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Preparation for God's Presence

Series: Better: A Study of the Christian Life in Hebrews

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 15, 2013

Hebrews 12:12-17

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 12.  We’ll be looking at verses 12 to 17 this morning.  As we do so, I do want to bring you greeting from your Australian Presbyterian cousins. I’ve enjoyed being with them the last few days in Melbourne and in Sydney, speaking at the Presbyterian Theological College and also speaking at their General Assembly which they hold once every three years.  And they have expressed their appreciation to you for sparing me to them and it was a pleasure to be with them and to be refreshed with both new friends and old.  I also want to welcome those who are here who are friends and family of the children who have been baptized this morning.  It’s always a joy to have you present with us and we trust that you will be blessed under the ministry of God’s Word.

Well we’re in a section in the book of Hebrews that is dealing with the Christian life.  And the very passage that we’re going to read today begins with a “therefore” clause, which indicates that the exhortation about the Christian life is based on what has gone before.  If you will remember, you may want to allow your eyes to look at the first two or three verses of the chapter, the chapter begins by comparing the Christian life to a long-distance run.  In the passage that we read today, especially in verse 12 and 13, the Christian life will be compared to a difficult journey.  Now in the first eleven verses of chapter 12, the author has emphasized that in order to live the Christian life, which is a long-distance run and a difficult journey, we need to accept God’s Fatherly discipline.  So the emphasis in the first eleven verses has been on our accepting the discipline of the Lord.  Now he shifts to an active exhortation.  He calls us to do something.  And it’s important for us to keep in balance those things in the Christian life.  We’re called to accept things in the Christian life - to accept Christ and the Gospel, to accept God’s providence and discipline, and simply to receive and rest in those things.  But we’re also called to do things in the Christian life and these things are not legalism.  They are things we are told to do because the author understands the nature of the life we’re called to.  And so in dependence upon God’s grace, we do these things, very frankly he’s going to be realistic with us - the Christian life can be hard and these things will help us.

So let’s give attention to God’s Word.  And before we do, let’s pray and ask for His blessing.

Father, this is Your Word and we know that we need help to live the Christian life.  We want to live it the Gospel way.  We don’t want to trust in our own strength; we want to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding.  And so we pray, O God, that as we do this and as we listen to this Word that You will make our paths straight, in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is God’s Word.  Hear it beginning in Hebrews 12 verse 12:

“Therefore lift your dropping 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.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The Christian life is not easy; it’s hard.  It’s a long-distance run; it’s a difficult journey.  And it is not meant to be undertaken alone.  What I love about this passage, and I love many things about it, is that it is utterly realistic. How many of you, when you started out in the Christian life, thought that you were going to do differently than the generations before you?  That you understood things that your forbearers in the faith didn’t?  That your life was going to be different - you were going to go from strength to strength?  And then things got hard in the Christian life and you got disappointed and very frankly you were a little surprised by that disappointment and it led to despondency and even to despair.  Well the author of Hebrews knows how hard the Christian life can be and he has some words that are utterly realistic but they are ultimately very encouraging.  And he also stressed in this passage that the Christian life is not meant to be and in fact cannot be lived alone.  It is not a solitary life; it’s a life in which we need one another.  We need one another’s encouragement, we need one another’s sympathy, we need one another’s understanding, we need one another’s example, and we need one another’s care.  And that’s what he’s going to talk about in this passage.  

Brace Yourself

And this morning, in just a few moments, I want us to look at three things that he tells us.  We could actually number his exhortations differently but I want to look at three things.  And the first one I want you to see is in verses 12 and 13.  The first exhortation is to brace yourselves for the challenges on your journey.  Notice what he says.  “Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees.”  Now you will recognize those things as telltale signs of someone who is plumb tuckered out!  Have you ever been watching a football game and the two teams have been striving in a great contest and it’s gotten to the final quarter and you notice these amazing athletes on both sides have their hands on their hips, they’re taking deep breaths, they’re bent over between the plays - you can tell they are exhausted.  

That’s exactly the picture that the author of Hebrews is painting here.  People in a long-distance run, in a difficult journey, and they are absolutely worn out.  And that being worn out leads them to despondency, maybe even to despair, certainly to discouragement.  And his word here to us in verses 12 and 13 is, “Brace yourselves.  That day is coming.”  The day is coming in your Christian life when you are going to be winded, when you are going to be tired, when you’re not going to think you can take another step forward, when your hands are drooping and your wind is missing and your knees are weak.  Brace yourselves; it’s coming.  And be prepared to fight through that despondency and that discouragement and even the despair.  I love them realism of this passage.  He’s telling you ahead of time what you’re going to hit.  “There’s going to be a day,” he says, “when you feel like you hit a wall in the Christian life.  I’ve told you ahead of time.  Be prepared for it.  Depend on God’s grace.  Believe God’s promise and fight through it like a runner fights through exhaustion in those last miles before the finish line.  Be ready for it.  It’s coming.”  It’s a word of realism.  

It’s also a word to the whole congregation about encouraging one another.  You might not pick it up in the English translation we’re reading out of, but this exhortation to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight the paths for your feet,” this exhortation is meant not only to you individually but to you collectively in the congregation.  You see that if you look, by the way, down at verse 15.  There he says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.”  Now that direction is to the congregation and it’s meant to encourage the congregation to look out for everyone in the congregation.  We’re all in the same fight.  We’re all in the same race.  We’re all on the same journey.  And it’s not an individual journey; it’s a journey we’re taking together, and so we’re to be on the lookout for one another.  We’re to be on the lookout for people in our midst who have drooping hands, who have wobbly knees, and in the language of verse 13, who have gimpy legs.  We’re to be on the lookout for one another and we’re to be ready to encourage one another.  

And you know what one of the great ways that we encourage one another is?  We fight through our own discouragements.  Have you ever been deeply encouraged by watching how another Christian, maybe even another Christian in this congregation, trusted God through suffering?  I have.  And do you know what that does when you watch another believer, especially a good friend, trust God through suffering?  It strengthens you.  When you see another believer, especially a believer in your congregation, hit the wall and trust God anyway and keep fighting through the despair and the discouragement, it encourages you not to give up.  One of the great ways that we can encourage one another in the Christian life is to keep on believing, keep on trusting, keep on going when we hit the hard places in the Christian life.  We’ve got brothers and sisters who are watching and they need to see us trusting.  And so often they are strengthened because they see us continue to believe the Gospel, continue to believe the Scriptures, continue to trust God’s promises, continue to depend on God’s strength, and fight through the hard places in life.  That’s the first thing that we learn in this passage.  We’re to brace ourselves for the challenges on the journey because they are going to come.  There’s going to be a day when despondency sets in.  There’s going to be a day when we’re discouraged.  There’s going to be a day when we despair.  Be prepared.  Fight through it.  Don’t give up.

BE AT PEACE WITH THOSE AROUND YOU 

AND PURSUE HOLINESS

The second thing is this.  Look at verse 14.  Here, he tells us that we are to make deliberate exertion to do two things - to be at peace with those around us and to pursue holiness.  Look at what he says.  “Strive,” strong word, “Strive, deliberately exert yourself for peace with everyone and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  You see what he’s telling us to do?  He’s telling us be at peace with the world and at war with your sin.  Here’s how you live the Christian life.  In so far as it is possible for you, to use the language of Paul in the book of Romans, in so far as it is possible for you, be at peace with everyone.  This is not peace at all costs.  It’s not peace wherein we compromise the teachings of Scripture or the deep truths of the Gospel, but it is a deliberate exertion in so far as it is possible for us that we value peaceful relations with others - in our families, in our church, and especially with our unbelieving neighbors.  We seek to be at peace with everyone “and to pursue holiness.”  He uses very strong words.  To pursue that holiness “without which no one will see the Lord.”   Now he’s not preaching salvation by holiness, he’s not preaching salvation by personal holiness, he’s not preaching salvation by works.  He’s not even preaching salvation by faith plus works or grace plus holiness.  He’s simply saying this.  The whole purpose of God’s salvation is to prepare us for the enjoyment of His presence.  And God is holy and He does not fellowship with sin.  So in preparation for the enjoyment of the presence of God, God in His kindness, by the Holy Spirit, works in us holiness and we ourselves are to strive - that the language of the author here - we’re to strive to grow in grace.  We’re to strive for sanctification.  We’re to strive after more godliness.  We want to grow more like Jesus.

And so the author is saying, “You want to live the Christian life?  You not only have to be prepared for the discouragements but you want to deliberately live at peace with everyone and you want to be fighting sin, pursuing holiness, growing in grace.”  That ought to be an aspiration of the Christian life.  Every true believer wants to be more like Jesus not so that we can do enough so that God will accept us, but because God has graciously accepted us and forgiven us, pardoned us and adopted us through the work of His dear Son, precisely because of that we want to fellowship with God forever.  And the product of that, the consequence of that, the result of that is we grow in grace.  We pursue holiness because we want to be like our Savior and we want ultimately to fellowship with Him.  And one day, when we do fellowship with Him, it will be a day in which He had put an end to all our sin.  And so our sanctification really is ultimately practice for what we will be like for eternity.  We will never ever again hurt the people that we love.  We will never ever again leave the God we love.  We will never ever again do like those people did in response to Jeremiah’s message when he called on them to give up their idols say, “We’re not going to give up our idols.  We’re going to continue to worship our idols.”  Never again.  God will put an end to all sin one day.   Not in this life but when Jesus comes.  And so our pursuit of holiness in this life is a pursuit of the enjoyment of the absence of sin that we will experience forever with God.  And so it’s not a negative thing; it is the most positive and encouraging of things.

BE YOUR BROTHER’S KEEPER

But there’s a third thing I want you to see in this passage too.  And you’ll see it in verses 15 to 17.  If I could put it provocatively, the author of Hebrews says here, “Be your brother’s keeper.”  Be your brother’s keeper.  Not in a nosey way, not in a condescending and intrusive way, not in a busybody way that gets into everybody else’s life and tells them how they ought to live it, but in an encouraging way the author of Hebrews tells that we ought to have a congregational concern for life in grace in three areas.  Let me just note them to you.  “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God,” verse 15, “that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble,” and then verse 16, “that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau.”  Now look at the three things that he says. 

LONG FOR HIS APPROPRIATION OF GRACE

First, he tells you to be your brother’s keeper longing for his appropriation of grace.  “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.”  Now it’s very interesting, this is not directed to the pastors and to the elders.  It’s directed to the whole congregation.  And it says to the congregation, “You ought to want all of your brothers and sisters in this congregation to obtain the grace that is held out to them in the means of grace every Lord’s Day as the Gospel is read and preached and proclaimed and applied.”  In other words, you want to see them embrace a grace that God is freely offering.  And so often people sit right under the free offer of the Gospel and do not respond in faith.  People sit under the means of grace Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day and somehow they miss it.  And the author is saying, “As a congregation, you ought to care about one another’s souls.  You want to see people embraced by grace.  You want to see people obtaining grace.  You want to see people having faith in God’s promises.”  That is a congregational concern.

BE ON GUARD AGAINST BITTERNES

Second, notice what he says.  “See to it that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble and by it many become defiled.”  There, we are told congregationally to be on guard against bitterness.  Isn’t it interesting?  Once again, this is not just a challenge to us to be on guard against bitterness in our own lives, though we certainly should do that, it is a challenge to be on guard against bitterness in the lives of the congregation.  Do you see what it says here?  Bitterness is never merely a personal matter.  If you are bitter, what may well happen?  Look at the end of verse 15 - “by it many become defiled.”  Bitterness is contagious and that’s why it’s of congregational concern.  Bitterness always occurs when in the hard circumstances of our lives we stop believing in the goodness and the kindness of God’s providence.  And when we do, when we become bitter, it becomes contagious, infectious, and it can impact the whole life of the congregation.  And so again he says, “See to it that you are ministering to one another so that bitterness does not take root and spread in the congregation like some sort of a weed.”  Once again, one of the ways that we fight this is when we see Christians go through hard things and stay tender.  Christians who go through difficult things but they don’t become cynical.  Christians who go through horrific circumstances but they keep on trusting and they have a sweet spirit and they believe in God’s providence.  Just as bitterness can be infectious, so also trust in God’s providence can breed a trust in God’s providence in the congregation.

FEAR AND FLEE IMMORALITY

And then there’s a third thing here as well.  Look at verse 16.  “See to it that no one is sexually immoral and unholy like Esau.”  So the congregation is to be concerned to fear and flee immorality.  Now this is a very timely warning for us in the day and age in which we live, but notice the whole description of Esau is a person whose life is based on instant gratification in the here and now.  He gave away his birthright for a bowl of soup.  This is a man who wanted his reward right now.  He wanted immediate satisfaction and he was satisfied with temporal, passing things.   And so once again, the diagnosis of those who commit themselves to sexual immorality and to unholiness is they don’t understand the deeper joy, the greater treasure, that is held out to us in Christ and in the Gospel.  They are settling for a base, instant gratification.  Don’t be like that.  Don’t give in to that kind of thinking.  

And notice what he says comes along with it. What comes along with it when your hope is in the here and now is in an inability to repent.  It’s a frightening phrase, isn’t it?  Esau could not get that birthright back, couldn’t get that blessing from God back because he found no place for repentance.  In other words, because he was so fixed on the here and now and on instant gratification, he couldn’t even see his need for repentance to get the thing that he wanted the most and so he did not receive it.  It’s a great warning to us that the Christian life is lived in repentance.  You know that was the very first of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses that he nailed to the castle church door in Wittenberg, that the whole Christian life is one of repentance. 

Now all of these directives, all of these directives are meant to us as an encouragement for the living of the Christian life.  There’s the first encouragement, to lift drooping hands and strengthen weak knees.  It’s utterly realistic about the challenges of the Christian life.  There’s the second exhortation that we are to strive after holiness because we are preparing to be with the Lord forever together.  And then there’s this call for us as a congregation to be concerned about our appropriation of grace and our guarding against bitterness and our fleeing from immorality.  These things are all requisite if we are going to live the Christian life.  May the Lord bless His teaching to our hearts.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we bow before You thanking You for Your Word and asking You to work its truth deep into our lives by grace, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Now let’s sing to God’s praise hymn number 700, “Come We That Love the Lord.”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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