At this time of the year it is fairly easy to get tired, frustrated, and even depressed (at least some of us have this tendency). We feel like giving up and staying in bed all day long. So we go along in our day with fatigue and despair. But normally we do not face such despair because of struggles or persecution for the sake of Christ. It is just the time of the year.
The author of Hebrews faces a different audience. He writes to Christian brothers and sisters who need strong encouragement (and warnings!) to continue on the journey with and to Christ. In chapter 11 the author gave ample examples of OT saints who endured by faith though “they did not receive what was promised.” Then he exhorted the Christian to follow these and Jesus Christ himself who endured the race from the humiliation on the cross to his heavenly exultation.
Therefore, he argues, let us not grow weary in our Christian life. Those whom God loves He disciplines, and this discipline shows that we are adopted children of Him. So, let us take a look at Hebrews 12:12-17.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Therefore links this passage (verses 12-13) to the preceding one. They are not to grow weary ‘because you now have a better understanding why you are persecuted and suffer’ is the author’s flow of thought. He has just given the explanation and now encourages his readers to live out the consequence.
Drawing from OT texts like Isa 35:3and Prov 4:26, the author is able to put a right perspective in front of his readers’ eyes. The quotation from the Isaiah passage in verse12 more than possibly alludes to 10:37 where we read “for, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay’” (this itself being a quotation of Hab 2:3). This is seen more clearly if we take a look at the Isaiah passage in its context. Isa 35:3 reads, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” This is almost directly quoted by our author. But the following verse in the Isaiah passage (that is verse 4) reads, “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come…He will come and save you.”
Thus the picture is that the readers are “spiritually paralyzed” (Morris, 139) or at least act like this, but they ought to put things right and keep on going! This is followed by an allusion to Prov. 4:26“Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure” which is immediately followed (v.27) “Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” The readers are to make straight paths for theirfeet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. These straight paths are by implication “smooth paths” (Moffatt, 208) and by that what is lame (to chōlon) “the writer means “‘those who are lame,’ these crippled souls in your company” (idem, 207). Thus the consequence “if any limping soul is allowed to stray from the straight course, under the influence of a bad example,” is that “he will be made worse instead of better” (idem, 208).
The application of such is that “the strong must help the weak to develop (or recover) mature faith, and to continue faithful to the end (cf. Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:2)” (Ellingworth, 659), we are not to neglect or avoid those who are weak in faith but help them to finish the race.
Lane observes that verse 14 and its two main aspects peace and holiness are to be seen especially in their eschatological significance (449-51). In ch.7 we already saw (in light of the Melchizedek comparison) that peace and righteousness are predominant characteristics of the eschaton (cf. e.g. Ps. 72:7; Isa. 9:6f; Zech. 9:9f).
The readers or to strive for (diōkete: “which connotes and earnest pursuance”; Lane, 449; BDAG “to follow in haste in order to find someth., run after, pursue” 254,4,b) such characteristics. The objects of the pursuance (i.e., peace and holiness) are seen in a more objective way (cf. Lane; contra Bruce; in loc.). This fits well with the argument of the epistle in general.
It is through Christ’s sacrifice that we are sanctified (that is, set apart for God; see 10:10, 14 and also 2:11) and we are – by faith – cleansed and sprinkled with his precious blood. This does not mean however that there is no subjectivity to these characteristics. We are to be holy and live a life of holiness and peace with everyone (though here in the passage the emphasis may lay in the community of the believer specifically).
The last qualifying phrase without which no one will see the Lord is in agreement with the Lord’s word in Mt. 5:8 were the same idea is stated positively “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Since Christ already obtained (through his blood!) peace and holiness, we are to live as those being called to holy life (cf. 2 Tim. 1:9). Yes it is eschatological in nature, but if then why not now? If this is the best quality in life, why should we waist our remainder here on earth with anything else than to strife for peace and holiness.
It is grace which enables somebody to enter “the pathway of faith” and it is also grace which empowers the believer to stay on track and live a holy life (Bruce, 349). Therefore the author admonishes (verse 15) the readers to see to it (that is, to take careful inspection; BDAG; 378, 1). The author already mentioned that the grace of God is there for timely help (4:16) and constantly available to us. The fault can thus not be found with the grace but only with those who fail to obtain it.
Using again an OT allusion (Deut 29:18 and probably the surrounding context) the author warns sternly they should inspect so that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. Let us quickly take a look at the Deuteronomy passage (29:18-19):
Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.
It even goes on to inform us about the curses God will put on such a man (v.20f.). Without going into detail it shall suffice to say that this is a stern warning against idolatry (in the context he speaks about idolatrous actions of the Canaanites). As Bruce says (350) it is probably best to look for a commentary by the author himself, which can be found in 3:12, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” We are to take care of one another! The author further implies that the action (as harmless as it may seem) may lead the entire community astray and that is why we have to inspect our lives so that such is not going to happen.
Verses 16-17 build the third see to it section. Here Esau is given as a bad example of one who turned his back on the promises and grace of God or a single meal. He was selling his birthright for a meal (see Gen 25:29-34)! That Esau was unholy is not hard to detect from the OT account, but what about his sexual immorality? Peterson observes that this expression “could be used in a metaphorical way, to describe Esau’s apostasy as a ‘prostitution’ of his relationship with God (cf. Dt. 31:16; Jdg. 2:17). After such a wholesale rejection of the grace of God, when Esau wanted to inherit the blessing of the firstborn son, he was rejected (Gn. 27:30–40)” (in loc.). Idolatry and sexual immorality are often linked in both OT and NT (e.g. Rom 1:18-32).
The author of Hebrews mentions also that Esau when he desired to inherit the blessingwas rejected. When he came back from the field there was no blessing left from him, his brother had taken it already (Gen 27). It seems harsh to say that he found no chance to repenteven though he sought it with tears. Yet we have to see that he did not repent in a godly manner but only because he did not inherit the blessing. It was this material aspect which he repented of.
We as well as those in the first century need to here God’s word anew. Warnings and strong encouragements are needed for some of us who are on the verge of giving up. I have no easy answer for your situation and I do not want to downplay life struggles! But I do want to express a word of hope – Jesus Christ – and he crucified. He endured the shame of the cross for the joy set before him and he is able to help those who seek him in time of need.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Guthrie, George H. “Hebrews.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. G.K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 9-13. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47B. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
Morris, Leon. “Hebrews.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, Hebrews–Revelation Volume 12. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, v. 12. Ed. Frank Ely Gaebelein. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.