have learned by experience the precious fruits which issue from sanctified afflictions, accept from God the bitterest cup, and thank Him for it.

But alas, many of God’s people are but infants experimentally, and need much coaxing to reconcile them to the cup of trial. Therefore is it needful to present to our consideration one argument after another. Such is the case here in Hebrews 12: if one line of reasoning does not suffice, perhaps another will. The Christian is very skeptical and takes much convincing. We have heard a person say to one who claims he has done, or can do, some remarkable thing, “You must show me before I will believe you.” Most of us are very much like that in connection with spiritual things. Though the Scriptures assure us, again and again, that chastisement proceeds from our Father’s love, and is designed for our good, yet we are slow, very slow, to really believe it. Therefore does the apostle here proceed from one consideration to another so as to assure the hearts and establish the faith of his afflicted brethren upon this important subject.

O that our hearts might be so taught by the Spirit, our understandings so enlightened, our faith so strengthened by Him, that we would be more grateful and increasingly thankful for the merciful discipline of our Father. What a proof of His love is this, that in His chastening of us, His object is to bring us nearer Himself and make us more like His blessed Son. The more highly we prize health, the more willing are we to take that which would cure our sickness; and the more we value holiness (which is the health of our souls) the gladder shall we be for that which is a means to increase the same in us. We are on a low plane of spiritual experience, if we do nothing more than simply “bow” to God’s hand. Scripture says, “Giving thanks always, for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20); and again it exhorts us “Rejoice in the Lord alway” (Phil. 4:4). We are to “glory in tribulation” (Rom. 5:3), and we shall when we perceive more clearly and fully what blessed fruits are brought forth under the pruning knife.

“For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness” (v. 10). This is a continuation of what was before us in the previous verse. A further reason is given why Christians should be “in subjection unto” their heavenly Father, when His correcting rod is laid upon them. Not only is it becoming for them so to do, because of the relationship which exists between them: but it is also meet they should act thus, because of the gains they receive thereby. The consideration which the apostle now presents to the attention of the afflicted saints is really a double one. First, the chastisement we received from our earthly parents had reference mainly to our good in this life, whereas the disciplinary dealings of our heavenly Father looks forward to the life to come (2 Cor. 4:17). Second, the chastisement of our earthly parents was often a matter of their caprice and sometimes issued from irritability of temper, but the rod of our heavenly Father is wielded by infinite goodness and wisdom, and has in view our well being.

We regard the words “for they verily for a few days chastened us” as referring not so much to the brief season of our childhood, but more to the fact that our parents had only our temporal interests in view: whereas God has our eternal welfare before Him. “The apostle seems to bring in this circumstance to contrast the dealings of earthly parents with those of God. One of the circumstances is, that the corrections of earthly parents had a much less important object than those of God. They related to this life—a life so brief that it may be said to continue but a “few days.” Yet, in order to secure the benefit to be derived for so short a period from fatherly correction, we submitted without murmuring. Much more cheerfully ought we to submit to that discipline from the hand of our heavenly Father which is designed to extend its benefits through eternity” (A. Barnes).

The added words “after their own pleasure” or “as seemed good” to them, points another contrast between the disciplinary dealings of our earthly parents and those of our heavenly Father. In their infirmity, sometimes the rod was used upon us in a fit of anger, rather than from a loving desire to reform our manners. “Meaning that it was sometimes clone arbitrarily, or under the influence of passion. This is an additional reason why we should submit to God. We submitted to our earthly parents, though their correction was sometimes passionate, and was designed to gratify their own pleasure rather than to promote our good. There is much of this kind of punishment in families; but there in none of it under the administration of God. ‘But He for our profit:’ never from passion, from caprice, from the love of power or superiority, but always for our good” (A. Barnes).

Now the particular contribution which our present verse makes to the subject of chastisement is, the apostle here makes known the general end or design of God in the same, namely “our profit.” And let it be pointed out that whatsoever He purposes must surely come to pass, for He will make the means He employs effectual unto the accomplishment of His end. Many are the blessings comprehended and various are the fruits produced through and by means of Divine chastisement. This word “for our profit” is a very embracing one, including the development of our characters, the enrichment of our spiritual lives, a closer conformity to the image of Christ. The same truth is found again in the “that we might be partakers of His holiness:” that our lusts might be mortified, our graces vivified, our souls sanctified. Whatever be the form, degree, or duration of our afflictions, all is ordered by infinite wisdom so as to secure this object. But to particularize: the benefits of Divine chastisement—

1. It weans us from the world. One of the greatest surprises of the writer’s Christian life in connection with his fellow-saints has been, not their ignorance, nor even their inconsistencies, but their earthliness, their reluctance to leave this world. As “strangers and pilgrims” we should be longing and yearning for our Heavenly Home; as those who are away from Him whom they love best, we should desire to “depart and be with Him” (Phil. 1:23). Paul did. Christ has promised to return for His people, yet how few of them are daily crying, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” How rarely we hear them saying, in the language of the mother of Sisera, “Why is His chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of His chariot?’’

“And all the trials here we see

Should make us long to be with Thee.”

Scripture speaks of this world as a “dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (Ps. 63:1), and God intends for us to prove this in our experiences. His Word also affirms that this world is a “dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19), and He means for us to discover that this is so.

One would think that after the soul had once seen the King in His beauty, it would henceforth discover no attractions elsewhere. one would suppose that once we had quenched our thirst at the Fountain of living waters, we would no more want to drink from the unsatisfying and polluted cisterns of this world. Surely now that we have experienced a taste and foretaste of Heaven itself, we shall be repelled and nauseated by the poor husks this world has to offer. But alas! the “old man” is still in us, unchanged; and though Divine grace subdues his activities, still he is very much alive. It is because of this that we are called on to “crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts.” And this is not only an unpalatable, but a very hard task. Therefore does God in His mercy help us: help us by chastenings, which serve to loosen the roots of our souls downward and tighten the anchor-hold of our hearts Heavenward.

This God does in various ways. Sometimes He causes us to lose our confidence in and draw us away from fellowship with worldings by receiving cruel treatment at their hands. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” is the Lord’s word to His people. But they are slow to heed; oftentimes they must be driven out. So with worldly pleasures: God often makes the grapes of earthly joys bitter to our taste, so that we should no longer seek after them. It is earthly disappointments and worldly disillusionments which make us sigh for our Heavenly Home. While the Hebrews enjoyed the land of Goshen they were content: hard and cruel bondage was needed to make them ready to leave for the promised land. We were once familiar with a Christian who had formed a habit of meeting each worldly difficulty or trial to the flesh by saying, “This is only another nail in my coffin.” But that is a very gloomy way of viewing things: rather should the children of God say after each trial or affliction, “That severs another strand in the rope which binds me to this world, and makes me long all the more for Heaven.

2. It casts us back the more upon God. By nature we are filled with a spirit of independency. The fallen sons of Adam are like wild asses’ colts. Chastisement is designed to empty us of our self-sufficiency, to make us feel weakness and helplessness. If “in their affliction they will seek Me early” (Hos. 5:15), then surely afflictions are for our “profit.” Trials and troubles often drive us to our knees; sickness and sorrow make us seek unto the Lord. It is very noticeable in the four Gospels how rarely men and women that were in health and strength sought out Christ; it was trouble and illness which brought them to the great Physician. A nobleman came to Christ—why? Because his son was at the point of death. Jairus sought out the Master—why? Because his little daughter was so low. The Canaanitish woman interviewed the Lord Jesus—why? On behalf of her tormented daughter. The sisters of Lazarus sent a message to the absent Savior—why? Because their brother was sick.

Afflictions may be very bitter, but they are a fine tonic for the soul, and are a medicine which God often uses on us. Most vividly is this illustrated in Psalm 107—read carefully verses 11 to 28. Note that it is when men are “brought down,” when they are “afflicted,” when they are “at their wits’ end” that they “cry unto the Lord in their trouble.” Yes, it is “trouble” which makes us turn unto the Lord, not in a mechanical and formal way, but in deep earnestness. Remember that it is the “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man that availeth much.” When you observe that the fire in your room is getting dull, you do not always put on more coal, but simply stir with the poker; so God often uses the black poker of adversity in order that the flames of devotion may burn more brightly.

Ah, my brethren, all of us delight in being made to lie down in the “green pastures” and being led beside the “still waters;” yet it would not be for God’s glory nor for our own highest good to luxuriate spiritually at all times. And why not? Because our hearts would soon be more occupied with the blessings rather than with the Blesser Himself. Oftentimes the sheep have to be brought into the dry and desolate wilderness, that they may be made more conscious of their dependency upon the Shepherd. May we not discern here one reason why some saints so quickly lose their assurance: they are occupied more with their graces or comfortable feelings than they are with the Giver of them. God is a jealous God, and will not tolerate idols in the hearts of His people. A sense of our acceptance in Christ is indeed a blessed thing, yet it becomes a hindrance if it be treasured more highly than the Savior Himself.

3. It makes the promises of God more precious to us. Trouble often acts on us like a sharp knife which opens the truth of God to us and our hearts unto the truth. Experience unlocks passages which were otherwise closed. There is many a text in the Bible which no commentator can helpfully expound to a child of God: it must be interpreted by experience. Paul wrote his profoundest epistles while in prison; John was “in tribulation” on Patmos when he received the Revelation. If you go down into a deep well or mine in the daytime, you will then see the shining of stars which were not visible from the earth’s surface; so God often brings us low in order that we may perceive the shining beauty of some of His comforting assurances. Note how Jacob, in Genesis 32, pleaded God’s promises when he heard that Esau was approaching with four hundred men! The promises of resurrection mean far more unto Christians when some of their loved ones have been removed by death.

“When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned” (Isa. 43:2) means far more to afflicted souls than it can to those who are not under the rod. So, too, the many “fear not” promises are most valued when our strength fails us and we are ready to sink under despair. As the late C.H. Spurgeon was wont to say, “There are some verses written, as it were, in a secret ink, which must be held before the fire of adversity before they become visible.” There are many passages in Job, the Psalms, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah which do not appeal to one while the sun is shining; but which, in times of adversity, are like the welcome beams of the moon on a dark night. It was his painful thorn in the flesh which taught Paul the blessedness of that text, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perefct in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

4. It qualifies us to sympathize with others. If we have never trod the vale of sorrow and affliction we are really unable to “weep with those that weep.” There are some surgeons who would be more tender if they had suffered from broken bones themselves. If we have never known much trouble, we can be but poor comforters to others. Even of our Savior it is written, “For in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted He is able to succor them that are tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Bunyan could never have written the book which he did, unless God had permitted the Devil to tempt and buffet him severely for so many years. How clearly is all this brought out in 2 Corinthians 1:4: “Who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” Luther frequently said, “Three things make a good preacher: prayer, meditation, and temptation.”

5. It demonstrates to us the blessedness and sufficiency of Divine grace. “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is make perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). But in order to prove this, we have to be brought into the place of severe testing and trial, and made to feel our own incompetency and nothingness. Brethren, if you have prospered in business all your lives, and have always had an easy time financially, then it is probable you know very little about God’s strength being perfected in your weakness. If you have been healthy all your lives and have never suffered much weakness and pain, then you are not likely to know much about the strength of God. If you have never been visited with trying situations which bring you to your wits’ end, or by heartrending bereavements, you may not have discovered much of the sufficiency of Divine grace. You have read about it in books, or heard others speak of it, but this is a very different thing from having an experimental acquaintance of it for yourself. It is much tribulation which brings out the sufficiency of God’s strength to support under the severest trials, and demonstrates that His grace can sustain the heart under the heaviest losses.

It is in the stormiest weather that a captain gives most heed to the steering of his ship; so it is in seasons of stress and grief that Christians pay most attention to, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). If Israel had journeyed directly to Canaan, they would have missed the tender care of Jehovah in the wilderness. If Lazarus had not died, Martha and Mary would not have received such a demonstration of Christ as the Resurrection and the Life. And if you, my brother, my sister, had not been cast into the furnace of affliction, you would not have known the nearness and preciousness of His presence with you there. Yes, God intends us to prove the reality and sufficiency of His grace.

6. It develops our spiritual graces. This is clearly set forth in that familiar passage Romans 5:3-5: “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed.” This “rejoicing” is not in tribulations considered in themselves, but because the Christian knows they are appointed by his Father, and because of their beneficial effects. Three of these effects or spiritual graces thus developed are here mentioned. First, tribulation worketh “patience.” Patience never thrives except under buffetings and disappointments: it is not even called into exercise while things are going smoothly and pleasantly. Sanctified tribulations call into activity that strength and fortitude which is evidenced by a submissive endurance of suffering. The patience here referred to signifies deliverance from murmuring, refusing to take things into our own hands (which only causes additional trouble), a contented waiting for God’s time of deliverance, and a persevering continuance in the path of duty.

Second, patience worketh experience, that is a vital experience of the reality of what we profess; a personal acquaintance with that which before we knew only theoretically; an experience of the sufficiency of Divine grace to support and sustain; an experience of God’s faithfulness, that He is “a very present help in trouble”; an experience of the preciousness of Christ, such as the three Hebrews had in the furnace. The Greek word for “experience” also means “the obtaining of proof.” The patient submission which tribulation works in the saint proves both to him and to his brethren the reality of his trust in God: it makes manifest the fact that the faith which he professes is genuine. Instead of his faith being overcome, it triumphs. The test of a ship is to weather the storm; so it is with faith. Real faith ever says, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” Third, experience worketh hope. This is a grace which anticipates the future. While circumstances are as we like them, our outlook is mainly confined to the present: but sorrows and trials make us long for the future bliss. “As an eagle stirreth up her nest… so the Lord led Israel” (Deut. 32:11, 12). God removes us from our comfortable resting places for the purpose of teaching us to use the wings of hope.

7. It brings us into fellowship with the sufferings of Christ. The cross is the symbol of Christian discipleship. Like the scars which the wounded soldier prizes above all other distinctions, so our sufferings are the proof of our oneness with Christ (Rom. 8:17). Not only so, they make us appreciate the more what He endured for us. While we have plenty, we cannot properly estimate or appreciate the poverty which our Savior endured. While we enjoy a comfortable bed we cannot truly sympathize with Him who “had not where to lay His head.” It is not till some familiar friend, on whom we counted, has basely betrayed our trust, that we can enter into something of what the Savior suffered through the perfidy of Judas. It is only when some brother has denied you, that you begin to understand what Christ felt, when Peter denied Him. As we, in some small measure, obtain an experimental acquaintance with such trials, it makes Christ increasingly precious to us, and enables us to appreciate the more all that He went through on our behalf. In a coming day we are going to share His throne; now we are privileged to taste His cross.

If, then, trials and tribulations, under God, produce such delightful fruits, then welcome chastisements that are for “our profit.” Let the rains of disappointment come if they water the plants of spiritual graces. Let the winds of adversity blow if they serve to root more securely in grace the trees of the Lord’s planting. Let the sun of prosperity be eclipsed if this brings us into closer communion with the Light of life. Oh, brethren and sisters, however distasteful they are to the flesh, chastisements are not to be dreaded, but welcomed, for they are designed to make us “partakers of God’s holiness.”

Divine Chastisement– Continued

(Hebrews 12:11)

One reason, perhaps, why so little is written to-day upon Divine chastisement, and why it so rarely forms the theme of the pulpit, is because it suits not the false temper and sentiments of this superficial age. The great majority of the preachers are men-pleasers, and carefully do they trim their sails to the breezes of popular opinion. They are paid to speak “smooth things” and not those which will disturb, to soothe consciences rather than search them. That which is unpalatable, mournful, solemn, dread-inspiring, is sedulously avoided, and attractive, cheerful, and comforting subjects are substituted in their stead. Hence, not only is it now rare for the preacher to dwell upon the eternal punishment of the wicked and bid the unsaved flee from the wrath to come, but Christians hear very little about the Father’s rod, and the groans it occasions, or the fruits it afterwards produces. Fifty years ago a faithful servant of God wrote:

“One of the platitudes of the present day is, that religion is not a gloomy, but a cheerful thing. Although it is easy to see what was meant by him who first opposed this assertion, either to morbid and self-assumed gloom, or to the ignorant representation of the world; yet as it is generally understood, nothing can be less true. Blessed are they that mourn. Woe unto you that laugh. Narrow is the way. If any man will serve Me, let him take up his cross, and follow Me. He that seeketh his life shall lose it. Although the Christian anoints his head and washes his face, he is always fasting; the will has been broken by God, by wounding or bereaving us in our most tender point; the flesh is being constantly crucified. We are not born to be happy either in this world or in our present condition, but the reverse to be unhappy; nay, to try constantly to be dead to self and the world, that the spirit may possess God, and rejoice in Him.

“As there is a false and morbid asceticism, so there is also a false and pernicious tendency to cover a worldly and shallow method of life under the phrase of ‘religion being joyous, and no enemy to cheerfulness.’ To take a very simple and obvious instance. What is meant by a ‘cheerful, pleasant Sunday?’ No doubt men have erred on the side of strictness and legalism; but is a ‘cheerful Sunday’ one in which there is much communion with God in prayer and meditation on God’s Word, much anticipation of the joys of Heaven in praise and fellowship with the brethren? Alas! too many understand by a cheerful Sunday a day in which the spiritual element is reduced to a minimum” (Adolph Saphir).

Alas, that conditions have become so much worse since then. The attractions of the world, and everything which is pleasing to the flesh, have been brought into thousands of “churches” (?) under the plea of being “necessary if the young people are to be held.” Even in those places where the bars have not thus been let down, where the grosser forms of worldliness are not yet tolerated, the preaching is generally of such a character that few are likely to be made uneasy by it. He who dwells on the exceeding sinfulness of sin, who insists that God will not tolerate unjudged sin even in His own people, but will surely visit it with heavy stripes, is a “kill joy,” a “troubler of Israel,” a “Job’s comforter”; and if he persists in enforcing the precepts, admonitions, warnings, and judgments of Holy Writ, is likely to soon find all doors dosed against him. But better this, than be a compromiser; better be deprived of all preaching engagements, than miss the Master’s “Well done” in the Day to come.

“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” (verse 11). In this verse the apostle concludes his discussion of that theme which is now so unwelcome to the majority of professing Christians. Therein he brings to a close all that he had said concerning those disciplinary afflictions which an all-wise God brings upon His people in this life, His gracious design in the same, and the duty incumbent upon them to receive these in a right spirit. He sums up his argument by balancing the good over against the evil, the future over against the present, the judgment of faith over against the feelings of the flesh.

Our present text is added to what has been said in the previous verses for the purpose of anticipating and removing an objection. After all the comforting and encouraging statements made, namely, that chastisements proceed not from enemies but from our Father, that they are sent not in anger but in love, that they are designed not to crush but “for our profit”; carnal sense and natural reason interposes an objection: “But we find no joy under our afflictions, instead much sorrow. We do not feel that they are for our profit; we cannot see how they can be so; therefore we are much inclined to doubt what you have said.” The apostle grants the force of the objection: that for the present, chastening does “seem to be grievous and not joyous.” But he brings in a double limitation or qualification: in reference to outward sense, it only “seems” so; in reference to time, this is only for “the present.” Having made this concession, the apostle turns to the objector and says, “Nevertheless.’’ He reminds him that, first, there is an “afterward” beyond the present moment, to be borne in mind; second, he presses on him the need of being “exercised thereby”; third, he assures him that if he is so exercised “peaceable fruit” will be the happy issue. There are four things told us in the text about chastisement as it is viewed by human reason.

1. All that carnal reason can perceive in our chastenings is But Seeming. All that flesh and blood can discover about the nature and quality of Divine afflictions is but their outward and superficial appearance. The eye of reason is utterly incapable of discovering the virtue and value of sanctified trials. How often we are deceived by mere “seeming”! This is true in the natural sphere: appearances are proverbially deceptive. There are many optical illusions. Have you not noticed some nights when the sun is sinking in the west, that it is much bigger than at its zenith? Yet it is not so in reality; it only “seems” to be so. Have you stood on the deck of a ship in mid-ocean and, while gazing at the horizon, suddenly been startled by the sight of land?—the outline of the coast, with the rising hills in the background, there deafly defined? Yet after all, it was but “seeming”; it was nothing but clouds. In like manner, you have read of a mirage seen by travelers in the desert: away over the sands, they see in the distance green trees and a shining pool of water; but this is only an optical delusion, effected in some way by the atmosphere.

Now if this be so in connection with natural things, the “seeming” not being the actual, the apparent not being the reality, how much more is it true in connection with the things of God! Afflictions are not what they “seem” to be. They appear to work for our ill, and not for our good; so that we are inclined to say, “An enemy hath done this.” They seem to be for our injury, rather than our “profit,” and we murmur and are cast down. So often fear distorts our vision; so often unbelief brings scales over our eyes, and we exaggerate the dimensions of trials in the dark and dim light. So often we are selfish, fond of our fleshly ease; and therefore spiritual discernment falls to a low ebb. No, chastenings for the present do not seem to be joyous, but “grievous”; but that is because we view them through our natural senses and in the light of carnal reason.

2. Carnal reason judges afflictions in the light of the PRESENT. The tendency with all of us is to estimate things in the light of the now. The ungodly are ever ready to sacrifice their future interests for present gratification. One of their favorite mottos is, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush:” it may be to the slothful, but the enterprising and diligent would rather be put to a little trouble and secure the two. Man is a very shortsighted creature, and even the Christian is often dominated by the same sentiments that regulate the wicked. The light of the now is generally the worst in which to form a true estimate of things. We are too close to them to obtain a right perspective, and see things in their proper proportions. To view an oil painting to the best advantage, we need to step back a few feet from it. The same principle applies to our lives. Proof of this is found as we now look back upon that which is past. Today the Christian discovers a meaning, a needs-be, a preciousness, in many a past experience, and even disappointment, which he could not discern at the time.

The case of Jacob is much to the point, and should guard us against following his foolish example. After Joseph had been removed from his doting father, and when he thought he had lost Simeon too, viewing things in the light of “the present,” he petulantly said, “All these things are against me” (Gen. 42:36). Such is often the mournful plaint which issues from our short-sighted unbelief. But later, Jacob discovered his mistake, and found that all those things had been working together for good to himself and his loved ones. Alas, we are so impatient and impetuous, so occupied with the present, that we fail to look forward and by faith anticipate the happy sequel. Then, too, the effects which afflictions have upon the old man, disqualify us to estimate them aright. If my heart is palpitating, if my mind is agitated, and my soul is cast down, then I am in no fit state to judge the quality and blessedness of Divine afflictions. No, chastenings for the present do not “seem to be joyous, but grievous;” that is because we take such a shortsighted view of them and fail to look forward with the eyes of faith and hope.

3. To carnal reason afflictions never seem “joyous.” This logically follows from what has been before us under the first two points. Because carnal reason sees only the “seeming” of things, and because it estimates them only in the light of “the present,” afflictions are not joyous. Nor does God intend that, in themselves, they should be. If afflictions did “seem” to be joyous, would they be chastisements at all? It would be of little use for an earthly parent to whip his child in such a way as to produce only smiles. Such would be merely a make-belief; no smart, no benefit. Solomon said, “It is the blueness of the wound which maketh the heart better;” so if Divine chastisements are not painful to the flesh and extort a groan and cry, what good end would they serve? If God sent us trials such as we wished, they would not be chastenings at all. No, afflictions do not “seem” to be joyous.

They are not joyous in the form they assume. When the Lord smites, He does so in a tender place, that we may feel the smart of it. They are not joyous in the force of them. Oftentimes we are inclined to say, If the trial had not been quite so severe, or the disappointment had not been so great, I could have endured it. God puts just so much bitter herbs into our cup as to make the draught unpleasant. They are not joyous in the time of them. We always think they come at the wrong season. If it were left to our choosing, they would never come; but if we must have them, we would choose the time when they are the least grievous; and thus miss their blessing. Nor are they joyous in the instruments used: “If it were an enemy, then I could have borne it,” said David. That is what we all think. O if my trial were not just that! Poverty I could endure, but not reproach and slander. To have lost my own health would have been a hard blow, but I could have borne it; but the removal of that dear child, the light of my eyes, how can I ever rejoice again? Have you not heard brethren speak thus?

4. To carnal reason afflictions ever seem to be “grievous.” Probably the most grievous part to the Christian is that he cannot see how much a loss or trial can possibly benefit him. If he could thus see, he would rejoice. Even here we must walk by faith and not by sight. But this is easier said than done; yea, it can only be done by God’s enabling. Usually, the Christian altogether fails to see why such a trouble is sent upon him; it seems to work harm and not good. Why this financial loss, when he was giving more to the Lord’s work? Why this breakdown in health, when he was being most used in His service? Why this removal of a Sabbath school teacher, just when he was most needed? why was my husband called away, when the children most required him? Yes, such afflictions are indeed grievous to the flesh.

But let it be pointed out that these reasonings are only “seeming.” The Christian, by grace, eventually triumphs. Faith looks up at the cloud (though it is often very late in doing so) and says, The chastisement was not as severe as it might have been, certainly it was not as severe as I deserved, and truly it was nothing in comparison to what the Savior suffered for me. O let faith expel carnal reason, and say, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” But note carefully that this is only while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (2 Cor. 4:17, 18). For much in the above four points the writer acknowledges his indebtedness to a sermon by C.H. Spurgeon on the same verse.

“Nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” This is what the apostle sets over against the estimate of carnal reason and the feelings of our natural senses. Medicine may not be a pleasant thing to take, but if it be blest by God, the renewed health it gives is good compensation. The pruned vine at the end of the winter presents a sorry appearance to the eye, but its heavily-laden branches in the autumn vindicate the gardener’s efforts. Did not the “afterward” prove to Jacob that his doleful reasonings were quite unwarranted? Job squirmed under the rod, as well he might, but was not his end more prosperous than his beginning? Thank God for this “Nevertheless afterward.”

Yet this “afterward” is also a very searching word: it is one which should pierce and test each of us. Have we not all passed through sorrow? Can any of us look back on the past without recalling seasons of deep and heavy affliction? Has no sword pierced our souls? no painful sacrifice been demanded of us? But, my reader, do these experiences belong to the past in every sense? Have they gone, disappeared, without leaving any effects behind them? No, that is impossible: we are either the better or the worse because of them. Then ask yourself, What fruits have they produced? Have your past experiences hardened, soured, frozen you? Or have they softened, sweetened, mellowed you? Has pride been subdued, self-pleasing been mortified, patience developed? How have afflictions, chastisements, left us? What does the “afterward” reveal?

Not all men are the gainers by afflictions; nor are Christians so always. Many seek to flee from trials and troubles, instead of being “exercised” thereby. Others are callous and do not yield: as Hebrews 12:5 intimates, they “despised” the chastenings of the Lord. There are some who imagine that, when visited with affliction, it is a display of courage if they refuse to be affected. They count it weakness to mourn over losses and weep over sorrows. But such an attitude is altogether un-Christian. Christ wept and again and again we are told that He “groaned.” Such an attitude is also foolish to the last degree, for it is calculated to counteract the very design of afflictions, and only calls for severer ones to break our proud spirits. It is no mark of weakness to acknowledge that we feel the strokes of an Almighty arm.

It is the truest wisdom to humble ourselves beneath “the mighty hand of God.” If we are among His people, He will mercifully compel us to acknowledge that His chastenings are not to be despised and made light of. He will—and O how easily He can do it—continue or increase our afflictions until He tames our wild spirits, and brings us like obedient children into subjection to Himself. What a warning is found in Isaiah 9:9-11. “And all the people shall know, even Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria, that say in the pride and stoutness of heart, The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars. Therefore the Lord shall set up the Adversaries of Rezin against him, and join his enemies together.” This means that, because the people had hardened themselves under the chastening hand of God, instead of being “exercised” thereby, that He sent sorer afflictions upon them.

The ones benefited by the Father’s chastenings are they who are “exercised thereby.” The Greek word for “exercised” was borrowed from the gymnastic games. It had reference to the athlete stripping himself of his outer clothing. Thus, this word in our text is almost parallel with the “laying aside of every weight” in 5:1. If afflictions cause us to be stripped of pride, sloth, selfishness, a revengeful spirit, then “fruit” will be produced. It is only as we improve our chastenings, that we are gainers. The natural effect of affliction on an unsanctified soul is either to irritate or depress, which produces rebellion or sinking in despair. This is the result of hardness of heart and unbelief. Even with regard to the Christian it is true that, only as he views them as proceeding from his Father in order to bring him into subjection, and as he is “exercised thereby,” he is truly profited.

1. The conscience needs to be “exercised.” There must be a turning unto the Sender of our trials, and a seeking from Him of the meaning and message of them. “There was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord” (2 Sam. 21:1)! So should we when the providences of God frown upon us. There must be an honest self-examination, a diligent scrutiny of our ways, to discover what it is God is displeased with. Careful investigation will often show that much of our supposed godly zeal in service is but the result of habit, or the imitating of some eminent saint, instead of proceeding from the heart, and being rendered “unto the Lord.”

2. Prayer has to be “exercised” or engaged in. It is true that painful afflictions have a tendency to stifle the voice of supplication, that one who is smarting under the rod feels little inclination to approach the Throne of Grace, but this carnal disposition must be steadily resisted, and the help of the Holy Spirit definitely sought. The heavier our load, the more depressed our heart, the sorer our anguish, the greater our need to pray. God requires to be sought unto for grace to submit to His dealings, for help to improve the same, for Him to sanctify unto our good all that perplexes and distresses us.

3. The grace of meekness must be “exercised,” for “a meek and quiet spirit” is of “great price” in the sight of Him with whom we have to do (1 Pet. 3:4). Meekness is the opposite of self-will and hardness of heart. It is a pliability of soul, which is ready to be fashioned after the Divine image. It is a holy submission, willing to be molded as the Heavenly Potter determines. There can be no “peaceable fruit of righteousness” until our wills are broken, and we have no mind of our own. How much we need to heed that word of Christ’s, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, for I am meek” (Matthew 11:29).

4. Patience must be “exercised.” Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Ps. 37:7): “wait” for His time of deliverance, for if we attempt to deliver ourselves, we are very likely to plunge into deeper trials. Fruit is not ripened in a day; nor do the benefits of chastisements appear immediately. Patience must have her perfect work if the soul is to be enriched by afflictions. In the interval of waiting, allow nothing to deter your plodding perseveringly along the path of duty.

5. Faith must be “exercised.” God’s hand must be seen in every trial and affliction if it is to be borne with meekness and patience. While we look no further than the malice of Satan, or the jealousy, enmity, injustice of men, the heart will be fretful and rebellious. But if we receive the cup from the Father’s hand, our passions will be calmed and the inward tumult stilled. Only by the exercise of faith will the soul be brought into a disposition to quietly submit, and digest the lessons we are intended to learn.

6. Hope must be “exercised.” As faith looks upward and sees God’s hand in the trial, hope is to look forward and anticipate the gains thereof. Hope is a confident expectation of future good. It is the opposite of despair. Hope lays hold of the promised “Afterward,” and thus it sustains and cheers in the present. Hope assures the cast-down soul “I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance” (Ps. 42:5). “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (1 Pet. 5:10).

7. Love must be “exercised.” It is the Father’s love which chastens us (verse 5); then ought not we to love Him in return for His care and patient training of us? Instead of doubting His wisdom or questioning His goodness, there should be an affectionate gratitude flowing out to the One who is seeking naught but our welfare. “We can never find any benefit in chastenings, unless we are exercised by them, that is, unless all our graces are stirred up by them to a holy, constant exercise” (John Owen)—how different that, from the fatalistic inertia of many hyper-Calvinists!

What we have sought to bring out above is the fact that spiritual “fruit” is not the natural or spontaneous effect of affliction. Nay, have we not observed that few of those who suffer severe financial reverses, heavy domestic bereavements, or personal bodily pain, are, spiritually, the gainers thereby. Yea, do we need to look any further than ourselves, to perceive how little we have learned by and profited from past trials? And the cause is plain: we were not duly exercised thereby. May this word abide with each of us for the future.

What is meant by “the peaceable fruit of righteousness”? If we took this expression by itself, it would signify the effects of righteousness, the fruit which righteousness itself brings forth. But in our text it is chastenings or afflictions which are specifically mentioned as producing this fruit. It is the Spirit tranquilizing and purifying the heart. “Righteousness” in our text is parallel with “His holiness” in verse 10. It may be summed up in the mortification of sin and the vivification of vital godliness. It is called the “peaceable fruit” because it issues in the taming of our wild spirits, the quieting of our restless hearts, the more firm anchoring of our souls. But this only comes when we truly realize that it is the Father’s love which has afflicted us. May the Spirit of God grant us all “exercised” hearts, so that we shall daily search ourselves, examine our ways, and be stripped of all that is displeasing to Him.

AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:12-14

Commentary on Hebrews 12:12-14

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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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

(Hebrews 12:14)

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.

AW Pink (1886-1952): Hebrews 12:15-17

Commentary on Hebrews 12:15-17

AW Pink (1886-1952)
Copyright: Public Domain

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A Call to Examination

(Hebrews 12:15)

We had first thought of giving a brief exposition of this verse at the close of the preceding article. But we felt this would scarcely satisfy some of our more critical readers. Nor is it our custom to dodge difficulties, and this presents a real difficulty unto not a few. Those Arminians who are ready to grasp at a straw have appealed to it in support of their favorite tenet “falling from grace.” On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the replies given by Calvinists thereon have often been unsatisfactory. It seems therefore that a more careful consideration and fuller elucidation of its contents are called for. Following, then, our usual practice, we shall endeavor, as God assists, to bring out the meaning of its several terms and apply them to our consciences and lives.

The following are the points upon which our attention needs to be concentrated. First, the connection between our present verse and its context. Second, the duty enjoined: “looking diligently.” Third, the danger to be avoided: “lest any man fail of the grace of God.” Fourth, the evil warned against: “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” Fifth, the resultant consequence if the evil be tolerated: “and thereby many be defiled.” In considering these points it will have to be carefully ascertained what it is about which we are here exhorted to be “looking diligently.” What is signified by “lest any man fail of the grace of God,” and if that be the correct translation, or whether the Greek requires us to accept the marginal alternative of “falling from the grace of God.” And finally, what is denoted by the “root of bitterness springing up.” May wisdom be granted us from on High.

First, then, the connection between our present verse and its context. We will first consider its more general and remote relation, and then its more specific and immediate. The link between Hebrews 12:15 and that which precedes may be thus exhibited: if the afflictions which fidelity to Christ occasion and the chastenings of the Father are not duly improved by professing Christians they are almost certain to become a serious stumbling-block in the way of personal piety, yea, a temptation to apostasy itself. This, we believe, is the first reference in the “looking diligently.” Unless professing Christians are duly “exercised” (verse 11) over God’s disciplinary dealings with them, they are very apt to misconstrue them, chafe against them, call into question the Divine goodness, and sink into a state of despair, with its accompanying inertia.

What has just been pointed out above receives confirmation from the verses which immediately follow, for verses 16 and 17 are obviously a continuation of our present text. There we find a solemn exhortation against apostasy itself, pointed by the awful case and example of Esau. Here we are warned against that, which if neglected, has a fearful tendency unto apostasy. Most of us know from painful experience how easily we become discouraged when things do not go as we want, how ready we are to “faint” (verse 5) when the rod of adversity is laid upon us, how real is the temptation to compromise or forsake the path of duty altogether when trials multiply or opposition and persecution is all that our best efforts meet with. Real, then, is our need for heeding this exhortation “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.”

It is unspeakably solemn to note that in the case of Esau his temptation to sell his birthright—apostatize—was occasioned by his faintness, for we are told that he said to Jacob, “Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage, for I am faint” (Gen. 25:30). And is it not when we are faint in our minds, cast down by the difficulties of the way, disheartened by the lack of appreciation our efforts meet with, and crushed by one trial on top of another, that Satan bids us give up the fight of faith and “get what pleasure we can out of life” by indulging the lusts of the flesh? Looked at thus our text points out the spring of apostasy—”falling of the grace of God;” the nature of apostasy—a “root of bitterness springing up;” and the result of apostasy—”many be defiled.”

Considering now the more specific and immediate connection of our verse with its context. First, unless the hands which hang down be lifted up and the feeble knees strengthened (verse 12), there will be a “failing of the grace of God;” and unless straight paths are made for our feet and that which is “lame” be prevented from “turning out of the way” (verse 13), then a “root of bitterness” (an apostate) will spring up, and in consequence, “many will be defiled.” Second, in verse 14 we are exhorted to “follow” two things, namely, “peace” and “holiness;” while in verse 15 we are warned to avoid two things, namely, “failing of the grace of God” and suffering “a root of bitterness to spring up.” The opening “Looking diligently” clearly denotes that our avoidance of the two evils of verse 15 turns or is dependent upon our earnest pursuit of the spiritual graces inculcated in verse 14.

We are now ready to contemplate the duty which is here enjoined: “looking diligently.” This is a call to examination: first, to self-examination. Its immediate force is derived from the closing words of the preceding verse, where the solemn and searching statement is made that “without which (namely ‘holiness’) no man shall see the Lord.” No matter though I am in fellowship with the people of God, a member of a scriptural church, a regular attender upon the means of grace, a firm believer in all the doctrines of the Word; yet, if I have never been sanctified by the Spirit of God, if I am not diligently and earnestly cultivating practical holiness, both of heart and life, then I shall never enter Heaven, and enjoy the beatific vision. Hence the pertinency and urgency of this exhortation, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.” There is far too much at stake to remain in uncertainty upon such a vital matter, and only the religious trifler will disregard this imperative summons.

The call to careful self-examination receives its urgency from the very great danger there is of self-deception. Sin darkens the understanding, so that man is unable to perceive his real state before God. Satan “hath blinded the minds of them which believe not” (2 Cor. 4:4). The deep-rooted pride of our hearts makes us think the best of ourselves, so that if a question is raised in our hearts, we are ever prone to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. A spirit of sloth possesses us by nature, so that we are unwilling to go to the trouble which real self-examination calls for. Hence the vast majority of religious professors remain with a head knowledge of the Truth, with outward attention to forms and ceremonies, or resting on a mere consent to the letter of some verse like John 3:16, refusing to “make their calling and election sure.”

God has warned us plainly in His Word that, “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes and yet is not washed from their filthiness” (Prov. 30:12). He has set before us those who say “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” and who know not that they are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). And let it be duly noted that those were in church association, and that at a time before the last of the apostles had left the earth. Christ has told us that “Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works?” yea, that they affirm “we have eaten and drunk in Thy presence” (Luke 13:26); yet will He answer them “I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23). How such words as those should make each of us tremble! How it behooves us to be “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.” Alas that such words—written first to those who had been addressed as “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (3:1)—should, for the most part, fall upon unheeding ears.

The fact is, that our diligence and honesty in self-examination will largely be determined by the value which we set upon our soul and its eternal interests. Alas, the vast majority of professing Christians today are far, far more concerned about their bodies than their souls, about carnal pleasures than spiritual fiches, about earthly comforts than heavenly consolations, about the good opinion of their fellows rather than the approbation of God. But a few—and O how few—are made serious, become in deadly earnest to examine well their foundations and test every inch of the ground they stand on. With them religion is not something to be taken up and laid down according to their fitful moods. Where will they spend ETERNITY is their all-absorbing concern. Every other interest in life sinks into utter insignificance before the vital consideration of seeking to make sure that they have “the root of the matter” in them.

O my reader, can you be satisfied with the cheap, easy-going religion of the day, which utterly ignores the clamant call of the Son of God “Agonize to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24)? Can you rest content with the “smooth things” now being proclaimed from well nigh every pulpit, which assures those who are at emnity with God they can become Christians more easily than a youth can join the army, or a man become a ‘free mason’ or ‘odd fellow’? Can you follow the great crowd who claim to have “received Christ as their personal Savior” when no miracle of grace has been wrought in their hearts, while the Lord Himself declares “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto Life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14)? Dare you rest upon some “decision” made when you were deeply stirred by some anecdotes addressed to your emotions? Have you nothing more than some change in your religious views or some reformation in your outward ways to show that you are “a new creature in Christ Jesus”? Slight not, we beseech you, this pressing word, “Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God.”

But the word “Looking diligently” has a wider signification than self-examination: it also points out our duty toward each other. The Greek term means “overseeing,” exercising a jealous care for one another. This seems to have misled Owen and several others who confined the exhortation unto “the body of the church or society of the faithful” in their mutual relation. But as Spurgeon pointed out on the text, “In the church of God each one should be on his watchtower for himself and for others. The first person who is likely to fail in the church is myself. Each one ought to feel that: the beginning of the watch should therefore be at home.” Our text is very similar to the exhortation found in Hebrews 3:13, 14, which is first unto the individual and then to the assembly—”Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily.”

Earnestly endeavoring to look well unto my own going, it is then both my duty and privilege to exercise watchfulness over others. “How many persons might be saved from backsliding by a little oversight! If we would speak to the brother kindly and considerately, when we think he is growing a little cold, we might restore him. We need not always speak directly to him by way of rebuke, but we may place a suggestive book in his way, or speak generally upon the subject. Love can invent many ways of warning a friend without making him angry, and a holy example will also prove a great rebuke to sin. In the church we ought to bear one another’s burden, and so fulfill the law of Christ, exercising the office of bishops over one another, and watching lest any man fail of the grace of God” (C.H. Spurgeon).

How little of this loving solicitude for the spiritual well-being of our fellow-pilgrims is in evidence today! How little earnest and diligent praying for one another! How little faithfulness in counseling, warning, exhorting! Probably one principal reason for this is the hyper-touchiness of so many professing Christians in this generation. No matter how tactfully the counsel be tendered, how faithfully the warning be given, or how lovingly the rebuke be administered; no matter though it be given by an experienced senior to one he is on familiar terms with, yet in nine cases out of ten his efforts are resented, and he is told—by attitude if not in words—to “mind his own business.” Never mind, even if a single ear be gained and a single soul helped, it is worth the disappointments of being repulsed by the others. Only one leper out of the ten appreciated Christ’s kindness!

“Lest any man fail of the grace of God.” This is the clause which has occasioned controversy: though really it affords no warrant for it, nor will the Greek permit of the marginal rendering. The root word which is here rendered “fail” occurs many times in the N.T., but never once has it the force of “fall from.” It means “to lack” or “be deficient of.” In Romans 3:23 it is rendered “come short of,” in Luke 15:14 to “want,” in 2 Corinthians 12:11 “come behind,” in Matthew 19:20 “lack,” in Philippians 4:12 “suffer need,” in Hebrews 11:37 to be “destitute.” Thus there is no room for uncertainty as to the meaning of this exhortation: “Looking diligently lest any man fail—come short of, be deficient in, lack—the grace of God.”

But to what does “the grace of God” here refer? That is not quite so easy to answer, for sometimes “grace” is to be regarded objectively, sometimes subjectively; in some passages it refers to the free favor of God, in others to His benevolent operation within the heart, in still others to the effects produced thereby. In our present passage, it seems to the writer, to be used more abstractly, having a comprehensive scope as it is applicable to widely different cases. We feel it safest to regard the clause thus, for God’s commandment is “exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96), and very often a single word has a twofold or threefold reference, and therefore we need to be constantly on our guard against limiting the meaning or restricting the application of any utterance of Holy Writ. According to our light we will endeavor to show some of the different cases to which this exhortation belongs.

“By ‘the grace of God,’ God’s favor and acceptance in Christ, as it is proposed and declared by the Gospel, is intended. Herein all spiritual mercies and privileges, in adoption, justification, sanctification and consolation, do consist. For these things, proceeding from the love, grace, and goodness of God in Christ, and being effects thereof, are called the grace of God. The attaining and participation of these things, is that which in the faith and profession of the Gospel, men aim at and design; without which, both the one and the other are in vain. This grace, under all their profession of the Gospel, men may fail of, and this is the evil cautioned against” (John Owen).

Men may “fail of the grace of God,” then, by not submitting themselves to the terms of the Gospel. Those terms are repugnant to the natural man: they are distasteful to his carnal lusts, they are humbling to his pride. But it is at the former of these two points that the majority “fail.” The Gospel calls upon sinners to repent, and they cannot do that with sincerity unless they throw down the weapons of their rebellion against God. The thrice holy God will pardon no man so long as he is determined to please himself and continue in a course of sinning. Again; the Gospel calls on sinners to receive Christ Jesus as Lord: to give Him the throne of their hearts, to bow to His scepter. The holy Redeemer will save no man who is unwilling for Him to “rule over” him (Luke 19:14).

Second, to “fail of the grace of God” is to be satisfied with something short of Divine grace communicated to and ruling in the heart. It is to be contented with a religious substitute for it. How many are deceived by “a form of godliness” who know nothing of its “power” (2 Tim. 3:5). How many mistake a head-knowledge of the Truth for a miracle of grace wrought in the heart. How many substitute outward forms and ceremonies for an experimental acquaintance with the substance of them. How many confuse an external reformation of life with the Divine regeneration and transformation of the soul. Alas, of how very many does it have to be said, “He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul” (Isa. 44:20). O how few there are who know “the grace of God in truth” (Col. 1:5). Do you, my reader? Do you?

“Some have maintained an admirable character to all appearance all their lives, and yet have failed of the grace of God because of some secret sin. They persuaded even themselves that they were believers, and yet they were not truly so; they had no inward holiness, they allowed one sin to get the mastery, they indulged in an unsanctified passion, and so, though they were laid in the grave like sheep, they died with a false hope, and missed eternal life. This is a most dreadful state to be in, and perhaps some of us are in it. Let the prayer be breathed, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’ Are ye earnest in secret prayer? Do ye love the reading of the Bible? Have ye the fear of God before your eyes? Do you really commune with God? Do you truly love Christ? Ask yourselves these questions often, for though we preach the free Gospel of Jesus Christ, I hope as plainly as any, we feel it to be just as needful to set you on self-examination and to excite in you a holy anxiety. It ought to be often a question with you ‘Have I the grace of God, or do I fall short of it? Am I a piece of rock crystal which is very like the diamond, but yet is not diamond?’” (C.H. Spurgeon).

Third, multitudes “fail of the grace of God” by not persevering in the use of the outward means. They are very earnest and zealous at first, but become careless and slothful. “There are some persons who for a time appear to possess the grace of God, and for a while exhibit many outward evidences of being Christians, but at last the temptation comes most suitable to their depraved tastes, and they are carried away with it. They fail of the grace of God. They appear to have attained it, but they fail at last; like a man in business who makes money for a time, but fails in the end. They fail of the grace of God—like an arrow shot from the bow, which goes straight towards the target for a time, but having too little impetus, fails to reach the mark. There are some who did run well, what doth hinder them that they should not obey the truth?” (C.H. Spurgeon).

Finally, genuine Christians themselves “fail of the grace of God” by not improving that which God has already bestowed upon them. Faith has been imparted to them, but how little they exercise it. There is an infinite fullness in Christ for them, but how little do they draw upon it. Wondrous privileges are theirs, but how little do they use them. Light has been communicated to them, but how little do they walk in it. They fail to watch and pray lest they enter into temptation (Mark 14:38). They fail to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1). They fail to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18). They fail to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). They fail to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 21). And by so failing, their peace is disturbed, their joy is diminished, their testimony is marred, and frequent chastenings are brought upon them.

“Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” This is the evil warned against. Observe how abstractly this also is worded: it is not “lest any root of bitterness spring up in you,” or “among you,” but simply “springing up.” The reference, we believe, is again a double one: first to the individual himself, and then to the corporate company. This second “lest” is obviously related intimately to the first: if we “fail of the grace of God” then “a root of bitterness springing up” is to be surely expected. Nor can there be any doubt as to what is signified by this figure of a “root of bitterness springing up”—the uprising of evil is evidently that which is in view. This is what we are here to guard against: failure to do so will bring “trouble” upon us and occasion a stumbling-block to others.

The first thing to be noted here is the expression “root of bitterness.” Now the root of a tree is that part of it which is underground, hence the reference is to that which is unseen. It points to indwelling sin, which continues in a man even after he is regenerated. That is why the Christian is exhorted, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:12). And if that is to be obeyed, then it is imperative we heed the word “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). Every stirring of sin within is to be resisted, every defiling effect of it confessed to God. If the weeds be not kept down, the flowers and vegetables will be choked. If the Christian fails in the work of mortification then the cultivation of his graces will be arrested.

“Lest any root of bitterness springing up.” The “springing up” is the appearance of its stalk above the ground. It is the open manifestion of sin in the life, issuing from an unmortified lust in the soul, which is here in view. What is unjudged before God in secret usually ends in becoming open before men. “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23) is a solemn word for each of us on this point. “Lest any root” emphasizes the need of constant watchfulness against every sin, for many branches and sprigs are ready to issue from the main trunk of indwelling corruption. Our safeguards are to yield ourselves wholly to God without reserve at any point, to be well instructed in practical godliness, to preserve a tender conscience, to be more distrustful about ourselves, to cultivate closer daily communion with God, to fix our affections upon things above.

“Lest any root of bitterness springing up.” By nature, sin is pleasant and delightful to us, but in the end it “biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder” (Prov. 23:32). Particularly is this the case with the Christian. God will not long suffer him to indulge his lusts, without making him taste the bitter consequences of the same. The lashings of his conscience, the convictions of the Spirit, the wretchedness of his soul, will cause him to say, “He hath filled me with bitterness, He hath made me drunken with wormwood” (Lam. 3:15). As our text says, “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble.” That which is contrary to God’s holiness and offends His majesty, He makes a source of trouble to us, either in our minds, bodies, estates, or families. “And many be defiled:” sin is like leaven—its influence spreads: “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33).

The second half of our text also refers to the local church: in it there is, no doubt, an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18. Great watchfulness needs to be exercised and a strict discipline maintained therein. Unregenerate professors are ever seeking to creep into the assembly of the saints. If God’s servants sleep, the Enemy will sow his tares among the wheat. When the suspicion of church officers is aroused, prayer for discernment and guidance is called for. Where the one suspected breaks out in corrupt doctrine or in loose living, he is to be dealt with promptly. Delay is dangerous. The allowance of a “little leaven” will soon corrupt the whole lump. At no point does the local church fail more deplorably today than in its refusal to maintain Scriptural discipline.

A Warning Against Apostasy

(Hebrews 12:16, 17)

The verses which we are now to consider are among the most solemn to be found in the Word of God. They present a most pointed warning against apostasy. They bring before us what is to all tender consciences a terror-provoking subject, namely, sin for which there is no forgiveness. It is indeed to be deplored that recent writers have dealt with it like they do with most matters—very superficially or quite erroneously. Either they have limited themselves unto two or three passages, ignoring many others directly relating to the theme, or they have wrongly affirmed that no one can commit “the unpardonable sin” during this present dispensation. On the other hand, most of the old writers seem to have devoted their efforts to re-assuring weak and fearing Christians that they had not committed this awful offense, rather than in making any attempt to define the character of the transgression itself.

The subject is admittedly a difficult one, and we believe God has permitted a measure of obscurity to rest upon it, and that in order to deter men from rashly venturing too near the brink of this terrible precipice. It therefore becomes us to approach it in fear and trembling, with modesty and humility, seeking grace and wisdom from on High to deal with it in a faithful, clear, and helpful manner. For this is no easy thing, if we are to avoid error and preserve the balance of truth. Two extremes have to be guarded against: a blunting of its fearful point so that the wicked would be encouraged to continue trifling with God and sporting with their eternal destiny, or failing to write with sufficient definiteness so that awakened and contrite sinners would not be delivered from sinking into despair beneath Satan’s lying misuse of it against them.

Before turning to the positive side it seems necessary to briefly point out wherein they seriously err, who insist that no one ever sins beyond the possibility of Divine pardon during this present era of grace. There are quite a number of passages in the N.T. epistles which clearly show the contrary. In 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12 we read, “For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie; that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” In Hebrews 6:4, 6 it is said of some that” it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.” In Hebrews 10:26, 27 it is said, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries;” while in 1 John 5:16 we are expressly informed “there is a sin unto death.” In our judgment each of these passages refers to a class of offenders who have so grievously provoked God that their doom is irrevocably sealed while they are yet here upon earth.

Against the testimony of the above scriptures an appeal has often been made to, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.” But the Word of God does not contradict itself, and it is an evil practice which cannot be too strongly condemned to pit one passage against another: any attempt to neutralize one text by another is handling the Truth deceitfully. With regard to 1 John 1:7 three things need to be pointed out.

First, the precious blood of Christ was never designed to cleanse from every sin—was it designed to cleanse Judas from his betrayal of the Savior! Its application is no wider than its impetration: its virtue does not extend beyond the purpose for which it was shed. Second, it does not say “the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth from all sin;” instead, it is strictly qualified: “cleanseth us from all sin,” that is, God’s own people. It is dishonest to appropriate these words to unbelievers. Third, the promise is further limited in the preceding clause, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light.”

Nor do we at all agree with those writers who, while allowing that “the unpardonable sin” may be committed during this present dispensation, yet affirm it is a very rare occurrence, a most exceptional thing, of which only one or two isolated cases may be found. On the contrary, we believe that the Scriptures themselves dearly intimate that many have been guilty of sins for which there was no forgiveness either in this world or the world to come. We say “sins,” for a careful and prolonged study of the subject has convinced us that “the unpardonable sin” is not one particular act of committing some specific offense, like maliciously ascribing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit (which, no doubt, is one form of it), but that it varies considerably in different cases. Both of these conclusions of the present writer will receive illustration and confirmation in what follows.

The first human being who was guilty of unpardonable sin was Cain. He was a professor or outward worshipper of God, but because Abel’s offering was accepted and his own rejected, he waxed angry. The Lord condescended to expostulate with him, and went so far as to assure him that if he did well he would not lose his pre-eminence as the firstborn. But so far from doing well, he persisted in wickedness, and his enmity against God was evidenced by his hatred of His child, ending in the murder of him. Whereupon the Lord said unto him, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth… A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” (Gen. 4:10-12). To which Cain answered, “Mine iniquity is greater than it may be forgiven” (Gen. 4:13, margin).

The record of Genesis 6 makes it clear that a whole generation of the world’s inhabitants had transgressed beyond all hope of remedy or forgiveness. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts if his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth” (Gen. 6:5-7), which was duly accomplished by the Flood. The whole of mankind in the days of Nimrod sinned so grievously (Rom. 1:21-23) that “God gave them up” (Rom. 1:24-26), for His Spirit “will not always strive with men.”

A whole generation of the Hebrews were also guilty of “the great trangression.” In Exodus 23:20, 21, we read, “Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him, and obey His voice, provoke Him not; for He will not pardon your transgressions: for My Name is in Him.” Alas they heeded not this solemn word: “our fathers would not obey, but thrust Him from them, and in their hearts turned back into Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Consequently the Lord said, “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do always err in their heart, and they have not known My ways. So I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest” (Heb. 3:10, 11).

It seems evident to the writer that there have been some in every age who have gone beyond the bounds of Divine mercy. Passing by such individual cases as Pharaoh, Balaam, and Saul, we would observe that the Pharisees of Christ’s day—the bulk of them at least—were guilty of sin for which there was no forgiveness. It is clear from John 3:2 that they recognized Him as “a Teacher come from God” and from John 11:47 that they could not gainsay His miracles. Nay more, it is plain from Mark 12:7 that they knew the righteousness of His claims: “But those husbandmen said among themselves, This is the Heir: come, let us kill Him.” Thus they acted with their eyes wide open, sinning against their own confession, against light and knowledge, against the strong conviction His miracles produced, and against His holy life spread before them. Therefore did Christ say to them, “I go My way, and ye shall seek Me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 8:21).

“Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me; then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression” (Ps. 119:13). Here the unpardonable sin is denominated “the great transgression.” It is called such because this is what a bold and audacious defiance of God necessarily culminates in, unless sovereign grace intervenes. “Presumptuous” sins are committed by those who, while professing God’s name and avowing a claim upon His mercy, persist in a known course contrary to His Word. Such rebels, presuming upon God’s patience and goodness, are mocked by Him, being suffered to go beyond the bounds of His forgiveness. It is also called “blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matthew 12:31), “resisting the Spirit” (Acts 7:51), “doing despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29). The “new testament” or “covenant” is “the ministration of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:8), which far exceeds in glory the legal dispensation. To be guilty of the great transgression is to sin willfully against and to speak maliciously of the Holy Spirit, who is revealed and promised in the Gospel; it is a quenching of His convictions, resisting His enlightenment, defying His authority.

It is called “a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16) because its perpetrator is now out of the reach of the promise of eternal life, having made the Gospel, which is a proclamation of Divine grace unto those who will submit themselves to its requirements, a “savor of death unto death” to himself. He was convicted by it that he was legally dead, and because of his impenitence, unbelief, hardheartedness, and determination to go on having his own way, he is left spiritually dead. Unto others God grants “repentance unto life,” (Acts 11:18), but when once “sin unto death” has been committed, it is “impossible to renew again unto repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6). By his opposition to the Gospel and refusal to receive Christ’s “yoke,” the guilty rebel has trampled under foot the blood of God’s Son, and as that alone can procure forgiveness, there is now no pardon available for him.

The very fact that it is designated “a sin unto death” rather than “the sin unto death” confirms what we said in a previous paragraph, namely, that it is not some specific offense but rather that the particular form it takes varies in different cases. And herein we may perceive how the sovereignty of God is exercised in connection therewith. God allows some to go to greater lengths of wickedness than others: some evil-doers He cuts off in youth, while other workers of iniquity are permitted to live unto old age. Against some He is more quickly and more strongly provoked than others. Some souls He abandons to themselves more readily than He does others. It is this which renders the subject so unspeakably solemn: no man has any means of knowing how soon he may cross the line which marks the limits of God’s forebearance with him. To trifle with God is hazardous to the last degree.

That the sovereignty of God is exercised in this matter appears very clearly from the cases of those whom He is pleased to save. What fearful crimes Manasseh was guilty of before Divine grace renewed him! What dreadful sins Saul of Tarsus committed ere the Lord Jesus apprehended him! Let the writer and the reader review their own unregenerate days: how dreadfully did we provoke the Majesty on high; how long did we persevere in a course of open rebellion; against what restraints, privileges, light and knowledge, warnings and entreaties, did we act! How many of the godless companions of our youth were cut off in their guilt, while we were spared. Was it because our sins were less crimson? No, indeed; so far as we can perceive, our sins were of a deeper dye than theirs. Then why did God save us? and why were they sent to Hell? “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Thy sight” must be the answer.

A sovereign God has drawn the line in every life which marks the parting of the ways. When that line is reached by the individual, God does one of two things with him: either He performs a miracle of grace so that he becomes “a new creature in Christ Jesus,” or henceforth that individual is abandoned by Him, given up to hardness of heart and final impenitency; and which it is, depends entirely upon His own imperial pleasure. And none can tell how near he may be to that line, for some reach it much earlier in life than others—according as God sovereignly decreed. Therefore it is the part of wisdom for each sinner to promptly heed that word “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found” (Isa. 55:6), which plainly denotes that soon it may be too late—as Proverbs 1:28-31 and Matthew 25:8-12 plainly show.

This solemn distinction which God makes between one case and another was strikingly shadowed out under the law. We refer to a remarkable detail concerning the jubilee year, a detail which seems to have escaped the notice of those who have preached and written on the subject. Those in Israel who, through poverty, had sold their possessions, had them restored at the year of jubilee: see Leviticus 25:25-28. That was a wondrous and beautiful figure of the free grace of God towards His people in Christ, by which, and not because of anything of their own, they are restored to the Divine favor and given a title to the heavenly inheritance. But in connection therewith there was an exception, designed by God, we doubt not, to adumbrate that which we are here treating upon. That exception we will briefly notice.

“If a man sell a dwelling-house in a walled city, then he may redeem it within a whole year after it is sold; within a full year may he redeem it. And if it be not redeemed within the space of a full year, then the house that is in the walled city shall be established forever to him that bought it throughout his generations: it shall not go out in the jubilee” (Lev. 25:29, 30). We cannot now attempt an exposition of this interesting passage or dwell upon its leading features. No part of the “land” could be sold outright (see 5:23), for that was the free gift of God’s bounty—there can be no failure in Divine grace; but houses in the city were the result of their labor human responsibility being in view. If the house was sold and not repurchased within a year, it passed beyond the reach of redemption, its forfeiture being irrevocable and irrecoverable! Symbolically, the “house” spoke of security under the Divine covenant, for in all generations God in covenant has been the “dwelling-place” of His people (Ps. 90:1). To part with his house typified a professor selling himself to work presumptuous wickedness (1 Kings 21:20), and so selling his soul, his God, his all. To such an one the Spirit will never “proclaim liberty” of the Jubilee, for Satan holds him fast, and Divine justice forbids his discharge: when God “shutteth up a man, there can be no opening” (Job 12:14).

In view of all that has been before us, how softly we should tread, how careful we should be of not provoking the Holy One! How earnestly we should pray to be kept back from “presumptuous sins”! How diligently should the young improve their privileges: how they should heed that warning, “He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” (Prov. 29:1)! How careful we should be against adding sin to sin, lest we provoke God to leave us unto final impenitency. Our only safeguard is to heed the voice of the Lord without delay, lest he “swear in His wrath” that we “should not enter into His rest”! How we need to beg God to write those words upon our hearts, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Heb. 3:12), for there is no hope whatever for the apostate.

A word now unto those with tender consciences that fear they may have committed sin for which there is no forgiveness. The trembling and contrite sinner is the farthest from it. There is not one instance recorded in Scripture where any who was guilty of “the great transgression” and had been given up by God to inevitable destruction, ever repented of his sins, or sought God’s mercy in Christ; instead, they all continued obstinate and defiant, the implacable enemies of Christ and His ways unto the end. While there be in the heart any sincere valuing of God’s approbation, any real sense of His holiness which deters from trifling with Him, any genuine purpose to turn unto Him and submit to His requirements, any true fearing of His wrath, that soul has not been abandoned by Him. If you have a deep desire to obtain an interest in Christ, or become a better Christian; if you are deeply troubled over sin, if your heart grieves over its hardness, if you yearn and pray for more tenderness of conscience, more yieldedness of will, more love and obedience to Christ, then you have no cause to suspect you have committed “the unpardonable sin.”

“Lest there by any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who, for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (Heb. 12:16,17). These verses continue what was before us in the preceding one, and complete the series of exhortations begun in verse 12. As we pointed out at the close of the previous article, the ultimate reference in verse 15 is first a warning against that which if disregarded would end in apostasy, and second, a caution against suffering one who evidences the symptoms of an apostate to remain in the assembly—its language being an allusion unto Deuteronomy 29:18. That warning and caution is now exemplified by citing the fearful example of Esau, who, though born among the covenant people and receiving (we doubt not) a pious upbringing, committed a sin for which there was no forgiveness, and became an apostate.

First of all, two particular sins are here warned against: “fornication” and “profanity,” each of which is “a root of bitterness,” which if permitted to “spring up” will cause “trouble” to the guilty one and “defile many” with whom he is associated. Both “fornication” and “profanity” are opposed unto the holiness exhorted unto in verse 14. Fornication is a sin against the second table of the Law, and profanity a breach of its first table. As in verse 14 the apostle had enjoined the Hebrews to “follow peace” which has respect to man and “holiness” which regards our relation to God, so now he forbids two sins, the first of which would be committed against man, the second against God. The two sins go together, for where a course of moral uncleanness is followed, profanity almost always accompanies it; and on the other hand, profane persons habitually think lightly of immorality. The forsaking of either sin by sincere repentance is exceedingly rare.

The term “profane” has a more specific meaning and a wider application than it is commonly accorded in our speech today. “Holy things are said to be profaned when men take off the veneration that is due unto them, and expose them to common use or contempt. To ‘profane’ is to violate, to corrupt, to prostitute to common use things sacred, either in their nature or by Divine institution. A profane person is one that despiseth, sets light by, or condemneth sacred things. Such as mock at religion, or who lightly regard its promises and threatenings; who despise or neglect its worship, who speak irreverently of its concerns, we call profane persons, and such they are, and such the world is filled with at this day. This profaneness is the last step of entrance into final apostasy. When men, from professors of religion, become despisers of and scoffers at it, their state is dangerous, if not irrevocable” (John Owen).

An instance of this evil is given in Esau, and a fearfully solemn case his is, one which would warn us not to put our trust in external privileges. “He was the firstborn of Isaac, circumcised according to the law of that ordinance, and partaker of all the worship of God in that holy family; yet an outcast from the covenant of grace and the promise thereof” (Owen). The particular offense with which he is here charged is that “for one morsel of meat” he “sold his birthright.” Now the birthright or privilege of the firstborn carried with it the following things: the special blessing of his father, a double portion of his goods, dominion over his brethren, and priestly functions (Num. 3:41) when the father was absent from home. The “birthright” was regarded as a very special thing, being typical of the primogeniture of Christ, of the adoption of saints, and of a title to the heavenly inheritance. All of this Esau despised.

The historical account of Esau’s sin is recorded in the closing verses of Genesis 25: the heinousness of it is exhibited in our text. Esau preferred the gratification of the flesh rather than the blessing of God. He relinquished all claims to the privileges contained in and annexed to his being the firstborn, for a trifling and temporary enjoyment of the body. Alas, how many there are like him in the world today. What vast numbers prefer carnal pleasures to spiritual joys, temporal advantages to eternal riches, physical gratification to the soul’s salvation. By calling Esau “profane,” the Holy Spirit reveals that he placed no higher value upon sacred things than he did upon those which were common. That which he received at the price of his wickedness is termed “meat,” to indicate that satisfying of the flesh was his motive; and a “morsel,” to emphasize the paltriness of his choice.

The enormity of the sin of “profanity” is determined by the sacredness of the objects to which it is opposed: let the reader carefully compare Leviticus 18:21; 21:9; Nehemiah 13:17; Ezekiel 22:26. The “profane” are guilty of trampling God’s pearls beneath their feet. To spurn the Scriptures, to desecrate the Sabbath, to revile God’s servants, to despise or ridicule the Gospel, to mock at the future state, are all so many forms of this unspeakable wickedness. As helps against it we would mention the need of being well instructed from the Word, so that we may know what are “holy” things. To bring our hearts to realize the superlative excellency of holiness. To meditate seriously and frequently upon God’s indignation against those who slight what He highly esteems.

“For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (verse 17). This takes us back to the closing section of Genesis 27, where we learn the consequences which his sin entailed. Isaac had pronounced the patriarchal benediction upon Jacob, which, when his brother learned thereof deeply agitated him: “He cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry” (Gen. 27:34). It was then that his “tears” were shed: but they proceeded not from anguish of heart because he had sinned so grievously against God, rather did they flow from a sense of self-pity—they expressed his chagrin for the consequences which his folly had produced. Similar are the lamentations of probably ninety-nine out of a hundred so called “death-bed repentances.” And such will be the “weeping and wailing” of those in Hell: not because God was so slighted and wronged by them, but because of the eternal suffering which their sins have justly resulted in.

Esau’s “tears” were of no avail: “he was rejected.” His appeal came too late: Isaac had already bestowed the blessing upon Jacob. It was like an Israelite seeking to recover his property eighteen months after he had sold it: see again Leviticus 25:30. Isaac, who was a prophet of God, His mouthpiece, refused to be moved by Esau’s bitter wailing. In like manner, the Lord says of those who have sinned away the day of grace “They shall call upon Me, but I will not answer; they shall seek Me early, but they shall not find Me” (Prov. 1:28); and “Therefore will I also deal in fury: Mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: and though they cry in Mine ears with a loud voice, yet will I not hear them” (Ezek. 8:18). O what point that gives to the call “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near” (Isa. 55:6). Reader, if you have not yet genuinely responded to that call, do so at once; delay is fraught with the utmost peril to your soul.

The apostle was here addressing professing Christians, and the fearful case of Esau is set before them (and us!) as a warning against departing from the Narrow Way, of exchanging the high privileges of the faithful for the temporary advantages of a faithless world. The doom of the apostate is irretrievable. To lightly esteem, and then despise, sacred things, will be followed “afterward” by bitter regret and unavailing anguish. To reject the terms of the Gospel in order to gratify the lusts of the flesh for a brief season, and then suffer forever and ever in the Lake of Fire, is the height of madness. No excuse could palliate Esau’s profanity, and nothing can extenuate the wickedness of him who prefers the drudgery of Satan to the freedom there is in Christ. Esau’s rejection by Isaac was the evidence of his reprobation by God. May it please the Lord to use this article to search the heart of every reader.