Hebrews 12:1-29

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The great “cloud of witnesses” to which the writer of Hebrews referred as surrounding the believers to whom he directed his words consisted of all (starting with Abel) who had revealed themselves to be persons with faith in God and his word. A densely packed mass of people resembles a cloud. Accordingly, the many whose life testified to their faith are called a “cloud of witnesses.” (12:1)

Surrounded by so many faithful ones, Hebrew believers in Christ were admonished to draw encouragement from their exemplary endurance. The Hebrew believers should have been moved to imitate those who maintained their faith to the end of their lives, ridding themselves of every “weight” or anything that would hinder them from running with the needed endurance the course that lay before them. Theirs would be a struggle in pursuit of the ultimate goal, being found divinely approved at the end of the race. This required throwing off the sin that easily entangles or impedes one from running the race with endurance. Based on the context, this sin would be a loss of faith, shrinking back from God and failing to live a life that reflects confidence in the certain fulfillment of his word. (12:1; compare 11:35-39; see the Notes section.)

In the race that lay before them, the Hebrew believers needed to keep their focus on the “chief leader [archegós] and perfecter of faith, Jesus.” The Greek word archegós can also designate an “originator” or “founder,” and so Jesus is either being called the one with whom the faith originates or the one who is the leader or the exemplar of faith. As originator, Jesus would be the one with whom the faith of believers has its start. In his role of perfecter of faith, he would then aid them to grow in faith so as to attain the ultimate goal as divinely approved persons with a perfected or completed faith. When, in this context, archegós is understood to apply to a leader, the meaning could be that Jesus set the example in what faith or trust in God involves and that, in his own person, he perfected faith, revealing it in its completed state as tried by faithful endurance under suffering and as having attained its goal. This goal would be the reward his Father bestowed on him for having maintained faith or trust in him to the very end. (12:2)

In relation to “joy,” the Greek preposition antí can mean “instead” or “because of.” The thought can either be that Jesus endured because of the future joy or instead of the joy that he could have had. If the reason for his endurance is here referred to as the joy before him, this joy could include what he knew his suffering and death would accomplish for the human family and what reward his Father would bestow on him for remaining unwavering in faith. When thus understood, the future “joy” enabled Jesus to endure the suffering and shame he experienced when crucified and thus misrepresented as a vile criminal deserving of the most horrific punishment. (12:2)

If, on the other hand, the significance is “instead of the joy,” the joy would relate to his continuing to remain in the presence of his Father as his beloved unique Son. Instead of the joy that was then lying before him, Jesus gave it up and faithfully endured suffering as a man on earth. (12:2; compare Philippians 2:7, 8.)

After completing his course in faithfulness, having disregarded the shame to which he was submitted upon being crucified, Jesus was highly exalted. He took his seat “at the right hand of the throne of God.” In being spoken of “at the right hand,” Jesus Christ is represented as in the intimate and most favored position with his Father, the Supreme Sovereign. The “throne of God” points to the exalted state Jesus Christ shares with his Father as the one who had been granted all authority in heaven and on earth as King of kings and Lord of lords. (12:2; Matthew 28:18; Revelation 19:16; see the Notes section.)

To avoid becoming weary and disheartened when faced with distress and affliction, the Hebrews (literally, “your souls”; or, according to other manuscripts, “souls”) needed to consider what Jesus Christ experienced. Sinners (persons who persisted in unbelief and were hostile toward him) spoke against him in abusive terms, but he endured patiently. (12:3; see the Notes section.)

On account of the trials they encountered in their life as believers, the Hebrews battled to maintain their faith. In their conflict, however, the circumstances had not progressed to the ultimate point of having their blood shed to resist the sin involving loss of faith. (12:4)

It appears that the Hebrew believers had forgotten the encouragement that was directed to them as sons and which was especially appropriate in view of the distress they were experiencing. The encouraging admonition is contained in Proverbs 3:11, 12 (LXX), “My son, do not belittle the Lord’s [YHWH’s, Hebrew text] discipline nor give out when you are reproved by him; for whom the Lord [YHWH, Hebrew text] loves, he disciplines and chastises [mastigóo] every son whom he accepts.” (12:5, 6; see the Notes section.)

The discipline God administers is not to be taken lightly nor should one become disheartened when he is the one who does the correcting. His discipline is an expression of his love, serving for the lasting benefit of all whom he acknowledges as his approved sons. (12:5, 6)

When applying the words from the book of Proverbs, the writer of Hebrews represented everything believers might experience as being God’s discipline. This included the abuse and mistreatment from hostile unbelievers, for he did not prevent it. So, for the purpose of “discipline” or “training,” believers endured distress and affliction. Through this discipline, they came to have a tested faith. Faith that sustains in times of severe trial is of inestimable value, for the believer’s approved relationship with God depends on maintaining this faith or trust. The fact that God allows believers to experience trials that, in the end, produce beneficial results proves that he is dealing with them as sons. No father who cares about his son would fail to discipline or train him. (12:7)

If believers did not receive the discipline or training of which all of them are partakers, they would not be God’s sons but would be illegitimate children for whom he had no concern. (12:8)

By their human fathers (men of “our flesh”), the Hebrew believers used to be disciplined, and they respected their fathers. Should they then not much more so subject themselves “to the Father of the spirits and live”? God may be regarded as the “Father of the spirits” from the standpoint that he imparts the “spirit” or the life principle to everyone and so makes life possible. The expression “Father of the spirits” could also mean that God is the one to whom believers owe their new life or their spiritual life. This would signify that their living refers to the enjoyment of a newness of life. Another meaning could be that believers should subject themselves to the Father of spirit persons or angels and thus come to have the real life. (12:9)

The context is not specific enough to determine for a certainty how the expression “Father of the spirits” is to be understood. This explains why translations vary in their renderings. (12:9) “Should we not submit even more readily to our spiritual Father, and so attain life?” (REB) “Isn’t it even better to be given true life by letting our spiritual Father correct us?” (CEV) “So it is even more important that we accept discipline from the Father of our spirits so we will have life.” (NCV) “Can we not much more readily submit to a Heavenly Father’s discipline, and learn how to live?” (J. B. Phillips) Müssen wir uns da nicht noch viel mehr dem Vater unterordnen, der allen Wesen Geist und Leben gibt? (Must we not then much more so submit to the Father who gives spirit and life to all beings? [German, Neue Genfer Übersetzung])

For a short time (literally, “few days”), human fathers administered discipline as they thought best for their children. God, however, does so for the benefit of believers so that they might be partakers of his “holiness.” To partake of God’s holiness would signify to become holy as he is holy, ultimately being able to reflect his purity in the sinless state as his approved children. (12:10)

Initially, being the recipient of any kind of discipline is not a joyous experience. It brings grief or pain. Afterward, to those who are rightly affected by the discipline, it produces “peaceable fruit,” the fruit “of righteousness.” “Peaceable fruit” could denote the sense of well-being that comes from having been properly affected by the discipline. When the discipline in the form of distress and affliction is over, the believer who has remained faithful to God and Christ experiences joy and satisfaction from having been sustained during the trial and endured successfully with divine help. As a fruit, “righteousness” could apply to upright living, for believers who benefited from the discipline are revealed to be persons who conduct themselves according to God’s ways. (12:11)

It may be that the writer of Hebrews addressed the stronger members in the community of believers, admonishing them to strengthen the “drooping hands” and the “enfeebled knees.” This would suggest that they were to come to the aid of those who were showing signs of weakness and discouragement in times of trial and affliction, sympathizing with them and comforting them. (12:12)

If the reference is to the stronger believers, they were to be on guard respecting their conduct, watching carefully that they were “making straight paths for [their] feet.” They should be exemplary in all aspects of their life, showing due consideration for others and, if necessary, foregoing personal rights so as not to occasion needless offense. Any failure on their part to be exemplary could injure weaker ones, making their enfeebled state worse (as when putting an already lame body member completely out of joint). A good example in faithful endurance, upright living, and the manifestation of genuine love, on the other hand, would promote the spiritual healing of the weaker ones in the community of believers. (12:13)

On the other hand, the writer of Hebrews may have been addressing the believers who had become discouraged and so may have been exhorting them to take steps to strengthen themselves and to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected faith, thus making “straight paths for [their] feet.” On the right path (not like on a wrong path that is tortuous or hazardous and could contribute to injury to already enfeebled body parts), the “lame” member would not be “put out of joint” but would be on a course that would contribute to healing the weakened condition. (12:12, 13)

The admonition to “pursue peace with all” persons may have specific reference to the community of believers or be understood as applying to the interaction of believers with everyone. Within the community of believers, a tendency could develop among some to be upset with those who were showing signs of weakening in faith. This should have been avoided, as it would disrupt peace, resulting in a measure of alienation at a time when weaker ones especially were in need of comfort and encouragement. As far as believers are concerned, they should be promoters of peace, shunning attitudes, words, and actions that would give rise to needless offense. (12:14)

Believers were also to pursue “sanctification,” the state of being set apart as holy or pure in God’s sight. Without being in a sanctified, holy, or pure condition, the individual would not be able to “see the Lord.” In the context, the focus has been on the Father and so the “Lord” may be understood to mean the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only those who are sanctified can have a clear vision of God by reason of an approved relationship with him. Upon attaining the sinless state after completing their earthly life in faithfulness and being united with Christ, they will actually see God. (12:14)

Believers should be concerned for one another, watching out that no one among them might fail to be a recipient of God’s gracious favor. Not to have his unmerited kindness would mean to lose out on the blessings he bestows on his beloved children. Especially is it essential to guard against any corrupting elements. The community of believers must be protected from the development of a “bitter root” that causes trouble and defiles many. Such a “bitter root” could be anyone who exerts a pernicious influence that undermines the faith of believers or causes them to deviate from living upright lives. (12:15)

The community of believers is no place for persons who engage in sexual immorality nor those who are profane or godless. Esau is an example of a profane man, one who lacked a spiritual focus. To satisfy his immediate hunger, he sold his birthright to his brother Jacob, manifesting no appreciation for the privileges and future blessings bound up with a firstborn’s birthright. (12:16; Genesis 25:29-34)

The Hebrew believers were well-acquainted with the events involving Jacob and Esau. They knew that, when Esau later “wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected.” Jacob, at the urging of his mother Rebekah, represented himself as the firstborn Esau to his blind father Isaac and then was given the prophetic blessing. It appears that Isaac recognized that the pronouncement of the blessing was according to God’s will. Therefore, Isaac could not nullify the blessing he had pronounced on Jacob, and so he was forced to reject Esau as the one to be blessed. Even though he gave way to tears, Esau could not effect a change in what his father had done when blessing Jacob. (12:17; Genesis 27:5-40)

Unlike Esau, the Hebrew believers needed to continue appreciating everything they had experienced upon putting faith in Jesus Christ. The realities associated with the arrangement of worship that was not dependent on any physical location was far grander than what the Israelites experienced at Mount Sinai. Commenting on what occurred at Mount Sinai, the writer of Hebrews introduced his words with a statement of contrast, “For you have not come to something [a ‘mountain,’ according to numerous other manuscripts) that can be touched.” He then continued to describe the physical manifestations at Mount Sinai. These included a blazing fire and a dense dark cloud at the top of the mountain. The Israelites at the base of the mountain could feel a tempest and heard the loud resounding of a trumpet and a strong voice speaking to them. On hearing the voice, the people requested that no more words be spoken to them directly. According to Exodus 20:19, the people asked Moses to relate God’s message to them and not to have God speak to them, fearing that they would die. (12:18, 19; Exodus 19:16; see the Notes section.)

The seriousness of disregarding the sanctity of Mount Sinai on account of the manifestation of God’s presence was highlighted by the command that any beast that touched the mountain would have to be stoned to death. Animals would not have been able to discern that Mount Sinai had become a sacred location, but the people would have been able to recognize that touching the mountain would have serious consequences. Seemingly, based on the seriousness or weightiness of the command because of its involving even unreasoning beasts, the Israelites could not bear it. The command itself resulted in an overpowering fear. (12:20; Exodus 19:12, 13)

The spectacle at Mount Sinai proved to be so awesome and fear-inspiring that even Moses was moved to say, “I am frightened and trembling.” At the time the Israelites made themselves guilty of worshiping a golden calf, Moses greatly feared the consequences. (Deuteronomy 9:19, LXX) Understandably, he would have been filled with a comparable fear when beholding the awesome physical manifestations of the divine presence at Mount Sinai. (12:21)

The Hebrew believers, however, had approached a mountain far more impressive than Mount Sinai and had experienced developments of a far grander nature. They had come to Mount Zion, to a “city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to a large gathering, and to the congregation of the firstborn registered in the heavens, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous ones made perfect, and to the mediator of a new covenant, Jesus, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than [the blood] of Abel.” (12:22-24)

At Mount Sinai, YHWH revealed his presence by fear-inspiring developments that the Israelites saw, felt, and heard. As a greater reality, the Mount Zion that the Hebrew believers had approached was a heavenly location, God’s very presence. They had come to a heavenly city, with a citizenry consisting of myriads of angels, a festival gathering of spirit persons beyond numbering. (12:22)

The divine message conveyed to Pharaoh through Moses identified the people of Israel as God’s firstborn. (Exodus 4:22) Accordingly, the congregation of the firstborn that is registered in the heavens includes all whom God recognizes as his people or his children or sons collectively. The ultimate Judge is God, and all are accountable to him. He will judge everyone, doing so through Jesus Christ, his unique Son to whom he has committed all judging. (12:23; John 5:26, 27; Acts 17:30, 31)

The significance of the expression “spirits of righteous ones” may be gleaned from other scriptures. Jesus Christ told his disciples that they should not fear those who can kill the body but are unable to kill the soul. (Matthew 10:28) So humans cannot destroy another person’s true self, the inner self, what the individual truly is. They cannot deprive the individual of the right to be a living being. Moreover, Jesus Christ identified his Father as the God of the living and that faithful men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all living to him. (Luke 20:38) Righteous ones (like Abraham) who had died ceased to have a living body, which body is the clothing of the inner self or the real person. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4) Therefore, it logically follows that the “spirits of righteous ones” designate those who had died but were awaiting their resurrection bodies. They had completed their course in life as persons with faith in God and his word, and the manner in which they lived their lives gave unmistakable evidence regarding their faith. In that sense, their “spirits” were those of “righteous ones made perfect.” They had been made complete on the basis of their faith, the very faith that was essential for benefiting from what Jesus Christ accomplished when surrendering his life. As to their “spirits” or inner selves, they had been perfected and would come to have the full enjoyment of the completed sinless state upon receiving their resurrection bodies. (12:23)

Hebrew believers had something better than the law covenant that was given to their ancestors at Mount Sinai. They had a new covenant that made it possible for them to be forgiven of sins, and the mediator of the new covenant is Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God and thus a mediator far greater than Moses. Jesus’ blood, on the basis of which the new covenant was put in force, is called the “blood of sprinkling.” In designating it as “blood of sprinkling,” the writer of Hebrews appears to allude to the fact that when the law covenant was put into effect the blood of animal sacrifices was sprinkled on the people. (Exodus 24:8) Jesus’ blood speaks out in a better way than Abel’s blood, for the blood Jesus shed calls out for mercy and forgiveness in the case of all who acknowledge its having been poured out for them. Abel’s blood, on the other hand, cried out for justice to be rendered on account of its having been wrongfully spilled. (12:24; Genesis 4:10)

The Hebrew believers were to see to it that they did not refuse the one who is speaking, not wanting to hear his voice. God is the speaker and, according to verses 1 and 2 of Hebrews chapter 1, he is speaking through his Son. In the time of Moses, the Israelites wanted to excuse themselves from having God speak to them. They do not appear to have responded to Moses’ admonition not to be afraid, for they did not thereafter choose to hear God’s voice. When refusing to listen to God’s word, failing to act on it, the Israelites did not escape adverse judgment. It was at Mount Sinai, a location on the earth, that the Israelites heard God’s word. Since the Israelites did not escape the consequences from failing to heed God’s commands spoken on earth, the Hebrew believers could not hope to escape a severe judgment if they turned away from God who is speaking from the heavens through his Son. (12:25; Exodus 20:18-21)

In the time of Moses, God’s voice shook the earth or the ground. Mount Sinai did then shake to a great degree. (Exodus 19:18 [Hebrew text but not in LXX]) Through his prophet Haggai, God promised still another shaking, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” (12:26; Haggai 2:6)

The violent shaking of Mount Sinai preceded the construction of the tabernacle that was later replaced by the temple in Jerusalem. Similarly, in the time of Haggai, the tremendous shaking is linked to the rebuilding of the temple that had been previously destroyed by the Babylonians. Although everything was to be subjected to a great upheaval, the rebuilt temple would remain.

Ancient history confirms that the time in which Haggai lived was a turbulent period. When Darius the Great acquired the throne, the Persian Empire was in a state of revolt. Within about two years, Darius subdued the troublesome elements. Although Egypt had been able to free itself from Persian domination, the Persians reconquered the country in about 519/518 BCE. Thereafter Darius succeeded in expanding the empire eastward into India and westward into Thrace and Macedonia. In 490 BCE, a small Athenian army triumphed over a large Persian force in the battle at Marathon.

YHWH did not directly cause any of this shaking on the international scene. Having taken place by his permissive will, however, the great universal upheaval is referred to as his doing. This particular upheaval proved to be preliminary to the future shaking to which the writer of Hebrews referred.

The temple in Jerusalem was God’s representative place of dwelling. Therefore, the city itself was the city of the Great King, YHWH. So the future shaking of far greater proportion signified that everything that stood in opposition to God’s kingdom, or defied his sovereign will, would be shaken to pieces. When commenting on the phrase, “Yet once more,” the writer of Hebrews pointed out that this meant the “removal of the things being shaken” and that the shaken things are the things that have been made. The purpose of the shaking is that everything not affected might remain. In this context, the things made would be everything that is not of God and that is contrary to his will. All earthly powers in opposition to his sovereignty would come to ruin, and he alone would be recognized as exercising exclusive authority through his Son. (12:27)

Therefore, the Hebrew believers could be confident that the kingdom they “are receiving” is “unshakable.” They share in Jesus Christ’s inheritance and are in the realm where his Father is acknowledged as the rightful Sovereign. In view of what believers enjoy in the royal realm and will receive upon being united with Jesus Christ, they should be motivated to serve God acceptably “with godliness and awe.” The words, “may we have favor,” which introduce the thought about serving or worshiping God, are often rendered as an expression of thanksgiving. “Let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” (NRSV) “The kingdom we are given is unshakeable; let us therefore give thanks to God for it, and so worship God as he would be worshipped, with reverence and awe.” (REB) It is also possible that the words about having “favor” refer to continuing to experience God’s gracious favor. This would mean that believers should serve him acceptably as appreciative recipients of his unmerited kindness. Acceptable service would involve reverential regard for him and a proper awe, being deeply concerned about not displeasing him. (12:28)

The writer of Hebrews reminded those to whom he wrote that “our God is a devouring fire.” This signifies that everything that is out of harmony with his holiness or purity will be consumed as by an intense fire. Being the Creator and supreme Sovereign, he is deserving of an exclusive love and does not tolerate any kind of defilement. (12:29; Deuteronomy 4:24, LXX)

Notes:

Instead of a word meaning “easily ensnaring,” “constricting,” or “obstructing” (euperístaton), P46 (c. 200) says “easily distracting” (euperíspaston). The reading of P46 (in verse 1) likely is not original, for nearly all the other manuscripts contain the word meaning “easily ensnaring.”

The exact shape of the implement on which Jesus died cannot be determined on the basis of the Greek word staurós (in verse 2), commonly translated “cross.” When the Scriptures refer to Jesus and then Simon as carrying the staurós, the meaning cannot be “cross,” for a stake with a transverse beam would have been too heavy for one man to carry or drag. Therefore, a more accurate rendering of staurós in the context of carrying it would be “beam,” and the Greek term can, in fact, designate a “stake” or “pale.” (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26; John 19:17)

The Greek word rendered “crucify” (stauróo) can denote hanging, binding, or nailing a victim on or to a stake, a tree, or an implement with a transverse beam. Doubtless the availability of wood and the number of individuals who were executed determined the shape of the implement used for crucifixion. In a Latin work attributed to Vulcatius Gallicanus, Emperor Avidius Cassius had criminals tied from the top to the bottom of a 180-foot high wooden stake. The manner in which these persons were attached to this stake is referred to as crucifixion (in crucem sustulit, according to the Latin text). Roman soldiers do not appear to have followed any specific method when carrying out crucifixions. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (War, V, xi, 1), the soldiers, out of wrath and hatred for the Jews, nailed those they caught, one in one way, and another in another way.

In the allegorical Epistle of Barnabas (thought to date from the early second century and so from a time when the Romans continued to practice crucifixion), the staurós is linked to the letter tau (T). Moreover, very limited archaeological evidence does indicate that the Romans did make use of upright poles with a transverse beam.

It is commonly believed that upright stakes were already at Golgotha or that the beams that had been carried to the site were attached to three adjacent trees (or possibly even the same tree) there. The minority view (expressed, for example, in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) is that Jesus was nailed in an upright position to the pole that Simon had carried and that it was not used as a transverse beam.

In verse 3, a few manuscripts, including fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, contain the reading eis heautón (literally, “into himself”). This is the basis for rendering the verse as relating to Christ. “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners.” (NRSV) The superior manuscript evidence, however, supports the reading “into themselves” (eis heautoús or eis autoús). The plural could be understood to mean that sinners, when taking their stand against Christ, acted against themselves.

The pronoun “my” is missing in the extant Septuagint text of Proverbs 3:11, and a number of manuscripts do not include the word when quoting from this passage in Hebrews 12:5.

The Greek verb mastigóo (in verse 6) means “scourge,” “flog,” or “whip.” In this context, however, it probably has the more general meaning of “chastise” or “punish.”

The reference to a “bitter root” (in verse 15) appears to draw on the Greek text of Deuteronony 29:17(18), which mentions a “root sprouting up with gall and bitterness.” (LXX)

In connection with the word for “touched” (in verse 18), many manuscripts read “mountain” (órei), but the inclusion of órei does not have the support of the oldest extant manuscripts.