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Sermon preached on Hebrews 12:14-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/27/2019 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Pursue… With All”
As we’ve been studying Hebrews, we’ve been receiving the call to press on in faith. One aspect of this theme has been the corporate concern. When we hear the call to endure in the Christian faith, we should not only be thinking about ourselves. We should look around at our fellow church members and see that this call comes to all of us. We are in this together and in God’s providence he’s placed us together to work together and help one another. This call is not about beating our fellow Christians to the finish line. It’s about running together to finish together. That also means that we should look to help our brothers and sisters finish the race. It also means that we should try to not be a hindrance to them either in the race. We will see some of this in today’s passage. And so, as we consider this command today to pursue peace and holiness, we see that we are to do that while watching out for one another. We need to watch out for our fellow Christians, so that we would all persevere and make it across the finish line together.
Let us begin then in verse 14. Here we see this command of pursuit. The Greek word used here for “pursue” is a stronger word than other similar Greek words for seeking something. It involves seeking something with haste and intense effort. So, verse 14 really is an emphatic command. And so, we see then the first thing commanded to be pursued. Pursue peace. It calls for them and us to pursue peace with all. If we take those words on their own, we could think of the biblical command to seek to have peace with all people, in as much as it depends on us, Romans 12:18. Or we could think of the blessedness of being a peacemaker per Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But I don’t believe that is what verse 14 is about. I don’t think it is about a call for peacemaking among humanity. We might instead think more narrowly by understanding the “all people” mentioned in verse 14 as specifically referring to all the people in the church. I think that is right in itself – that the “all people” are referring to those in the church. This is that repeated concern in Hebrews for others in the church that I had mentioned. This is in context here again, as the next couple verses are concerned about people not falling away who have been in the visible church. So, when it says “all people” here, we should understand that to refer to all the people in the church. Yet I don’t think this is calling us pursue peace with all the people of the church in the sense of striving for horizontal peace between ourselves and our fellow Christians. That is certainly a biblical command, it’s certainly something we should strive for, but I don’t think that’s what this verse is referring to.
So, then what is this verse commanding us to pursue in terms of peace? I believe it is calling us to pursue the peace we have in God. It calls us to pursue the peace we have with God and the peaceful blessed life that comes with that, now, and especially into glory. Maybe you’ve heard of the richness of the Hebrew word for peace, shalom. That’s what this is getting at here. In other words, this is calling us to pursue this ultimate peace, this shalom, together with the other saints. Along with all God’s people, pursue this shalom, this peace of God. It’s similar to that “peace on earth” that angels announced at Jesus’ birth. Many people have misunderstood that to think it was an announcement about peace between humans. But ultimately it was much more so about the peace humans could know with God in the salvation that Jesus Christ would bring. That peace announced by the angels, that peace which we come into in faith in Jesus Christ, that’s the peace we are called to pursue in verse 14. And it says to pursue it together with your fellow Christians. This is basically like what Hebrews 10:24 told us: that we need to consider how to stir up our fellow Christians unto love and good works as we seek to stand fast in the faith together until Christ returns.
Next in verse 14 we see a second thing to pursue: holiness. Pursue holiness. Holiness is about being set apart, different, consecrated. God is holy in the most perfected sense as the one and only creator and sustainer of the universe. Yet, it’s been God’s desire for humans to share in his holiness. In the original creation, humanity was set out as distinct and set apart from all the other creatures. Yet, in the fall, we marred that holiness. Yet, in God’s plan of redemption he has been gathering up a redeemed people. In gathering up and saving some out of this fallen world, he makes his people again holy. We are distinct and set apart from the rest of sinful humanity, and consecrated unto the Lord. He has then called his people to further pursue that holiness which defines him.
And so, as we see this call to pursue holiness we remember first that there is a certain sense in which God’s people have already begun to know that holiness. The church is rightly referred to as “holy” in virtue of our relationship with holy Jesus, Hebrews 3:1. Those who have truly known the Lord have had their sins purged per Hebrews 1:3 and have been qualified to draw near to the all holy God in the Most Holy Place of the heaven tabernacle, Hebrews 10:19. There is even a way in which this language of holy and consecrated can get used of those people who are false Christians in the church. In other words, members in the church that later show themselves to have not really been saved when they fall away in apostasy – Hebrews 10:29 described them as experiencing an external consecration.
And yet that is the reason why this exhortation is needed. All in the visible church have experienced some form of holiness already. But some have only known an external holiness. Others have truly been saved and come to know an inner holiness that the false Christian has not. Yet, I would imagine that many false Christians in the church don’t realize that they are a false Christian. And so, this call to pursue the real kind of holiness we need is important. And it fits back into the theme that this book of Hebrews has been developing. Faced with tests of your faith, will you press on in faith unto glory? Here, verse 14 presents that same call in terms of holiness. Pursue the genuine holiness that you will only know through faith in Jesus.
Surely, then such faith will pursue growth in that holiness. We remember the repeated command in both Old and New Testaments where God tells his people, “Be holy, for I am holy. True Christians have begun to experience the holiness of God in the internal washing of spiritual rebirth (Tit 3:5). The record and guilt of our sins have been purged away and we stand in that sense as holy before God now. Yet, we realize that our conduct, our thoughts, our desires, are not yet fully sanctified. They are not yet holy as God is holy. We still do things and think things and want things that are inconsistent with the holiness of God. So then, as we live in faith in Christ, we express that lively faith by seeking holiness in the sense of being conformed to the holiness of God in our character and conduct.
In other words, this call to pursue holiness is really again about living out our faith and continuing in the faith. As we do this, we are growing our hearts in confidence, making our calling and election sure to us. We are being assured that the holiness we’ve already experienced has not been merely external. We are seeing the grace of God sanctifying us more and more as we wait for the day when he will complete us in holiness.
The end of verse 14 explains why this is so important. It says that our holiness is necessary in order to see God. This is of course something Jesus himself said in the sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). This makes sense. It’s been the theme throughout Scripture that the profane and unclean dare not enter in the holy presence of God. Remember, that was Isaiah’s concern when he was given a vision the of the LORD on his throne. Isaiah cried out in Isaiah 6:5 “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” Or, remember the surprise of Jacob when he realized he had wrestled with the Lord and survived in Genesis 32. One does not expect to survive coming before the presence of God if they come with unclean hands and impure hearts.
And yet that is what is so encouraging here. For it implies what we are told elsewhere in Scripture. In the end, the saved of the Lord will in fact get to see God! It’s where God and his redeemed people will dwell together in the world to come, for eternity. And so again, for verse 14 to call us pursue holiness, we see it has glory as its trajectory here. It calls us to pursue the holiness by which we can ascend Mount Zion and behold the glory of the Lord. And that means it is a call to the pursue this through holding fast in faith to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. For only in Christ will we find and know this holiness.
Okay, so we’ve had a chance to reflect on verse 14. I’d like us now to turn to look at verse 15. What we’ll find is that what we’ve seen in verse 14 is further developed. And therefore, what we see in verse 15 will help confirm what we’ve understood to be said in verse 14. The first thing then to notice in verse 15 is that this presents the concern of what could happen if we don’t heed the exhortation of verse 14. If we are not diligent in together pursuing the peace and holiness of God, then something bad could happen like the three things mentioned here. Actually, there are two of the bad things mentioned in verse 15 and the third is in verse 16 which will look at more next week. But you’ll notice the three specific things are marked out here with the word “lest”. Lest anyone fall short of the grace of God. Lest any root of bitterness springs up and brings defilement. Lest any fornicator or profane person like Esau comes up in your midst. These three usages of the word “lest” are saying what could happen if the church fails to be diligent in pursuing this peace and holiness of God.
So then we’ll look at these two bad consequences mentioned in verse 15. The first one is rather straight forward and explicit. There could be a fall from grace. Since it says “anyone” this confirms what we said in last verse that we are supposed to be pursuing peace together in the sense that all of us in the church are to be striving together to endure in faith until the end. Verse 15 says its not enough to just be concerned about whether yourself might fall away from grace. Verse 15 says we need to be watching out for our brothers and sisters too – lest any of us fall away from the faith. Thus, we are to pursue God’s peace and God’s holiness together.
So that first concern in verse 15 is pretty straight forward and what we’ve been talking about. The other one here might need some more explanation for you. When it talks of this root of bitterness, the key to understanding what it is talking about is to recognize that it’s a reference back to Deuteronomy 29:18. Both the language of the “root of bitterness” and the language of “lest there be any” is in Deuteronomy 29:18, using the same Greek words in the LXX. Deuteronomy 29:18 in its whole says this, “Lest there be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart has turned aside from the Lord your God, having gone to serve the gods of these nations; lest there be in you a root springing up with gall and bitterness.” In classic Hebrews fashion, he again quotes an Old Testament passage to make his point. And he again seems to reference a part of a passage but in doing so intends to get us to think about the larger point developed in that Old Testament passage. In other words, the background of Deuteronomy chapter 29 seems to inform what is being talked about here.
And so, when we look back at Deuteronomy 29, the parallels with Hebrews here are striking. There, in Deuteronomy 29, Moses has gathered the people in formal assembly at Moab to renew the covenant that God had made with Israel at Sinai. God has Moses exhort the people as they are finally about to enter the Promised Land of what their living should look like there. Moses is basically exhorting them that they must remain faithful to the Lord and the covenant. They must not turn away from their faith in the one true God to go after other false gods. And so, this reference here in Hebrews about the root of bitterness is dealing with such idolatry. It’s a root that causes bitterness. Moses said that the people need to be on guard against anything that takes root in their covenant community that might try to turn the people away from their faith in the LORD to some other idol. Hebrews raises that same concern here. And Hebrews connects this concern with the holiness reference from the previous verse because look at what it says at the end of verse 15. He says this root of bitterness can bring defilement. Defilement is language that is opposite to holiness. You won’t see God in glory if you are in this state of defilement.
All of this understanding is further driven home when we see that Deuteronomy 29 then takes this concern and brings up the question of “peace,” just like we have referenced in the previous verse. Deuteronomy 29:19, the verse after the one quoted here, goes on to describe the one with this root of bitterness that goes after false gods. Deuteronomy 29:19 imagines such an apostate saying in his heart, “I shall have peace” even though he has heard that God’s Word has said he’ll be cursed for his apostasy. It says that this apostate foolishly and falsely “blesses” himself when God’s Word pronounces “curses” upon him. And I think it is very fitting that the passage says that the apostate does this with the language of “peace.” He foolishly says that he’ll have peace, but he won’t. And that’s what Deuteronomy 29 goes on to say. God will in fact bring curse and destruction on him.
And interestingly Deuteronomy 29, when talking about this curse coming upon such an apostate, suddenly switches to the plural. It goes from talking about one man experiencing curse to a group of people experiencing curse – the switch comes at 29:25. Deuteronomy doesn’t explain the switch but surely Hebrews here helps us understand. One apostate man rising up in the church can bring a bunch of people down with him. That one shoot of bitterness can sprout and grow and spread in the church. And so, we are reminded that not only do we need to be concerned for our fellow saints that they would not fall away, we need to remember that it’s for our good too, to watch out for our brothers. We don’t want to be drug down with them if they fall away from the faith.
And so, I love how verse 15 brings together the concerns of peace and holiness with this reference to Deuteronomy 29. We are reminded of the blessed outcome of glory for those who stand firm in faith in Jesus. That blessed outcome is one of peace, where we dwell with God in holiness. And we are reminded of the opposite: the cursed outcome for those who turn away from their faith in God. There will be no peace for them even when they delude themselves with assurances of peace. Instead they have only in store for them the certain fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation we saw described in 10:27. May we then be people who hold fast in faith as we pursue this peace and holiness held out for God’s people.
Well then, in conclusion brothers and sisters I point you to the gospel behind this exhortation. It’s there in verse 15. It speaks there of the grace of God. Should we know this divine peace, it will be by the grace of God. Should we know this holiness by which we can see the holy God, it will be by the grace of God. We saw a bit of that explained even back in verse 10 when it talked about God’s parenting of us as his children. There it talked about how God’s parental discipline of us results in our partaking of the holiness of God. Don’t miss that such is the grace of God at work in our lives. I think it is easy to make God’s grace seem so mysterious. Like we are just expecting some out of the blue “poof” and now I have peace or now I have holiness. But God’s grace comes to us, more often than not, in much more ordinary ways. Like how when he gives us some good old fatherly chastening when we sin. Even when we have to learn the hard way like that, we should be thankful that it’s God’s grace growing us toward the goal of that everlasting shalom and the holiness of beholding God in glory.
So then, I leave us with a final practical application in all this. Recognizing God’s grace behind our ability to pursue such peace and holiness, I point you to another means of that grace. It’s another thing that comes to us with that reference to Deuteronomy 29. How does Moses end that exhortation to them? What practical counsel does he give them so they could stand firm in their faith to the one true God? Did he give them some mysterious secret tip? No, he ended it in that classic verse of Deuteronomy 29:29. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” This too is grace from God and a help he gives us to pursue this peace and holiness: the Word of God and even the laws therein. Let us make use of them in this pursuit of holiness and peace; not thinking that our growth and victory is of our own doing, but realizing that this too is another way that God’s grace is at work to see us safely through this journey of faith to glory. Amen.
Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.