We started this chapter by looking at the Race of faith, then we considered the Discipline of faith, and now today we come to what we might call the Exercise of faith.
We said that the goal of God bringing discipline into our lives as described in vs 4-11 was righteousness. It’s called in vs11, the peaceable fruit of righteousness. That is the purpose of discipline, to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ as we share in the suffering of Christ. Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus learned obedience from the things that He suffered. And we are also told that a servant is not greater than his master. So God brings discipline into our lives to produce the fruit of righteousness, that we might be more like Jesus.
Now the author mixes metaphors here somewhat. He jumps between the metaphor of a race to that of a fight, and then he interjects the metaphors of a plant; either bearing fruit or referring to the root of a plant. But overall, I think the predominant metaphor here is that of a race or an athletic contest. And that race, or the goal of our race is what he is referring to in the passage before us today.
If I were to break down this passage into four points, capitalizing on the metaphor of training for the race, I might outline it as three things we are to be, and one thing we are not to be. In light of that maybe I should have named the message, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” But that is not the title, nor the point of my message. It really is about the practical application of the doctrines that we have been learning in the book of Hebrews. Things that aren’t really an option, but since these doctrines are true, this is what we are to do.
We have already been told in vs1 that we are to lay aside the weights and the sin which so easily beset us as we run the race of faith. And we have been told that we are to endure discipline so that God may train us to be holy. Now we are being told that we are to exercise our faith through the process of sanctification that we might lay hold of the prize.
There are four steps or things we are to be or not to be then in this exercise of faith as elucidated by the writer of Hebrews. The first I might summarize by “Be strong.” The second, is “Be healed.” The third is to “Be sanctified.” And the fourth is to “Be not defiled.” I realize that is not the best outline in the world, but perhaps it will serve to give us some pegs to hang onto as we go through this text.
First then, is “Be strong.” I cannot say that phrase without thinking of a similar exhortation by the Apostle Paul who said in 1Cor. 16:13 “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” There is a problem today in the church, which obviously was also a concern to the church in Paul’s day, of weak kneed Christians. And men, particularly were guilty of weak kneed Christianity.
I was thinking, especially in light of our culture today, about what does it mean to be a man? You might say it means you are guilty. Men, it seems, are the reason behind all of society’s problems, at least according to the PC culture. I happen not to agree with that, though I do think a lot of our problems can be traced back to men. However, I can assure you that being a man is not found in your ability to legally drink alcohol, or that you have a career, or by some measure of your sexual prowess. Being a man in the Biblical sense is defined as taking responsibility. God has given the man the responsibility of leadership in the home and in the church. But far too many men have relinquished their responsibility in both of those areas to women. It’s not that women can’t do it, but it’s that God has given the responsibility to the man. So being strong and acting like men doesn’t mean that it’s always your way or the highway, but that you are responsible for the well being of your family. And incidentally, when the Bible says to act like a man, it means to be a man of God. Not a man of the world. Not a business man. Not a man about town. But a man of God who will lay down his life for the sake of his wife and children. Too many men use the excuse that they are taking care of their family when in reality they are chasing money and prestige in their career. But if you are not able to take care of the spiritual needs of your family then you are out of line with the primary responsibility that God has given you.
Now this passage before us is not just about men. But I think that we needed to say those things to the men first of all. But the exhortation in Hebrews is to all of the church, men, women and children. Notice vs12, “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble…” All of us have our weaknesses. But a runner, or a person who is engaged in a contest, if he wants to be successful identifies his weak areas and works on them to make them stronger. Your strong areas are usually your go to areas. They are things in which you have confidence. But the weak areas are the things that will keep you from running well, and ultimately winning.
The devil plays to your weak areas. He doesn’t waste time going after those areas in which you’re strong. But he is like the lion that looks for the weak members of the flock. He goes after those that are struggling, that are falling behind, those that have some weakness which he can use to his advantage in order to take them down.
How do you strengthen those weak areas? Well first of all, don’t wait until you are in a crisis to realize that you should have done some exercise to strengthen those areas. The Bible says, “Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.” The point isn’t that God isn’t going to be around when you get into trouble, but rather that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When you think you stand, take heed lest you fall. Work on those problem areas before the storm hits, and you won’t have to deal with all the consequences of weakness when you go through those trials which come to us all. And the most effective way of strengthening those weak areas is through the word of God. Psalm 119:11 says “your word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against you.” That’s how we are strengthened. And that’s why we need to be under sound preaching as well. A God ordained pastor is going to preach the things you need to hear, the whole counsel of the word. Not just tickle your ears.
Now there is another way that this verse can be looked at as well. And that is in regards to your responsibility to the church. That we are to strengthen the hands and knees that are weak. All the members of the church are members of the same body. And all the parts of the body are necessary. Here in this example he is highlighting the hands and feet, which all Christians are supposed to be. And so another way of looking at this is as a member of this church, we should be strengthening one another, especially those members who are weak. We should be encouraging them, helping them, sharing with them, to build them up in the faith.
That goes back to chapter 10:24-25 which says, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” There is a tendency sometimes on the part of members of the church to say that they don’t really get too much out of a particular service or activity in the church so they don’t think that they need to go. But when they say that it shows that they are still immature in their faith. As we mature we should be more focused on encouraging others rather than being encouraged ourselves. Church is not just about meeting our needs, but meeting the needs of others. Just a pat on the back or a hug, or even a little bit of conversation after church can do a lot for someone who is weak, whose knees are about to buckle, who might be about to quit the race.
Secondly, we need to “be healed.” Now I can see a few folks ears prick up when I mention being healed. We love to focus on the physical healing. And I will confess that this word is often used in relation to physical healing. But it also can mean spiritual healing. Now the metaphor of a race is being referred to in this context, and we should recognize that this race is not an actual, physical race he is talking about, but a spiritual race. And so if it’s a spiritual race, then we can assume it’s referring to spiritual healing.
But let’s look at the verse. “and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” What I think this is talking about is the person who was running, but got off the track. I think it’s talking about the Christian who is in danger of drifting away. Of turning off the course. I think it’s speaking about the person who has taken his eyes off Jesus and found himself off the path of righteousness and fallen into sin. And as a result, God has brought discipline or correction into his life in the way of chastisement, which the author likens here to being lame.
You know there is well known illustration which has received a lot of notoriety in the past from various preachers, which talks about the shepherd sometimes breaking a lamb’s leg in order to keep it from wandering off. And the story goes that sometimes when a sheep just won’t stay with the flock, the shepherd might have to break the sheep’s leg, and then he must carry the sheep. That’s the only way for the shepherd to keep the sheep from straying. And a lot of preachers have had a hard time with that illustration. They say such a thing would never happen. That the story was made up. But I read once an article from a minister from the Billy Graham crusades who was responsible for leading certain evangelistic teams into the Middle East. And this man, I forget his name, one day noticed a shepherd carrying a lamb upon his shoulders which had a bandage around his leg. And upon asking the guide what had happened to the lamb, the guide told him that it was a common practice for the shepherd to break the leg of the lamb that constantly strayed from the fold, in order to train him to stay with the shepherd. So in light of this man’s story, I think there is some validity in this illustration.
Now whether or not that is on the mind of the author here I don’t know. But he has made it abundantly clear that God does chastise his children. And here the reference to being lame and being healed would indicate that when you respond correctly to the chastisement of the Lord, then there is healing that comes from God. God doesn’t chastise just to punish, but to correct. He wants a renewed relationship. He wants you to stay near to Him. James 4:8-10 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” He is speaking of the proper response to chastisement, to cleanse yourself from the sin which has injured you, and God will raise you up again.
And incidentally, James uses this same word as this author for healed in James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” There are some who infer from that that James is not talking about physical healing, but spiritual healing, because it is in relation to confessing your sins.
So the same word for healing is found here in Hebrews. And I can assure you that at least in Hebrews it refers to spiritual healing. As 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Let me tell you something, if you’re a Christian, then sin will make you sick. Your sins will find you out. I read a sign somewhere the other day that said that sin is like buying on a credit card. You might enjoy it now, but you will pay dearly later. There are consequences to sin. Sin injures you, it makes you lame. It hinders or even stops altogether your progress in the race. But you can receive healing, that you might be restored and be able to run again.
So be strong, be healed, and then be sanctified. Look at vs 14, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” Let me say that another way; be right with men and with God. Let’s just take the idea of being right with men first. This is such a major part of our Christianity and yet we make so little of it. It’s truth is emphasized again and again in the Bible. For instance, Paul says in Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” He says again in chapter 14 vs 19, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” Notice that he uses the same word, pursue peace. Hebrews says pursue peace. Run after peace. In this race which we run, run after peace with your fellow man. Not the absence of war, but the absence of strife, jealousy, envy, anger.
Peace is the fruit of the Spirit according to Gal. 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Jesus said in Matt. 5:8, the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall see God.” He goes on to speak of all the ways in which we are to treat one another, that we might have peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and so if we are to be like Jesus, we should be peaceable, humble, gentle, even as He was.
But tied closely to peace is holiness, or sanctification. We must not sacrifice holiness for the sake of peace. We don’t compromise holiness for the sake of just getting along with everyone, for the sake of not offending someone. But speak the truth in love if that be needed.
So, he says, pursue or run after peace and sanctification. Sanctification is practical holiness, or even better, practicing holiness. We practice what Jesus taught. And as we are obedient to His word, we are sanctified. Now the origin of the word sanctified means set apart. Set apart to God, set apart from sin. And it’s illustrated by the temple vessels that we made of gold, or silver or brass and then consecrated for use in the temple. They were not to be used for other purposes, for carnal purposes, but were sanctified for holy use. And then they were washed, and sprinkled by the blood of the sacrificial lamb. After all of that was completed, they were then used in service to the Lord.
That’s the picture of sanctification. We are set apart at our new birth for service to the Lord. WE are washed, we are sprinkled with the blood of the Lamb. And then we are to be used for service to God. Not just to be set on a shelf. The church is not a museum. But a place to serve the Lord. If the home is the hub of the family life, then the church is the hub of spiritual life. Sanctification is the working out of holiness in the church.
Phil. 2:12-13 says, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for [His] good pleasure.” We are to work out what we have become inwardly. If Christ is in us, then He is to be exercised through us.
There is a warning in this verse as well, “the sanctification without which, no one will see the Lord.” Now we are sanctified in salvation, set apart to God, but sanctification is also the process by which our righteousness is made manifest to others. And so perhaps that is what is meant by that phrase; no one will see the Lord. In other words, if the world doesn’t see Christ in us, then they won’t see Christ at all. It’s not enough to profess Christ, but we must let Christ live through us. We are intended to be lights in the world.
And that brings us to the last thing which is what we are not to be. Be not defiled. Vs.15, “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” I think that to come short of the grace of God means to come short of the purpose of God’s gift of salvation. I believe it’s possible to fail to come all the way to the goal of sanctification. It’s possible to come short of maturity as a believer. It’s possible to fall away or drift away and become un-useful to the kingdom. To frustrate the grace of God. I believe it’s possible to presume upon the grace of God and do nothing with the spiritual life that God has given you. Jesus spoke often of that principle of using what God has given you and multiplying it. So I think that is what is indicated here in falling short. It’s falling short of what God has purposed for us.
And as the author indicates, one way of doing that is by the root of bitterness causing trouble and defiling many. I think this is speaking of the life of the church. Now it may be more individualistic than congregational. But it’s likely it refers to a person or persons who are embittered over something, and while there may not be much on the surface to indicate that, underneath, inwardly something is eating at the person. And as such they start to cause trouble. They murmur or complain. They start to eat away at the fabric of the church, and as the text says, they cause the defilement of many.
We see that again and again in the book of Acts and in the writings of Paul to the Gentile churches. Men from the church in Jerusalem came and started causing dissension. Or some said I am of Apollos and others I am of Paul. Or as Jude says “For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”
What point this is making is that sin has to be dealt with. This root of bitterness is sin which is hidden from view on the surface, but exists inwardly. And eventually it comes out. The problem with this sort of bitterness is that by leaving it alone it doesn’t go away, but rather the roots go deeper and become more entwined around other living plants. And so when you finally have a problem and you have to deal with it, to root it out, it often destroys many other good plants in the process.
Now Esau is given as an illustration for all the points above. He is an illustration of a church member, so to speak, who seems to be part of the family, has all the benefits of the family, the physical requirements for inheritance of the blessings, and yet spiritually has fallen short of the grace of God. Such a person looks like a brother in Christ on the outside but spiritually they are embittered in their sin. They have never truly repented, and as such their sin is like a cancer that is eating away from the inside.
Notice that he calls Esau an immoral and godless person. This is not how you describe a believer. Jude in the passage I quoted while ago said that such persons who crept in to the church were ungodly persons. And he went on to say that they denied our only Master and Lord. That indicates the problem. It’s not that they don’t believe in the historicity of Jesus. But that they deny Him Lordship over their life. They have denied Him the place of Master over their life. They are willing to presume upon the grace of God, but Jude says that they have turned it into licentiousness. That means that they think they can live their life in sin and do what they want to do with impunity. God will forgive them, and so they don’t have to worry about sin.
Well, the writer of Hebrews calls that immorality. It’s loving the world. It’s immorality against God. He calls Esau a fornicator. There is no evidence of that in scripture. He’s saying that spiritually Esau is a fornicator. He loved his fleshly appetite more than he loved the things of God. He cared more about the world and the present than he did about the future kingdom of God and the Messiah who would come from the line of Jacob.
And as a such he paints a pretty apt picture of many professing Christians in the church today, who have sold their inheritance in heaven for a paltry meal here on earth. They have sold their soul for a tryst with the lusts of the world. Esau disdained his inheritance which had eternal implications, because he had a fleshy desire that he wanted filled immediately. There was an evangelist that by the name of Bob Jones who said many years ago, “never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.”
Finally, let me say this about the repentance of Esau. Esau cried many tears later when he found that he had lost his blessing to his brother Jacob. But his tears were not tears of repentance, but tears of rage. In Genesis we read that Esau swore in his wrath that he would kill Jacob. Who he wanted to repent was his father Isaac. He wanted Isaac to repent, to change his mind and take back the blessing that he had given Jacob. But Isaac could not do it, for it was the blessing of God, and so Isaac himself trembled when he considered how the purpose of God had been fulfilled in spite of his intentions. But the point I want to emphasize is that God did not reject Esau’s repentance, because Esau never did repent. His tears led to a plot to murder. But God always accepts the sincere prayer of repentance, the humble in heart.
The word of God tells us that God is always ready to hear, to forgive, to heal us of our iniquity, when we call upon Him in true repentance. The goal of God is to restore us, and to make us more like Christ. Christ is the goal, and we who are sanctified will see God. It’s a race that God has called us to run, and Christ is the goal, and we that are sanctified will one day see God face to face, and then we will be glorified. We will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. I urge you to stay the course, to run the race, to strengthen one another, to make straight paths for your feet, and examine yourselves to root out any sin which so easily besets you, and may cause you to fall short of the grace of God.
Romans 12:1-2 “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, [which is] your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”