The last time Abby and I went hiking, we nearly died.
We went for a weekend getaway to Beavers Bend State Park in Oklahoma and decided to hike a trail called the “Skyline,” which, at seven miles, was the longest one on the map. “Easy,” we thought. Abby ran marathons. I often walked six to ten miles on the weekend. Walking seven miles would be a good workout. We’d leave early and be back in time for lunch.
It never occurred to us that walking in the mountains would be a teensy bit harder than we were used to.
I don’t remember when the panic first set in.
By the first mile I was out of trail mix, but still enjoying the hike.
By the second mile I was out of Abby’s trail mix and running low on water. To our surprise, it was already lunchtime. I began to worry.
By the third mile we were lost. I remember one long stretch of forest where the ground was completely covered in leaves with no discernible path. Where were we?
I looked at the hand-drawn photocopied map we were given at the park office. Nothing made sense. “Is this creek this squiggly line here? If so, then maybe the dashed line is just over there and it’ll take us right to this symbol of a horse trapped in a box.”
As the sun began its descent behind the mountains, I silently began making funeral plans. Abby would probably be the first to die and I would valiantly carry her body as far as I could before succumbing to dehydration. Or I could just leave her. I imagined that years from now a park ranger would find our corpses lying in a gully, shriveled up like old mummies. I began to panic…
Then we heard something. Children laughing!
We picked up our pace and came upon a big river. We saw a group of young canoers. Then we hit a trail with a sign that read, “Parking Lot, 0.5 miles.”
We found the path! And we stuck to it.
I cried tears of joy as we stumbled upon a snow-cone stand by the parking lot. Sour apple never tasted so sweet.
The fifth and final warning in Hebrews is all about the dangers of straying from the Christian path, stumbling back into Judaism, and missing the blessings of the eternal kingdom.
Renew Your Strength
The author urged the Hebrews to treat the Christian life like an endurance race and to persevere until the end (Heb 12:1-2; cf. Ps 19:5). Otherwise, if they gave up the race, abandoned Christ, and returned to Judaism, they risked losing their inheritance of ruling with Christ. The author didn’t want to see that happen.
The Hebrews also needed to know the difficulties they faced had a purpose as part of God’s discipline, born out of love for His children. Believers should accept that discipline, and profit from it, even if we don’t appreciate it at the time (Heb 12:3-11).
12:12-13. Therefore, instead of being like runners who were about to give up—hands hanging, knees buckling—the author urged the Hebrews to strengthen their hands which hang down, and strengthen their feeble knees, and finish the race. They needed spiritual reinvigoration!
Instead of stumbling down the crooked path to Judaism, they should make straight paths for their feet (cf. Prov 4:25-26) and single-mindedly pursue faith in Christ. Otherwise, if they changed course and left for Judaism they might influence the weaker brethren (the lame), who could follow them into apostasy.
However, if the Hebrews stayed the course and kept the faith, persevering through trail and temptation, those weaker brethren would see their good example, grow stronger in their own faith (be healed), and avoid spiritual harm (become dislocated).
We Must Pursue Holiness
The fact is, people are watching you. You have an influence. So while we are all individually responsible to God for how we have lived, we are also responsible for how our lives have influenced others. That’s a lesson every parent understands. Like it or not, everyday we’re setting an example for our kids to follow. Will it be good or bad? It is the same in the life of faith. We set an example for others and have an influence over them.
12:14. Hence, it is important for believers to pursue peace with all people (including believers, the weaker brethren, and non-believers). We must be like Melchizedek “the king of peace” (Heb 7:2) and like “the God of peace” (Heb 13:30). Peace leads people to Christ.
We should also pursue holiness, of which there are three types.
First, there is positional holiness. We receive positional holiness the moment we believe in Jesus for eternal life (cf. 1 Cor 1:30). It is not something we can pursue by works. However, we can pursue it in the sense of having our minds renewed by that truth (Rom 12:1-2) and by having that truth abide in us (John 15:7).
Second, there is practical holiness. Believers should be progressively sanctified in this life, becoming increasingly free from servitude to sin. Practical holiness is not automatic. It depends on following Paul’s advice in Romans 5–8. Not all believers become equally holy in this sense, hence, it must be pursued.
Third, there is eschatological holiness. This holiness is related to the Messianic kingdom, where overcoming Christians will be specially garbed in white robes, representing their practical holiness (Matt 22:1-14; cf. Rev 19:8).
When the author says that without holiness no one will see the Lord, he might mean that if believers are not pursuing peace and holiness no one will see the Lord in them. As Jesus told the apostles, if they loved one another, “all will know that you are My disciples” (John 13:35).
Alternatively, this seeing might refer to a privileged meeting with the Lord in the kingdom, such as the one described in the Parable of the Wedding Feast, where some believers are “chosen” to have a special audience with the King (Matt 22:1-14; cf. Rev 19:8).
12:15-17. The Hebrews needed to finish their race lest anyone fall short of the grace of God. In the New Covenant, the Hebrews were given grace in the form of unlimited spiritual resources to enable them to live abundant lives for Christ. But they could fail to take advantage of those resources.
Indeed, the author was worried the Hebrews would become like bitter roots [root of bitterness] that poison the drinking water, defiling many (cf. Deut 29:18). Their behavior could make the wider believing community spiritually sick. In which case, they would lose their Millennial blessings. If they were unfaithful and broke their covenant bonds to Jesus, they would be like fornicator[s] who would have no inheritance in the kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 6:9-11). They would suffer the fate of profane people like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. To be profane means to treat sacred things in an irreverent way, just as Esau reckoned God’s blessings to be less valuable than stew. Would the Hebrews be as foolish and treat the New Covenant blessings as worthless? Would they sell their Millennial birthright for temporal comforts too? If so, there would be a serious consequence. For you know that afterward, when Esau wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. Esau regretted what he did. He even repented of it. But it was too late. His repentance was rejected. The consequences of his rebellion were irrevocable. He lost his inheritance forever.
The Hebrews would lose theirs too, if they profaned the Messiah’s New Covenant.
Two Covenants, Two Motivations
12:18-24. The author once again drew a familiar contrast between the Old and New Covenants, between the wilderness generation and the Hebrews. The Hebrews were attracted to Judaism, so the author wanted to remind them of how terrifying it was.
The Old Covenant was accompanied by visible manifestations that were downright frightening: For you have not come to the mountain (Sinai) that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. This is not a welcoming scene. This is not a scene to fill you with joy, but with dread. As Paul said, the Law was a ministry of death, condemnation, curses, and wrath (2 Cor 3:7, 9; Gal 3:10; Rom 4:15). It was such a heavy yoke the Israelites could not endure what was commanded.
Is that what the Hebrews wanted to return to? Did they really want to return to something so terrifying that even Moses, the great example of the faith, was “exceedingly afraid and trembling”?
By contrast, Jesus gave us a more glorious Covenant and a better hope (Heb 7:19; 2 Cor 3:9). It was not one based on shadowy types and promises, but on their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Instead of coming to Sinai, they had come to Mount Zion (where Messiah would return), to the city of the living God, the heavenly (not merely the earthly) Jerusalem. Here was the reality of what was long promised! At Sinai, Israel had only seen the mountain shrouded in dark clouds, but these believers would soon see a cloud of witness, such as innumerable company of angels, the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven (a reference to overcomers?), and God the Judge of all.
That great heavenly company will also include the spirits of just men who were not yet resurrected, but made perfect by the blood of sprinkling.
And most of all, the Hebrews had come to Jesus the Mediator who’s blood speaks better things than that of Abel. Abel was murdered by his brother. His blood called out for justice (Gen 4:10). By contrast, even though Christ was murdered by His brethren, His blood called out for mercy to all who believe. It was that mercy, and love, and grace, that lay at the heart of the New Covenant.
If Sinai inspired terror, Zion should inspire joy. Instead of cowering, or running back to Judaism, the believers should want to approach that company of blessings in haste!
The Passing of Heaven and Earth
12:25-29. Since in the last days God was speaking by His Son (Heb 1:1-2), the Hebrews dared not refuse Him who speaks.
The author reminded them of the consequences Israel faced when they failed to heed God’s Word and rebelled against Moses: For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, during the time of Moses’ leadership, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven. Rebelling against the Messiah would be even worse, especially given how the Messianic kingdom was at stake.
The Hebrews needed to be reminded that the Messiah would come back soon to establish His kingdom, and when He did, He would return in judgment. “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.”
In previous articles, I noted how the warnings passages in Hebrews could be very severe. They point to a punishment beyond normal temporal discipline. The author had a catastrophe in mind. That is evident here too. The author warned about the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. This is a quote from Haggai, which speaks about the Tribulation before the end of time. As Arnold Fruchtenbaum explains,
[T]he shaking on Mount Sinai was symbolic of the future, final shaking of the heavens and earth. There was a shaking in history whose voice then shook the earth…but there will also be a future shaking. He then quoted Haggai 2:6, which deals with that final shaking by referring to the shaking that will occur before the Second Coming. This final shaking consists of the judgments of the Great Tribulation that precede the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom. In Jewish apocalyptic literature, this verse was interpreted as speaking of the final eschatological earthquake involving the entire cosmos. In the past, God shook only the earth but, in the future, God plans to shake both the heavens and the earth. This will occur in conjunction with the Second Coming. From Haggai 2:6 he draws a present application because there is a shaking, which is soon to come. This shaking will destroy Jerusalem and the Temple. It is the shaking of A.D. 70.1
As Peter said, one day the earth will not only be shaken, but will burn away (2 Pet 3:10). Nothing of the old creation will remain. It will be time for the new creation, when believers will receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, a permanent order that will never pass away. The Messianic kingdom will be eternal.
Given that, the author urged the Hebrews to have grace, and take advantage of the spiritual resources available from their High Priest (cf. 4:14-16). Then we may serve God, according to the Melchizedekian priesthood, not according to the Levitical one. If the Hebrews were attracted to the rituals of the Temple, they should know that Christian worship, though less outwardly glorious, should still be marked by reverence and godly fear. After all, the same God who used to reside in the Temple, and was now worshipped in the New Covenant, was still a consuming fire. His very presence melts the hills like wax, and burns up useless deeds like fire burns hay, wood, and stubble. Moses twice reminded Israel that God was a consuming fire. He told them that fire would consume Israel’s enemies (Deut 9:3). But he also warned Israel herself would be subject to it, if they turned to idolatry (Deut 4:23-25). The warning applied to the Hebrews too.
However, if the Hebrews obeyed God, stayed true to Christ, and stayed on the New Covenant path, all that they suffered, all the temptations they resisted, would turn out for their good. The Messiah would come with His reward. He would be choosing companions to rule with Him. Would the Hebrews be found worthy? Will we? As Paul said, “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Tim 2:12a).
1 Emphasis added. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2005), p. 185.