The Epistle to the Hebrews

Hebrews 12  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 8
"Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, laying aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking off unto Jesus the captain and completer of 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."
This is a different way of looking at His session there. In all the other passages of the epistle the meaning is that He took His seat, or simply sat down there. It is the fact that there He sat down; but in this place it will be observed that His taking His seat there is the reward of the life of faith. As the result of enduring the cross, having despised the shame, the word used here for sitting down has a remarkably beautiful shade of meaning different from what is given in all the other occurrences. Its force implies that it is not merely what He did once, but what He is also doing still. Attention is drawn to the permanence of His position at the right hand of God. Of course it is true that Jesus took His seat there, but more is conveyed in the true form of the text here.
This, however, only by the way. Beyond question the Lord is regarded as the completer of the whole walk of faith in its deepest and, morally, most glorious form. Instead of having one person illustrating one thing, and another person another, the Lord Jesus sums up the perfection of all trial in His own pathway, not as Savior only, but in the point of view of bearing witness in His ways for God here below. Who ever walked in faith as He? For indeed He was a man as really as any other, though infinitely above man.
From this, practical lessons of great value are drawn. "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. And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children." Thus the first part of the chapter shows us simply what God holds out to the new man; but the epistle to the Hebrews never looks at the Christian simply in the new man, but rather as a concrete person. From the beginning to the end of it, the Christian in Hebrews is not dealt with apart from the old nature as we may see him regarded in the ordinary epistles of Paul where the old and the new man are most carefully separated. It is not the case in the epistles of James and Peter, with which so far the epistle to the Hebrews agrees. I take the reason to be that the Apostle meets the Jewish believer where he is, as much as possible giving credit for what was really true in the Old Testament saints, and so in the Jewish mind. Now it is evident that in the Old Testament the distinction was not made between flesh and spirit in the way in which we have it brought out in the general doctrine of Christianity.
The Apostle is dealing with the saints as to their walk; and as he had shown how Christ alone had purged the sins of the believer, and how He is on high as the Priest in the presence of God to intercede for them in their weakness and dangers, so now when he has come to the question of the walk of faith, Christ is the leader of that walk. Accordingly, this is an appeal to the hearts which cleave to Christ the rejected King and Holy Sufferer, who is now in glory above. He necessarily completes all as the pattern for the Christian. But then there are impediments, as well as sin, by which the enemy would keep us from the race set before us, while God carries on His discipline in our favor. And the Apostle shows that we need not only a perfect pattern in the walk of faith, but chastenings by the way. This, he says, must be from a father who loves his true and faulty children; others enjoy no such care. First of all, it is love that calls us to the path that Christ trod; next, it is the love that chastens us. Christ never needed this, but we do. He reasons that while our parents only chastise us the best way they can (for after all their judgment might not be perfect), the Father of spirits never fails. He has but one settled purpose of goodness about us; He watches and judges for our good, and nothing but our good. He has set His mind upon making us patterns of His holiness. It is what He carries on now. Fully does He allow, as connected with this, that the chastening seems not joyous but grievous. We begin with His love, and shall end in it without end. He only removes obstructions, and maintains our communion with Himself; surely this ought to settle every question for the believer. If we know His perfect love and the wisdom of it, we have the best answer to silence every murmuring thought or wish of the heart.
There is nothing more serious than to set grace against holiness. Nowhere does the Apostle give the smallest occasion for such a thought. So here he tells them to "follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: looking diligently lest any man lack the grace of God." It is not a question of the law which a Jew might naturally conceive to be the standard of the will of God now as of old for Israel. How easily we even forget that we are not Jews but Christians! Reason can appreciate not grace but law; and so people are apt, when things go wrong, to bring in the law. It is quite legitimate to employ it in an a fortiori way, as the Apostle does in Ephesians 6. For assuredly if Jewish children honored their father and mother on legal grounds, much more ought Christian children, on grounds of grace.
Another great call was to beware "lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright." Thus you see, either corrupt passion on the one hand, or profanity on the other, are unsparingly condemned by the grace of God. If the law could show little mercy in such a case, the grace of God views all sin as intolerable.
This leads him, from speaking of Esau's case, to add as a known fact, that afterward, when he desired to have inherited the blessing, he was rejected (for he found no place of repentance). though he sought it carefully with tears. That is, he sought carefully with tears the blessing given to Jacob; but there was no room left for repentance simply in the sense of change of mind; for, I suppose, the word here has that tense, which sometimes, no doubt, it has. In its ordinary usage it has a much deeper force. Every change of mind is far from being repentance, which doctrinally means that special and profound revolution in the soul when we take God's part against ourselves, judging our past ways, yes, what we are in His sight. This Esau never sought; and there was never one who did seek and failed to find it. Esau would have liked well to get or regain the blessing; but this was given of God otherwise, and he had forfeited it himself. All arranged beforehand, neither Isaac's partiality nor Jacob's deceit was able to divert the channel. His purpose utterly failed to secure the blessing for his profane but favorite son. He saw his error at last, and put his seal on God's original appointment of the matter.
And here we are favored with a magnificent picture of Christianity in contrast with Judaism. We are not come to Sinai, the mountain that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and a voice more terrible than that of the elements. To what then are we come? To mount Zion. And what is its distinctive character as here introduced? If we examine the historical facts as found in the Old Testament story, what rises up before all eyes as to Zion? When does it first appear? After the people had been tried and found wanting; after the priests had wrought, if possible, greater corruption; after the king of Israel's choice had reduced them to the lowest degradation. It was therefore • a crisis after the most painful accumulation of evils that weighed on the heart of Israel. But if people and priest and king were proved thus vain, God was there, and His grace could not fail. Their abject ruin placed them just in the circumstances that suited the God of all grace. At that very moment therefore the tide begins to turn. God brings forward His choice, David, when the miserable end of Saul and Jonathan saw the Philistines triumphant and Israel disheartened as they had not been before that moment. The hill of Zion up to this time had been the constant menace of the enemy against the people of the Lord; but in due time, when David reigned, it was wrested out of the hands of the Jebusites, and became the stronghold of Jerusalem, the city of the king. Thenceforward, how it figures in the Psalms and prophets! This then is the monument for such as we are. Let blinded Jews turn their sightless eyeballs to the mountain of Sinai. Let men who can see, only look there, and what will be found? Condemnation, darkness, death. But what at Zion? The mighty intervention of God in grace-yes, more than that-forgiveness, deliverance, victory, glory, for the people of God.
For not merely did David receive from Jehovah that throne, but never were the people of God lifted out of such a state of distress and desolation, and placed on such a height of firm and stable triumph as under that one man's reign. He had beyond all mere men known sorrow and rejection in Israel; yet he himself not only mounted the throne of Jehovah, but raised up His people to such power and prosperity as was never reached again. For although outwardly, no doubt, the prosperity lasted in the time of Solomon, it was mainly the fruit of David's suffering, and power, and glory. God honored the son for the father's sake. It remained for a brief Season; but even then it soon began to show rents down to the foundations, which became apparent too, too quickly in Solomon's son. With Zion then the Apostle justly begins. Where is the mountain that could stand out so well against Sinai? What mountain in the Old Testament so much speaks of grace, of God's merciful interference for His people when all was lost?
Rightly then we begin with Zion, and thence may we trace the path of glory up to God Himself, and down to the kingdom here below. Impossible to rise higher than the Highest, whence therefore the Apostle descends to consequences. Indeed we may say that the whole epistle to the Hebrews is just this: we start from the foundation of grace up to God Himself in the heavens; and thence springs the certainty that the stream of grace is not exhausted, and that undoubtedly it will issue in unceasing blessing by-and-by for the earth, and for the people of Israel above all, in the day of Jehovah.
Accordingly, we have a remarkable line of blessing pursued for our instruction here.
"Ye are come unto mount Zion," which was the highest Old Testament point of grace on earth. Others doubtless could speak of their Ararat, their Olympus, their Aetna; but which boasted of the true God that loved His people in the way that Zion could? But would a Jew infer hence that it was only the city of David he was speaking of? Let him learn his error. "And unto the city of the living God [not of dying David), the heavenly Jerusalem" (not the earthly capital of Palestine). This I take to be a general description of the scene of glory for which Abraham looked. He could know nothing of the mystery of the Church, Christ's body, nor of her bridal hopes; but he did look for what is called here the "heavenly Jerusalem," that city "whose maker and builder is God." In this phrase there is no allusion whatever to the Church; nor indeed anywhere in the Hebrews is there any reference to its distinctive portion in union with its Head. When it says that Abraham looked for the city, it means a blessed and ordered scene of glory on high, which eclipsed the Holy Land before his eyes. This, however, does not mean the Church, but rather the future seat of general heavenly bliss for the glorified saints.
Then he adds: "And to myriads of angels, the general assembly"-for such is the true way to divide the verse-"and to the church of the firstborn," etc. This proves that the city of the heavenly Jerusalem does not mean the Church, because here they are certainly distinguished from each other, which therefore completely settles all the argument that is often founded on Abraham's looking for a heavenly city. It was not the Church, I repeat, but what God prepares above for those who love Him. True, the Apostle John uses this very city as the figure of the bride. But this essential difference separates between the city for which Abraham looked and the bride so symbolized in the Apocalypse. When the Apostle Paul speaks of "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem," he means the scene of future heavenly blessedness; whereas, when John speaks of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God, he means not where but what we are to be. The difference is very great. The epistle sets before us the seat of glory prepared on high; the Revelation speaks of the bride represented as a glorious golden city with figures beyond nature. The one is what may be called the objective glory; the other is the subjective condition of those that compose the bride, the Lamb's wife.
Having brought us to see the "church of the firstborn which are written in heaven," the Apostle next can only speak of "God the judge of all." He describes Him thus in His judicial character. The reason appears to be because he is going to tell us of the Old Testament saints. They had known God in His providence and dealings on the earth, though looking for a Messiah and His day. Hence, therefore, he now introduces us "to the spirits of just men made perfect." These evidently are the elders of olden times. None but the Old Testament saints, as a class, can all be in the separate state: not the Church, or New Testament saints, for we shall not all sleep; nor the millennial saints, for none of them will die. The reference is therefore plain and sure.
Then we hear of "Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant" -the pledge of Israel's full and changeless blessing. Last, he points "to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better than Abel"-the assurance that the earth shall be delivered from its long sorrow and slavery.
Thus the chain of blessedness is complete. He has shown us the symbolic mount of grace in Zion contrasted with Sinai, the mountain of law. If the one figured the imposed measure of man's responsibility, which can only but most justly condemn him, in the other we behold the mountain of God's grace after all was lost. Then follows the heavenly glory, to which grace naturally leads; then the natural inhabitants of the heavenly land; namely, the angels—"and to myriads of angels, the general assembly." Then he shows us others higher than these, by a divine call -"and to the church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven." They do not belong to heaven like the angels, but God had an eternal purpose which brought them there by an extraordinary favor. And then, in the center of all, we have God Himself. But having looked up to Him who is above all, he speaks of the highest group next to God in His judicial character; namely, the Old Testament saints. Then he descends to a new or fresh covenant—the recently inaugurated covenant for the two houses of the ancient people. Although the blood on which that covenant was founded may now be long shed, when the covenant comes into force for them, will it not be as fresh as the day the precious Victim died and shed His blood? The reference here I cannot but regard as exclusively to the two houses of Israel. And as thus we were shown the people immutably blessed (for salt shall not be wanting to that covenant) in the scene that will soon come, we finally hear of the earth itself joyful in the curse removed forever. It is "the blood that speaketh better than Abel." For the martyred saint's blood, the earth cried to God for vengeance; but Christ's blood proclaims mercy from God, and the millennial day will be the glorious witness of its depth, and extent, and stability before the universe.
The rest of the chapter brings in, accordingly, the dosing scene when the Lord comes to shake everything, and establish that blessed day. But although it will be the shaking of all things, not of earth only but also heaven, yet, marvelous to say, grace gives such confidence of heart that this, which may be regarded as the most awful threat, turns into a blessed promise. Think of the shaking of heaven and earth being a promise! Nothing but absolute establishment of heart in God's grace could have gazed on a destroyed universe, and yet call it a "promise." But it is the language for us to learn and speak, as we are called to rest on God and not on the creature.
(To be continued)