Marching to Zion (Hebrews 12:12-17)
Many of us have suffered for a variety of reasons over the past couple of years. The hearers of Hebrews were suffering too. What was it all for? How could they and how can we endure? Earlier, Hebrews encouraged them with the story of the Israelites. Israel left slavery in Egypt, but when the going became tough, their faith did not last the wilderness: they stopped boasting in their hope and refused to trust God could bring rest in the promised land. So they died in the wilderness. Hebrews wants us to see that we have taken up Israel’s pilgrimage out of our old lives in Egypt. We are journeying to rest in the heavenly city and to rule with Jesus over the future world. We must not fall short in the difficult wilderness as our father’s did.
Instead, we must look to Jesus. Israel fell short, but Jesus has blazed the trail of faith in suffering that leads to reign at the right hand of God. We’re all on the highway that he paved through the wilderness to the throne. God is disciplining us along the way so we’ll be perfect, fruitful sons and daughters fit for that throne.
Therefore, what should we do — at any time, but especially when we suffer? Hebrews 12:12-17 weaves together allusions from the Old Testament to urge us to stay on the path and to beware of the temptations that could permanently take us off the way to Zion. We can sum up his exhortation in three words: focus, strive, and beware. First, in v. 12-13, focus.
1. FOCUS: lift your drooping hands, strengthen your weak knees, make straight paths for your feet (12:12-13)
He sees them growing weary. Their hands are drooping, their knees are weak, their feet are not walking straight. Have you ever done that on a long hike? The hike is going on forever in difficult conditions, we cannot see the end, it feels meaningless. “Where is this trail taking us again?” But what we saw in verses 1-11 helps. We don’t have to wonder whether this difficult trail is meaningless — suffering is God’s discipline to make us fruitful sons of God who are prepared for the throne. We don’t have to worry that this is impossible, that we don’t have what we need to finish — Jesus blazed this trail in worse conditions and he’s at the end reigning and interceding in heaven to give us with what we need if we seek him. Therefore, we need to lift our drooping hands, strengthen our weak knees, and make straight paths for our feet.
We’re familiar with how books, shows, and movies will repeat key phrases or plot lines. Something happens or is said early on, but then, that memorable plot line or key quote comes back at the end in an even more significant and meaningful way. It expands or illustrates what came before, or even turns it upside down. The Scriptures do this all the time. And if that key quote or plot line comes up at the end but we missed the first time it happened and don’t even recognize it as a repeat, we may understand the facts on the surface, but we won’t grasp their full significance. Now, here, the Hebrew writer offers simple, easy-to-understand instructions. But in the process, he has repeated and alluded to a number of key quotes and plot lines to strengthen his point.
First, we can see Isaiah 35 rattling around in his mind throughout this chapter. Here, he uses Isaiah’s “vision” to enrich our imagination of what’s happening as we strengthen our weak knees. In Isaiah 35, we could say that the exiles have been wearily wandering through the wilderness. with weak hands, feeble knees, blind eyes, deaf ears, mute tongues — but Isaiah proclaims hope to these disabled pilgrims: God will come and heal you, provide waters from heaven (Isa. 32), and make a highway of holiness in this desert that will lead you straight to Zion. And now — especially from our reading in Matthew 15 — we can see that in Jesus, God has come to heal us for our journey to Zion. Jesus sat atop the mountain and the people praised God as they witnessed him heal every disabled person that came to him. When we bring that vision back to Hebrews, we’re reminded that Isaiah’s future has begun: God has come to rescue his disabled exiles and lead us home to Zion; so, we need to strengthen our weak hands and knees.
You may be discouraged right now thinking that you’ll never be anything more than a disordered sufferer. But as we read Isaiah, Matthew, and Hebrews, I hope we can clearly see that Jesus can heal us and bring us out of this mess. Even if we’re suffering, he really can help us get up. In fact, note vs. 13: we must strengthen our lame limbs so that what is lame may be healed instead of being put out of joint. Do we hear what’s at stake? He’s saying that if we are lame and incapable now, we don’t want to see what will happen if we don’t wake up, look to Jesus, and focus — our knees may not just become weak, but dislocated altogether. We may be suffering, but it can get worse. And yet, King Jesus sits on Mount Zion waiting for us to draw near for help in a time of need. Because of him, the highway to Zion is full of the blind who now see, the deaf who now hear, the mute who now speak clearly, and the lame who now leap for joy.
We can also hear Proverbs echoing around in the background here. If you have read Proverbs, you may recall a host of instructions that sound familiar here. For example, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet… Do not swerve to the right or to the left (Prov. 4:25-27). Jesus is ready to help us, but if we are going to keep up on this race to Zion, we ourselves must run straight and not swerve left or right. From 12:1, we must lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely. The wisdom of Proverbs doesn’t just hold promise for this life; because of Jesus it holds promise for the life to come as well.
When we suffer it is easy to lose focus — become sluggish and undisciplined. It’s hard to make plans because it feels like everything is up in the air and we are going nowhere. But, he says, “Look: we aren’t actually on the path to nowhere. This path does wander around in the desert, but it ends in Zion.” As John has been showing us, many pilgrims have already walked this path. Jesus himself cleared the way. But again, I think there’s an important warning here when he says to strengthen ourselves lest what is lame becomes dislocated altogether. He’s saying: “Jesus won’t drag us there; he keeps healing us so we can run there.” We must lay aside every weight and sin, set our feet straight, run, and let God train us in the process.
So, let’s look at our hands and dig through our backpacks. Are we carrying unnecessary weights, distractions? Are our feet set straight? As I reflect on my youth, I realize I was obsessed with finding all the “things” or habits that are not inherently wrong — “There’s no law against that!” But that’s not the way of Proverbs, 1 Corinthians, or Hebrews. We need to ask, “Is it profitable? Does it build us up? Or is it just weighing us down, distracting us from running straight, limiting us from helping others?” If we’re trying to run with full hands, heavy backpacks, and eyes turned to the side — full of things that aren’t inherently wrong — we are liable to fall in the wilderness. Let us lay all weights and sins aside!
And let’s look straight ahead. A lot may be in the air, but the path to Zion is the same regardless. The weather may shift, but we are all called to love God, love his people, do good, meditate on his word, pray without ceasing, assemble with the saints. We’ll see how we are all called to peace and to holiness. Looking straight ahead and walking without swerving means making solid plans to run in that path! As we go home today, and before we lay down, let’s determine among friends and family what weights and sins need to be laid aside, and how we can practically set our feet on the straight path together.
2. STRIVE: for peace and holiness (12:14)
To have peace, we must strive for it. It’s easy for turmoil to brew in suffering — whether in our marriage, family, church, work, or other communities. How are our relationships? A book I was reading recently noted that when a couple has a child with certain disabilities, the divorce rate is around 80%. This demonstrates that difficulty does not inevitably lead to growth. In fact, in that illustration, it appears that at least 80% of the time it didn’t. We must strive for peace. It’s not easy.
And we must strive for holiness, for without it we will not see the Lord. Note that here this is not holiness granted to us as a gift by Jesus. This is holiness that we must strive for. Jesus cleanses us by grace, but he also give us his Spirit by grace that we might be made completely holy. We are not to run through suffering any way that seems best to us — it is only the Highway of Holiness that leads to Zion. And we must strive to stay on that Way. It’s not easy.
3. BEWARE: the root of bitterness and the bowl of lentil stew (12:15-17)
He warns that none of us fail to obtain the grace of God. This may appear strange since he’s writing to Christians and he has been assuring them that Jesus’ sacrifice washes away their sins. Haven’t they already obtained God’s grace? Didn’t the Reformation teach us that there is nothing we can do to obtain the grace of God, otherwise we are trying to earn God’s grace? Without rewinding into our grace lessons from earlier this year, let’s simply beware that we don’t make God out to be more generous than he is — his gift is already perfect.
“Falling short of God’s grace” — maybe it’s best to think of God’s grace here in terms of this race we are running. Maybe the grace — gift — he’s talking about is a place in the heavenly Jerusalem where we’ll see the Lord. We were sick and dirty, but Jesus washed and healed us. We become sick and hungry along the way — but he gives us everything we need to keep running. But, we must indeed run on the highway of holiness if we are going to be admitted in to see God in Zion. In light of this danger, he offers two examples of ways we might fall short of God’s grace.
First (v. 15), he warns that a “root of bitterness” may spring up, cause trouble, and defile many. He’s doing that thing again where he uses a line from earlier to make a stronger point. Deuteronomy 29 (v. 16-28) warns those who might comfort themselves — “I’ll be safe and God will forgive me even if I disobey the words of this law or turn to idols.” Moses calls this attitude “a root that bears poisonous and bitter fruit” and he warns that God will single out that person for destruction. Do we see that attitude today? “God will forgive me even if I disobey”? That mindset really is causing trouble and defiling many today. Let’s beware. We will stumble and we can strive to get back on the highway of holiness. But that’s not the same as comforting ourselves with the thought of God’s forgiveness while we willfully pioneer our own path through the weeds.
Second (v. 16-17), he warns that we not be sexually immoral or unholy like Esau. The firstborn child receives what is called a “birthright” — this is a double portion of their father’s inheritance. That means if Isaac had 6,000 animals, Esau would receive 4,000 and Jacob 2,000.
Esau was a hunter. He came in from hunting very hungry and demanded a bowl of Jacob’s red lentil stew, but Jacob told him the price was his birthright. Now, I’m certainly not against lentils, but they’re not something I’d want to trade my birthright for… unless I was very hungry… and I felt no other meal was coming… and I wasn’t certain that the inheritance was worth much. In the end, I think that’s why Esau felt he couldn’t live without those lentils. “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” But, actually, his father was quite rich. And he sold that right for a single meal.
When we suffer, we can find ourselves very hungry, weak, and in need of comfort. And while we could find nourishment at the mercy seat of Christ, in the assembly, at the table of the Lord, and in the word of the Lord, Satan also offers many fleeting comforts that require no work. They offer a moment of distraction, and yet they cost everything.
He warns against sexual immorality, and that certainly promises comfort. The marriage bed can certainly be comforting, but if we look outside the marriage bed, it will take our pants and leave us naked every time. Particularly here if you are dealing with a pornography addiction, pay attention to the next time you are tempted. You may find you are most tempted after a hard day or week. Suffering can tempt us to seek comfort where we only find more suffering. Sin only sounds good because we feel so hungry. But trading the blessings of sonship for bowl of lentils is a bad deal.
After that, it didn’t matter how much Esau wanted the blessing. He found no opportunity to repent though he sought it with tears. There’s a place for reminding one another that we can always come back; but Hebrews repeatedly reminds us that we can also come to a point of no return. And in that day it will not matter how much we want it, it may remain elusive. No matter how miserable or sad we are, at some point, we’re just no longer the kind of people that repent. Let’s not comfort ourselves thinking we’ll be safe though we continue being stubborn. God may just single us out for his wrath as he promised in Deuteronomy. The wilderness doesn’t have to lead to Zion, it can become hell. Let’s focus, strive, and beware.
And as we gather around the table, let’s also receive Jesus’ body and blood to nourish us and train us to look to Jesus and the cross for our sustenance. We sing a song that says the cross is a home within the wilderness, a rest along the way from the burning of the noontide heat. May the table nourish us and reinforce that. Furthermore, Isaiah said the caravan would return to Zion singing and shouts of joy. That’s one way to march through difficult territory, isn’t it? Singing with fellow pilgrims on the road. Let’s indeed sing and encourage one another this morning.