Hebrews 12:12-17

Yesterday, we were encouraged to think of hardship suffered for the sake of Christ as discipline: training that produces endurance and helps us to remain faithful. More than that, it’s evidence we’re true children of God, since parents discipline their children. Today, the writer urges us to live in light of that.

12:12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.

This is the first of two Old Testament references here, both involving the image of lameness. It’s from Isaiah:

Isaiah 35:3-6 Strengthen the feeble hands,  steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.

Although on the surface the quote reads like an instruction to “suck it up” and keep going, it’s a bit deeper than that. The context (you might remember from last year when we looked at Isaiah 35 and Matthew 8) is the expectation that God would come to vindicate his people, which would also be a time when the lame would walk (and a whole stack of other stuff would be healed). The writer, here, is reworking a Messianic, return-from-exile prophecy.

In other words: yes, suck it up and keep going, confident in the fact that God will rescue you; he will vindicate you in the eyes of those who persecute you; and your lame, stumbling legs will one day walk freely.

The second one is from Proverbs:

12:13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
Prov 4:25-27 Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.

Keep going, fixing your eyes on the road ahead (or on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faithfulness…) and that’s the way your spiritual lameness will be healed. The discipline we spoke of yesterday will do its job in producing endurance.

Casting the crutches of the metaphor aside, what does that look like?

12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

That is, be right with one another, and be right with God. That’s the essence of the race for which we’re being disciplined.

12:15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

In a way, you’re all responsible for one another. It’s not a solo race, it’s a group effort. Those who are struggling – help them to the finish line. Keep team unity. Do not give up meeting together…

12:16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.

How was Esau pornos (immoral)? Jewish tradition saw him as immoral, based on his polygamous marriage to the two daughters of Heth (Jubilees 25; Philo, Virtues, 208). However, sexual immorality is also frequently used as a metaphor for idolatry (“cheating on God”) so that may be what’s in mind here. And in the famous story where he sells his birthright, he trades God’s promise for the idol of temporary satisfaction.

“Esau is the very antithesis of the examples of faith in chapter 11. Esau traded off his rights of inheritance as the firstborn, something unseen and that lay in the indeterminate future, for the immediate gratification of the here and now: a meal of bread and stew (contrast the attitude of Moses referred to in 11:25-26).”

And this is described as irreversible:

12:17 Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.

At least humanly speaking, those who have deliberately rejected God have no expectation that God will enable them to again repent. That is, if they’ve weighed up the eternal advantage of Christ against the temporary advantage of the world – and deliberately and consciously chosen the latter – there shouldn’t be an expectation of repentance. (Compare with Heb 6:4-6; 10:26-27.)

To think about

What does the promise of our eventual vindication mean to you? How does it help you persevere?

Have you given much thought to your responsibility toward others who are struggling to persevere in faithfulness?

Further reading

OK, so the Esau bit probably freaked some of you out. Fair enough. We’ll deal with the whole “impossible to be brought to repentance” bit some other time, when we go through the earlier parts of Hebrews. For now, some brief points and a few pages to read for those who want to follow it up.

  1. There’s a whole background of patronage (the giving of favours by patrons and the receiving of favours by clients) that governed the first century world, and became metaphors for how God deals with humanity.
  2. The world of patronage has separate “social scripts” for patrons and clients.
  3. The patron’s script: virtuous patrons were urged to give further favour to those clients who showed appropriate gratitude, but still reserved the right to give favour to those who were un-grateful in order to win them over.
  4. The client’s script: virtuous clients were urged to give appropriate gratitude and loyalty if they wanted to be considered for future favour from their patron. To spurn their patron’s gift was the equivalent of saying “I don’t want you as my patron anymore.”
  5. The client couldn’t “read” the patron’s script for them. That is, although the patron may well still give future favour, there’s no way this should be expected. If you are disloyal and ungrateful, you shouldn’t expect further favour.

This is probably what’s going on in those parts of Hebrews that talk about the impossibility of future repentance. As a client of our heavenly Patron, you should never presume on God’s favour – that he’ll continue to give you opportunity to repent, despite being deliberately rejected and disowned. However, it doesn’t mean that God can’t keep pursuing us if he so chooses – and the history of the Old and New Testaments  suggests he does go above and beyond. But don’t flippantly presume he will!

See the following excerpt from David deSilva: deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 149-151

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