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A Call to Holiness

Series: Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Feb 10, 1999

Hebrews 12:12-17

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Turn with me to Hebrews 12. In the previous weeks we have looked at Hebrews 11 in some detail and commented that there is a sense in which all of Hebrews 11 is a gigantic illustration of Hebrews 10:39 which had said that we ought to be those who have faith to the persevering of the soul. And so we get this glorious list of Old Testament saints who have persevered in faith and so have seen the salvation of God.

We have also observed that the logic of Hebrews argument for the first eleven chapters goes something like this. Having argued that Christ is better than any other mediator that there is, we are told to stick with the best, if I can steal that phrase from Mark Dever’s excellent message on Hebrews at the Mid-South Men’s Rally. We are to stick with Christ, recognizing if we leave Him, if we desert Him, there is no forgiveness, there is no fellowship with God.

The next message we get after this call for us to stay with Christ in the first ten chapters of Hebrews we find especially in the tenth chapter of Hebrews it says to stay with Christ and persevere in your faith, persevere to the end. Hebrews 11 is an illustration of some saints who did that. They persevered to the end in trust, in faith.

And last week when we looked at the very first few verses of Hebrews 12, we saw that that section, Hebrews 12:1-7, and in a sense the whole of the chapter, draws a grand conclusion from Hebrews 11. And two or three things stand out in Hebrews 12:1-11. First it is stressed there that Christians must purpose to grow in grace. The Christian life just doesn’t happen. You have to purpose to grow in grace. You don’t sit back in your easy chair and come to maturity. You purpose to grow in grace.

It is also important to note in verses 4-6 that Christ warns Christians to prepare for His discipline. And he basically says this: the fight against sin never ends in this life and so we need to prepare ourselves for God’s discipline.

And then in verses 7 through 11, he goes on to stress three things to us about discipline. First, even though it is hard he says discipline is good. Secondly, he says discipline is in fact a proof that we belong to God, that we are His children. Thirdly, he says that discipline yields growth in the Christian life. And for all those reasons he says we should not so much dread His discipline as we should recognize what He is doing in our lives to grow us up.

We had a tremendously moving report in the Session meeting on Monday night when a member of our Session, of our congregation, reported on a long battle he has had with cancer. And in that report he said, “I want to say that this in many ways has been the hardest three years of my life. But I want to say this without seeming to downplay what I have been through, it has also been the best three years of my life, because I have appreciated more the gifts that God has given me and my family. I savor every day.”  And he has gotten good reports recently, but his comment was that he didn’t know what the future holds, so what?  Because what God was doing in his life was worth everything that he had been going through. Now that is an incredible statement of faith, but it is true. And people who undergo the Lord’s discipline know the truth of that.

I had another elder in my office this afternoon sharing a similar story, different kind of situation. Not a medical situation, but a struggle with a job. But the Lord had done the same thing in his life through the process of struggling with the loss of his job and the subsequent finding of another job after many, many months. The Lord had done great things in his life.

So many of us, I believe, in this room could stand up and testify how the Lord’s discipline has indeed yielded growth and a greater appreciation for Him and for His blessings than anything else He has ever done in our lives.

So with that as our backdrop, I’d like to look at Hebrews 12:12-17 because these individual exhortations to be faithful even in the midst of trial are now expanded. Now there is call on the part of the Author of Hebrews for us to make sure and look around ourselves in the congregation and encourage saints who may be struggling themselves. It’s not enough for us to purpose individually to pursue the Lord, to pursue faith, to pursue holiness. We’ve got to be concerned about our brothers and sisters in the congregation and that is what Hebrews 12:12-17 is about.  Let’s hear God’s word beginning in verse 12.  

Hebrews 12:12-17     

“Father, we thank You for this glorious passage and we pray now that we review it, that you would speak to our own hearts, applying the truth of Your word by the power of Your Holy Spirit. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.” 

The Christian’s walk in this life is not a solitary one. It may feel that way sometimes, it may feel like we are alone in that walk. But a Christian’s walk is not a solitary walk. We cannot go on in the Christian life without mutual support. We all, at times, need Christian friends to bolster flagging faith.

You know, the story of our growth in grace usually isn’t a straight angle line heading up that direction. Growth often comes in jolts that look a little bit like the stock market. There is a nice incline every once in awhile and then there is a plunge. Then you start working your way up to 1,000 again. In those times we especially need the strengthening help of friends in Christ.

The passage we are going to consider tonight addresses just that matter. Even while it sets forth specific duties to which we are called, I would like for you to see two or three different things.  

I. Brace yourselves and move straight ahead: don’t look back.

First, if you look at verses 12 and 13, you are going to see Hebrews give a call for us to be resolute in our walk in Christ and to be consistent in that walk. I think we could summarize the message of these verses in these words, “Brace yourselves and move straight ahead. Don’t look back. Brace yourselves.”  You are going to go through some discipline, some trials. Get ready for it. But move ahead and don’t look back.

Having called us individually in verses 1-11 to perseverance, the author of Hebrews is now telling us to help one another in that fight of faith. Notice the words:  “Therefore strengthen the hands that are week and the knees that are feeble.”  In other words, we are not only ourselves, to brace ourselves to be ready to persevere, we are to be looking around us at our brothers and sisters and asking the question, “How can I bolster their faith?  How can I help them along as they face the fight of faith?”

That is stressed not only in verses 12 through 13, but again in verses 15-17. Our eyes turn to the brethren and we make sure that certain things are not happening in their lives.

Now much of the language right here in Hebrews 12:12 and 13 is from the Old Testament. In fact, there are two passages in the Old Testament where you will find it. Turn to Isaiah 35:3, you will see in the first passage that this exhortation is drawn from. We read,  “Encourage the exhausted and strengthen the feeble.”  Now the author of Hebrews is drawing on that idea when he says “strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble.”

Look at the second half, “straight paths for your feet,” and you will find that in Proverbs 4:26. “Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established.” 

I’d like to look at both sides of that first phrase in Hebrews 12:12 and 13 because they are both very important. The first exhortation is a call for us to help brace weaker brethren for their trails with a view to them persevering, with a view to them getting through those trials. This reminds us of the need for our own spiritual resolution and for the need for us to assist our brothers and sisters in their trials and difficulties.

Donald Guthrie says this:  “The words here are vivid with encouragement. Drooping  hands and weak knees are typical of people with low spirits. The portray persons who have become incapable of action through sheer exhaustion.”  The author is saying to look around at the brethren and if you see brethren who are in that condition, you do your best to strengthen them. You be concerned that they go on in the faith and get through their trials.

The second half of the phrase in verse 13 is an exhortation for us to help them stay on the way or the path of Christianity. You know that often in both the Old and the New Testaments, our walk with God is described in terms of a path, road, or a way. Even the description “a walk with God” to talk about our relationship with Him draws on that metaphor of a road or a path or a way.

In this passage, we are being called to keep them on the straight way. Listen again to what Wilson says,  “No advance in the Christian way is possible while the community halts between two opinions. They cannot follow the straight path of grace until they make a final break with Judaism.” All along in this book we have said there have been some in this congregation who thought about going back to Judaism. And you can see the picture of this. Here are people who are exhausted, they are tired, their joints are weak. In fact, some of them have sustained injuries to their limbs. Now what kind of a road do they want to walk on?  Do they want a road with ruts?  Do they want to ride on a wagon on a road with ruts or do they want to be on a highway that is straight, with no twists and turns and no potholes?

Obviously, if you have weak and injured limbs, you want to be on a straight path. And the author of Hebrews is saying, “Look, for you to constantly be being jerked back and forth as to whether you are going to follow Christ or whether you are going to go back to Jerusalem, it’s going to injure those limbs that are already weak. So you need to be on a straight way. You not only need to be helping them to be braced for their trials, but you need to keep them on the path. The picture here is the help that a smooth road would be to someone whose legs are already tired and frail and injured.

If I could switch the imagery just slightly over to an athletic imagery, I can remember in football I was a lowly lineman. So I didn’t get much glory. But I overheard, occasionally, some of the instructions that were given to the running backs. One of the things running backs do very often, that they shouldn’t do, is they hesitate behind the line and they can’t quite decide, “Am I going to try and go behind that hole or that hole.”  And to encourage young running backs not to do that, running back coaches usually say something like this, after grabbing them by the facemask and jerking their head around, they say something like this, “Son, run north and south.” In other words, don’t be moving around in the back field, go forward. Find a hole and go through it.” And so, in this way, the imagery is a calling on us to move straight ahead to move forward, not to be moving back and forth.

Again, if you think of that imagery of weak knees or injured limbs, it makes perfect sense to be moving straight ahead. Many of you know of the star running back from Mississippi State University had a severe injury towards the end of the year. And I happened to see about 15 minutes of one of their games on television. It was interesting — he couldn’t run side to side. He could run straight ahead, but he couldn’t make a cut. Every time he tried to make a cut he would either fall down or re-injure himself. He could only run straight ahead. And I though it was a good picture of just this idea here. You’ve got to run straight ahead. Move straight ahead the author of Hebrews is saying.

If I could switch the imagery back to roads again, something came to mind from my experience in Scotland. In Scotland, the Scots have an interesting way of building highways. If they come up to a natural obstacle, they don’t do like we do and blow it up. They build the road around it; and, consequently, if you get carsick, you are going to get carsick in Scotland, because the roads are very curvey. Now occasionally you will come to a long, straight road that will go through any obstacle in the way. If there is a hill in the way, there will be something cut through it and the road will go straight. When you are on such a road, you immediately know that Scots did not build that road. It must have been the Romans who built that road 2,000 years ago when they were occupying Scotland, and the Scots just came along and paved it after they went. Because the Scots build roads around natural obstacles. And the author of Hebrews here is saying he would much rather be on one of those straight highways. He is saying don’t halt between opinions.  Stick with Christ and move straight ahead. That’s the picture that is being called for here in verses 12 and 13. 

II. Be at peace with the world and at war with the world simultaneously.

Now when we get to verse 14, there is a glorious call for us to do two things at the same time that is really hard to do. That is, to be at peace with the world and at war with the world. He is calling us here to both a challenge of peace and holiness This brief sentence here in verse 14 is absolutely chocked full of truth. It’s worth a sermon series But I can’t do a sermon series tonight, so let me give you the gist.

This brief sentence is full of very practical, but difficult truths. And it calls us to do both of these things at the same time and they can only be done at the same time by God’s grace. I want to look at these two things.

First, we are called to pursue peace with all men. Now there are two problems at least that we have with this whole idea or practice at being at peace with all men. And those two problems are compromise and callousness. Some of us want peace with all men, but we want peace with all me so much that we are ready to compromise our allegiance to the Savior. We are ready to have détente or acceptance of the world in such a way that we compromise our profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s interesting here that we have a balance. You are to pursue peace, but you are also to do what? Pursue holiness. So we can’t compromise ourselves.

On the other hand there are some who feel no responsibility whatsoever to be at peace with the world. They are angry with the world, they are mad at the world. They feel no responsibility whatsoever to have peace with the world. And yet, the Apostle Paul says, you remember in Romans 12:18, “If at all possible, insofar as it has to do with you, be at peace with all men.” So this call to peace is very important.

Guthrie, again, says this:  “Peace is all men is possible only within the limits of what is right. There are, in fact, times when standing for just causes brings intense antagonism and peace is inevitably shattered. But the meaning must be that every effort must be made to maintain peace if at all possible.

And Philip Hughes offers this, that I think is very helpful:  “We are to strive with peace with all men. This we are to do not merely so that we may enjoy a peaceful existence, but so that the blessing of God’s peace may flow through us into the lives of men.”

I think that is the real trick, by the way, to obeying that commandment. It’s recognizing that the reason we long to be a peace with the world is not so that the world will like us, but so that the world will be blessed by the gospel as the power of God’s love flows through us. That’s the real trick to being at peace with the world. Your motive has to be right. The motive is not so that everybody will like you. The motive is so that they will be blessed.

You remember in the promises that God gave to Abraham, He said that God’s children were called to be a blessing to the nations. This is exactly what is being talked about here. We are to convey that peace which passes understanding to all men in our demeanor and our relationships.

The second half of this you will see in verse 14, is that we are to pursue “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” This is a call to war against worldliness. So we are to be at peace with the world but to war against worldliness, especially in our own hearts.

Just a couple of things about this phrase. Pursue the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. First, notice that we are not just to pursue apparent holiness, superficial holiness, false holiness. What are we to pursue?  We are to pursue real holiness.  Notice the way the author says it: “Pursue the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.” Let me slightly retranslate that. “Pursue the kind of sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”  In other words, there is a pseudo-sanctification. That is not what I am calling you to pursue. I’m calling you to pursue that kind of sanctification that is necessary for anyone who is going to fellowship with God.

Notice again that sanctification, or holiness, is viewed here as an essential component of saving Christianity. It’s an indispensable condition for our receiving the promised blessing of the gospel.

“Sanctification,” Wescott said, “is preparation for the presence of God.” If God is holy, then all those who fellowship with Him must be holy. If our spiritual quest is to glorify and enjoy God forever and that God is a holy God, then our character must be transformed to reflect His holiness.

A well-rounded Christian perspective requires that we both desire to be a blessing to others and that we be utterly different because we have been made like our God through His grace at work in our hearts. This holiness is an essential requirement if we are going to enter into the presence of God. There are a lot of people who think that they can live like demons and that somehow, if they will just hold off and do a quick deathbed conversion, they will plunge right into Heaven. But those who do those sorts of superficial sorts of religious maneuvers fail to recognize that if a person is not transformed by the grace of God to be a person who was like Christ, he would actually be miserable in Heaven. I mean, why would a person who wants to live totally in opposition to God’s law want to live with that God forever worshiping Him?

Perhaps some of you have had that experience of an awkward meeting at a high school or college reunion with an old friend or maybe an old boyfriend or girlfriend, and you are different as night and day now. The direction that they have gone or that he has gone or she has gone is totally opposite from where you are now, perhaps even spiritually. Spiritually that person is on a different planet from you. And it is awkward because you don’t even know how to talk to them. Their interests are not your interests. That is the picture of someone who is not sanctified, fellowshipping with a Holy God. It can’t happen. They have nothing in common. The reason God wants us to be  holy is because He wants to fellowship with us forever. And if we are going to fellowship with Him forever, we have got to have something in common. To put it in Amos language, “Can two walk together unless they be agreed?” And so holiness is not just some sort of adjunct to the Christian life. It is part and parcel of God preparing us to fellowship with Him forever. So we are called both to peace with the world as far as we are able and to war with worldliness, to sanctification, to holiness. 

III. Be your brother’s keeper: spiritual concern for the whole church.

Then finally in the last verses, 15-17, we are called to look out for our brothers. Yes we are our brothers’ keeper. We are to show spiritual concerns for the whole church. Basically verses 15-17 are a warning that three things can really wreck spiritual life in a congregation.

The first thing is someone who is failing to appropriate the grace of God. This is a person who has been exposed to the truth of the gospel and yet is falling away from the faith.

Secondly, a person who is a bitter root; and by the way, this isn’t just talking about a person who is struggling with bitterness, this is talking about a person who is a personified bitter root, they are angry with God, they are angry at the world, they have no saving faith. They may be a professing Christian in the context of the congregation, but they are going to poison the whole body.

The final thing he mentions is a person who is immoral and godless. He uses the illustration of Esau. He says to make sure that no one in the church is immoral or worldly or godless like Esau, because it will infect the whole body. He says,  “Look be on the lookout for people like this. And make sure that if you see it beginning, that you nip it in the bud. Or if you see someone who has rejected the faith, that it be clearly exposed so that they do not infect the whole of the body.”

In the first two verses of this passage, verses 12 and 13, we are positively told to encourage the brethren. In the last two verses we are said to be on the lookout for negative things in the lives of the brethren that could hurt everybody else.

So in this passage, the author of Hebrews calls us to show concern for professing Christians who lack the signs of regeneration, for us to deal with those who are bitter and cutting and call to account those who are immoral and worldly.

So in this way we are to pursue sanctification, not just as individuals, but with a concern for everybody in Christ’s church. 

Let’s pray. 

“Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word and we ask that You would burn it into our hearts.  For Christ’s sake. Amen.”

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