“Pursue And Watch” (Hebrews 12: 12-15)

12 Don’t be the boxer who is “out on their feet”; lift up your feeble, dangling hands[1]and brace your weakened knees.  13 Make straight paths (“wheel tracks”) with/for your feet so that the lame among you won’t be put out of joint, but will heal.14

Pursue[2]peace with everyone,[3]and the holiness without which no one will see God; 15 Watchcarefully that no one falls short of God’s favor,[4]and that no root of  bitterness[5]springs up to trouble you and throw many others off the path.

16 Watchthat no one becomes wicked and profane like Esau, the son of Isaac, who for a single meal sold his invaluable birthright.  17 You know from the stories of the patriarchs that later, when he wished to claim his blessing, he was turned away even though he shed bitter tears over it. 

As always, I think context is important. Here are those same verses with some context added. 

Pursue peace (common welfare) with everyone in and out of the church. Do so persistently and tirelessly. Match the zeal of your persecutors with the zeal by which you do good to and for them.[6]

Pursue holy sanctification and purity (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Matthew 5:8 ). No one will “see” God without these things; that is, no one will enjoy or commune with God and fully experience the blessings of Christ without truly setting themselves apart from the world and settling into life in His Kingdom.

Watch carefully for the spiritual welfare of others. Keep an eye out for those who may be failing to experience or understand God’s initial saving and ongoing sustaining grace.[7]

Watch that no false teaching or false people (”root of the bitterness”[8]) grow in your midst to trouble you and knock people out of the race.

Watch that no one becomes wicked and profane like Esau, the son of Isaac, who for a single meal sold his invaluable birthright. He traded his honor for his appetites; he had no reverence for what was sacred. 17 When he wished to claim the blessings due to him as a firstborn son, he could not reverse the effects of his action even though he shed bitter tears over what he was missing.

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If I may summarize how we ‘make straight paths’ in the 21st century::

Get along with folks if at all possible. Just…be a decent human being. To everybody. The effect of the gospel should be felt by society.  People should know that God’s people live among them because God’s love, truth and grace invade the city through His people. 

“Pursue” is the same word as “persecute,” oddly enough[9]. This isn’t a calling to lounge our way through life. We should be reaching out to make peace with the same vigor of those who try to disrupt our peace. 

Take a moment to think of the person or group of people that right now you think offers the greatest threat to the church. Think of the kind of person or group who embodies wickedness to you. Think of those who you think are most set in coming against you because you are a Christian.

Now, how have you been “pursing peace” with them? “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If we want peace, that’s on us. It is our calling to make peace, not theirs calling. Jesus gave his life to make peace between us and God; I wonder what it looks like for us to give our lives to pass on this legacy of peacemaking. 

2. Embrace holiness (being “set apart”).Holiness is a status God gives to us. God is holy; when we enter His family, we become holy. I’m a Weber. I can embrace the Weber name or not. How do I do this? Hang out with Webers; go to reunions; take seriously that we carry the Weber name – and tell puns. That’s a key part. 

Holiness is not something we earn. God adopts us into it. But once we are holy, we can embrace it and experience the blessings that follow, or struggle with it and always wonder what this “good life in Christ” is that people keep going on and on about. Holiness is a status,but the appreciation of holiness is a choice.

  • Have we tried living by the principles of the Kingdom rather than the principles of the empire?

  • Have tried holy generosity? 

  • Have we tried holy hospitality? 

  • Have we tried holy purity of mind and action?

  • Have we tried putting away anger? 

  • Have we  tried honoring all people? 

  • Have we tried honoring our parents? 

  • Have we tried being content instead of being envious? 

  • Have we tried using a soft answer to turn away wrath? 

  • Have we tried submitting to and loving our spouses?

 This all sounds a lot like forms of pursuing peace. We lack peace because we lack holiness. Do we want to experience and create peace? We must first pursue holiness. 

3. Look out for those around you.The answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is, “Yes” in the sense that we are responsible to be involved in the lives of our spiritual family. 

  • Their burdens are our burdens. 

  • Their loneliness is our responsibility. 

  • Their grief and pain is our responsibility. 

  • Their sin – the choice of it and the consequences – is our burden to help them bear. 

 This does mean we have to do this for everybody; that’s impossible. But we have to do if for somebody. This does not mean we will answer to God for their choices, but we will answer to God for whether or not we made the choice to be faithfully present as they made them. We must be proactive people. There is something to be said for “herd immunity” even in the spiritual realm. The general health of the group protects the specific health of the individual. I pursue holiness and peace not just for my sake, but for your sake. You do the same for me.

4. Guard your theology. As we’ve been going through the NT letters, this has come up over and over again: don’t let anybody shipwreck your faith[10]with bad theology. Here it is described as the means that the “root of bitterness” springs up. We can’t get God wrong. We can’t get salvation, and sin, and redemption wrong. We can’t distort the heart of the Gospel. It will lead toward bitterness toward God, which will lead to idolatry (#DeuteronomyConnection). This is why the history of the church is full of creeds and councils. They were seriously committed to making sure that the created a path (wheel tracks) that was true and stabilizing. 

  • This past Easter, a pastor friend posted about how it was just fine to believe that Jesus only rose spiritually. No, it’s not. 

  • Can God heal? Yes. Must God heal? No. If you think he must, watch out for bitterness when He does not.

  • Does the prayer of faith have power? Yes. Is God manipulated by it? No. God is not our puppet. If you think He is, watch out for bitterness when He does not respond like you think He should.

  • Does God bless His children? Yes. Does it have to be money and health? No. He even blesses us with discipline.

  • Does the Holy Spirit give spiritual gifts? You bet. Does everybody have to have certain ones, and are they a sign that you are a spiritual rock star? No. 

 I could go on and on. Here’s the danger of what has been called “heresy” throughout church history. It was often the case that the teaching itself would probably not shipwreck someone’s faith. It was where the path would eventually take them that was the problem.  Here’s the formula: misunderstand God > disillusioned with God > bitter toward God > leave God.This is why even small distortions – Solomon’s “little foxes” – must be taken seriously. It’s why, like the Bereans, we listen to and read everybody with our biblical filters on in order to discern wheat from chaff. 

5. Train your appetites to know and long for what is sacred.Commentators note that Esau was gluttonous in two key appetites of the flesh: food and women. I think this is the point of those two words that describe him: they are showing us the forest, not the trees. 

I’ve been listening to a series on the Bible Project about how the Old Testament has an ongoing question: will we live like people or animals?[11]Animals are at the mercy of their instincts and appetites; image bearers of God are not. We have them, but we are not defined by them – or at least we shouldn’t be. 

Biblically, however, it’s not enough to simply learn what to say “no” to. If we just clean stuff out and leave and empty space in our lives, it will fill back up accidentally or purposefully. We also must learn what to say “yes” to. We want to train our appetites to hunger for the things of God. 

The key thing: do not treat as profane that which is holy. Matthew 7:6 records Jesus saying:

"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, the pigs may trample them under their feet, and the dogs turn and tear you to pieces.”

 The point is not that people are pigs or dogs; the point is that there are some things that do no belong in dog houses and pig pens. If we are not careful, the precious and beautiful things we have can be squandered if we treat that which is holy (set apart) as if it is common.

And what is holy? If you are a follower of Jesus, everything you have been given is holy (“set apart”) because you are holy. We set everything apart for God’s design and purpose. Our minds are not common, so we protect them; our hearts are not common, so we guard them; our sexuality is not common, so we cover and steward it; our money, our eyes and ears, our speech, our computers, our radios, our wardrobe, our children, our spouse… 

Do not trample on these things or give them to those who will. Do not tear these things apart, or give them to those who will. We are holy stewards of God’s holy gifts, and we must know the purpose for which God has given these things to us, lest we become the animals who ravage God’s good world rather than the image bearers who honor it.
These are the things that make the “straight paths” in which we thrive and heal. 

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[1]Isaiah 35:3.

[2]Same word as persecute. See Matthew 5:10-11

[3]“Those trials seem to have arisen mainly from persecution, and he exhorts them to manifest a spirit of kindness toward all - even though they were engaged in persecuting them. This is the temper of the gospel. We are to make war with sin, but not with people; with bad passions and corrupt desires, but not with our fellow-worms.” (Barne’s Notes On The Bible)

[4]The Greek is, "lest any one be wanting or lacking" There is no intimation in the words used here that they already had grace and might fall away - whatever might he true about that - but that there was danger that they might be found at last to be deficient in that religion which was necessary to save them. Whether this was to be by losing the religion which they now had, or by the fact that they never had any however near they may have come to it - the apostle does not here intimate, and this passage should not be used in the discussion of the question about failing from grace. (Barne’s Notes On The Bible).

[5]“Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.”(Dueteronomy 29:18)

[6]“He exhorts them to manifest a spirit of kindness toward all - even though they were engaged in persecuting them. This is the temper of the gospel. We are to make war with sin, but not with people; with bad passions and corrupt desires, but not with [others].” (Barne’s Notes On The Bible)

[7]The Greek is, "lest any one be wanting or lacking" There is no intimation in the words used here that they already had grace and might fall away - whatever might he true about that - but that there was danger that they might be found at last to be deficient in that religion which was necessary to save them. Whether this was to be by losing the religion which they now had, or by the fact that they never had any however near they may have come to it - the apostle does not here intimate, and this passage should not be used in the discussion of the question about failing from grace.  (Barne’s Notes On The Bible).

[8]“Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.”Deuteronomy 29:18

[9]See Matthew 5:10-11

[10]1 Timothy 1:19

[11]Go to the “Son Of Man” series in the Bible Project. https://thebibleproject.com/podcasts/the-bible-project-podcast/