Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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. – Hebrews 12:12-17 ESV
Even with your eyes focused on Jesus, the Christian life can be difficult. As sons and daughters of God we will experience His loving discipline so that we might share in His holiness. And as the author of Hebrews reminded us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 ESV). Learning the life of holiness in the midst of a world and culture that is diametrically opposed to it is anything but easy. But holiness is to be our goal, because holiness is God’s will for us. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). Sanctification refers to our ongoing transformation into holiness and righteousness. Ultimately, God’s goal for us is our glorification, the day in which we will be completely free from the influence of sin and totally righteous in His eyes, both positionally and morally. Paul puts it this way: “but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:23-24 ESV). He told the Galatian believers, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5 ESV). Redeemed bodies, free from the effects of sin and a righteousness unhampered by a sin nature – that is to be our hope. That is to be our goal. Yet while it is something promised to us in the hereafter, we are to strive for it in the here and now.
We are to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV). The Greek word translated “strive” is diōkō and it means “to seek after eagerly, earnestly endeavour to acquire” (Greek Lexicon :: G1377 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible). But it can also mean “to persecute, in any way whatever to harass, trouble, molest one.” In this world where enmity and hostility are the norm, we are to pursue peace with all men. When the world returns our love with hatred, we are to persevere and keep on loving regardless of what happens. And we are to pursue holiness in the same way, persistently and purposefully. It will not be easy. That’s why the author tells us “take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong” (Hebrews 12:12-13 NLT). Notice that this is not to be an individual journey, but a shared one. “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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy” (Hebrews 12:15-16 ESV). We have a mutual responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ to see that we all strive for holiness. No one is to be left behind. The pursuit of holiness is not a solo event. It is a team sport. We are members of the body of Christ and so, we are in this together.
The author warns us against three things: grace-lessness, bitterness and unholiness. Back in chapter four he wrote, “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 ESV). Grace is undeserved favor or “the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith” (Greek Lexicon :: G5485 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible). Grace is made available to us by God. But to live grace-lessly is to attempt to live our lives without His help and apart from His strength. Holiness is impossible without God’s help. We cannot make ourselves holy. It is a work of the Holy Spirit within us. But we can become grace-less through prayerlessness. We can fail to enjoy God’s life-giving grace when we refuse to spend time in His Word and the fellowship with His people.
And grace-lessness can lead to bitterness. When we fail to live in God’s grace availing ourselves of His power, we become defeated. Our pursuit of holiness becomes nothing more than a self-fueled effort in futility. We try and fail. We strive, in our own strength, and experience nothing more than disappointment and disillusionment. This “root” can spread unseen through the body of Christ, strangling the life out of the fellowship and damaging its witness. When we see our brothers and sisters in Christ failing to avail themselves of the grace of God, we must be willing to step in and speak up. Grace-lessness is infectious and highly dangerous. It can become like a cancer, spreading unseen through the body of Christ, sapping the life and vitality from the people of God.
And the end result of grace-lessness and bitterness is unholiness. The author describes it as defilement. The Greek word is miainō and it means “to defile, pollute, sully, contaminate, soil” (Greek Lexicon :: G3392 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible). It was a word often used to refer to the dying or staining of a cloth. Grace-lessness can lead to bitterness and bitterness can end up contaminating the body of Christ, leaving it less than holy. The author uses Esau as an example of unholiness. Esau was the brother of Jacob who sold his birthright for a bowl of porridge. He was driven by his passions, his physical appetites, and gave up what was of value for what was temporal and, ultimately, worthless. And while he would live to regret his decision, it was irreversible. Esau was consumed with the here-and-now. And for the fleeting pleasure of a bowl of stew, he sold his future birthright. John Calvin describes someone like Esau as…
…those in whom the love of the world so holds sway and prevails, that they forget heaven as men who are carried away by ambition, addicted to money and riches, given over to gluttony, and entangled with other kinds of pleasures, and give the spiritual kingdom of Christ either no place or the last place in their concerns. – William B. Johnston, trans., Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter
The walk of faith can be long and arduous, but it is not impossible. Peter would have us remember, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:3-4 ESV). Through His grace, we have what we need to strive after holiness. We may experience drooping hands and weak knees, but we have the power of the indwelling Spirit at our disposal. Holiness is not only possible, but inevitable. It is the promise of God. And our pursuit of it in this life reveals our confidence that we will receive it in full in the life to come.