Category Archives: Hebrews

Overseeing One Another


Hebrews 12:15 15 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; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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.

In the midst of a challenging exhortation on discipline, endurance, and sonship, Hebrews 12 provides further guidance on how believers are to interact with one another (vs. 15-17), particularly in light of the exhortation to endure, previously described (vs. 3-14), and the one to follow in the final and perhaps most difficult of the Hebrew warnings (vs. 14-29).  The relationship between the warning and the commands given to the community of believers is very similar to the warning in chapter 3, where we were told to

“exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

In our passage from Hebrews 12, the warning opens up with the little phrase, “See to it,” which is an unfortunate translation by the ESV because it obscures the original word and keeps us from seeing parallel uses in Scripture.  Rather than a phrase, the single word episkopeo is used, which means “to look upon, inspect, oversee, look after, care for,” according to Strong’s, but may also carry with it the weight of the parent word which means to ‘visit’, which of course implies looking in on or looking diligently, as the KJV translates.  It is the verbal form of the word translated as bishop or overseer, which has traditionally carried the notion of church officer (1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 2:25).  Additionally, you can see the close relationship with the word episcopate, discussed elsewhere, and from where we get the church government form Episcopalian.  This particular word is only used one other time, and that in 1 Peter 5:2, a familiar passage which is often used to highlight the office and function of pastors:

shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;

Despite this use, in our passage it is not in reference to an ecclesiastical office, nor is it limited to the role of a pastor.  It is meant, in its context, to refer to the function of all believers in the lives of all other believers, especially those with whom you have daily, or we might say regular, fellowship.  At the very least, perhaps this should cause us to visit such an exclusionary idea of oversight to a “church officer,” but that discussion for another day.

Overseeing, care for, look out for, and visit are all within the range of meaning for this particular word.  As we begin to unpack the passage we need to note, as with the context of verses 12-13, that there are two implications here, namely the oversight of elf and the oversight of others.  It is not an exhortation for simply self-examination, nor is it an exhortation to ignore self and  keep an eye on others.  It is both, keep a watch on yourself and others (1 Timothy 4:16).

Moving into our passage, we find three explicit reasons for exercising oversight in one’s own life and the lives of one another.  They are

  1. That no one fails to obtain the grace of God.
  2. That no that “root of bitterness” springs up, causes trouble, and defiles many
  3. That no one is sexually immoral like Esau

The first application of our verb to care for or oversee is so that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.  The immediate question here is what is the grace of God?  Is it present grace or future grace?  Is it grace needed now or the grace manifested at the final day of salvation?  It could actually be both, perhaps more clearly it refers to those who have experienced the grace of God, make a profession to have received the grace of God, but allow their hearts to become deceived and hardened to the point of no longer seeing the necessity of the grace of God.  Through regular fellowship with other believers (and of course in our own lives), we are to be on guard against the dangers of self-deception and false professions of faith.  Nothing but genuine Christian community exposes this.  We need others to help point out the blind-spots that we cannot see in ourselves.

Second, we have a rather strange phrase, root of bitterness, which should jump out at us.  Often we hear people apply this to their own hearts by saying they don’t want to be bitter towards John Doe or the First Baptist Church of Your Town.  That may be an application, but that is not the primary meaning of this passage.  Root of bitterness is a phrase found in Deuteronomy 29:18.

18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The Lord will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven.21 And the Lord will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.

The context for this entire passage, 29:16-29 should be read in its entirety, but the general scope of the passage is a warning concerning those under the Old Covenant who fall into idolatry, worshiping the gods of other nations, who then hear the words of the covenant warnings and are self-deceived thinking they are safe.  The implication is that by allowing them to remain in a self-deceived state and to continue in the midst of the covenant community will bring down the entire community, “moist and dry alike.”  The effects will be that the person will be unforgiven, suffering the anger and jealousy of the Lord, having the covenant curses falling down on him, and ultimately having his name blotted out.

All of that context is carried forward to the little phrase in Hebrews 12:15, “[see to it] that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”  Here the context shifts to those who would fall into idolatry, under the New Covenant, become self-deceived, and lead to the downfall of the entire community with whom they fellowship.  Self-deception, ignoring the warnings of God and assuming upon the grace of God, has a gangrenous effect upon everyone.

Third, and finally, see to it that “no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau,” then follows a description of how Esau sold his birthright for a single meal and regretted it to the point of tears, but found no opportunity to repent.  The reference to Esau’s sexual immorality is a bit confusing because we have no real mention of this in the narrative accounts of his life.  At the time, we know that Abraham had multiple wives, concubines, and an affair with his maid, yet no mention of sexual immorality (though obviously this goes against God’s creative order for 1 man and 1 woman).  Similarly, with Jacob, we see multiple wives and concubines, but again no mention of sexual immorality.  With Esau, we read of his children by multiple wives, so to single out his infidelity over and above Abraham and Jacob would be a bit odd.  Certainly, and without question, we should oversee ourselves and others to guard against sexual immorality, particularly in light of Hebrews 13:4, but this reference to Esau seems to be pointing towards something else, particularly because of the definition given to what he did in selling his birthright.  

Esau is the prototypical representative of someone who trades his eternal (long-term) blessing and inheritance for the temporary fulfillment of pleasure.  The analogy carries over to the person in the New Covenant, living under the eternal blessings and inheritance who would throw it all away for temporary pleasures in this life.   The analogy of this unfaithfulness with Esau is sexual immorality.  It is language consistent throughout the Old Testament that refers to Covenant breakers, or idolaters, as an unfaithful spouse, whore, prostitute, etc.  Downstream of this interpretation is the application of throwing away lasting marriage fidelity for temporary fulfillment of lustful, adulterous desires.

In this brief passage from Hebrews 12 we have a wealth of wisdom and instruction for us to meditate on and apply to our lives and the lives of others.  Christianity was not meant to be lived in isolation, in fact by definition it cannot be.  It was meant to be lived in fellowship with other believers.  That simply cannot happen in 1 1/2 hours on Sunday morning.  It is a daily exhorting and meeting with one another for our own benefit and the edification of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Standing on the Promises of God


Hebrews chapter 11 has long been considered the Hall of Faith for saints, particularly those who were in the Old Testament, but there is much more going on.  Yes, attention is drawn to the lives of saints as examples in our day (see also Heb. 13:7), and yes this chapter is collectively a model of encouragement for the perseverance of the saints, but perhaps more than all of this is that the central figure in this Hall of Faith is not Abraham or Moses, but God Himself, most notably through His faithfulness to His promises in the lives of His children.

The concept of promise is not new to Hebrews as we reach this 11th chapter, rather it has been an underlying theme throughout the book, particularly since the 6th chapter where the promise and oath of God was rooted and grounded in His inability to lie and His own justice (see also Heb. 4:1).  Promises emerge in Hebrews 11 out of two statements made in chapter 10, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” and “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” from 10:23 and 10:36 respectively, each of which serve as an introduction to our chapter under discussion.

Building on this, chapter 11 picks up the promise motif in 11:9 with the mention of Abraham – and the land of promise, Isaac and Jacob – the heirs of the promises, and the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah for the blessed seed.  With is in mind, four additional mentions of promises in this chapter serve to highlight the foundation of God’s faithfulness.

The first occurs in Heb. 11:13, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

The second occurs in Heb. 11:17, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son…”

The third occurs in Heb. 11:33, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises”

The fourth occurs in Heb. 11:39-40 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

In over-viewing the promises above, we find a bit of a conflict, a dichotomy of sorts.  On the one hand, in verse 13 we read a summary statement of the saints listed up to this point who died having NOT received the things promised.  Instead, they saw them and greeted them from afar.  Next we read that Abraham DID receive the promises, followed by another summary statement in verse 33 that these obtained promises.  Finally, we read the section summary which states that all of these did NOT receive what was promised.  So which is it?  Did they receive the promises or not?  And what are the promises?

In order to solve this mystery we need to remember that the major theme of Hebrews is to highlight the lesser, of the Old Covenant, over against the greater, of the New Covenant.  Simply put, those described in this chapter did receive the promises of God by faith, each in their individual contexts, as we read.  But these promises were only shadows, not the substance.  While they were very real promises and very real exercises of faith that received these promises, nevertheless there was a greater promise to come through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  By means of His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and now intercession at the right hand of the Father as the King-Priest after the order of Melchizedek, our Lord has instituted His New Covenant, not creating division between the saints of old and saints of new, but unifying them as one people, one flock, with One Shepherd.  Therefore, while the saints of old, those highlighted in chapter 11 of Hebrews, did indeed receive the promises of God, there was a greater fulfillment of these promises to come, in Christ, that they did not receive in their lifetime.

In Hebrews 11 not only do we see the faith of the saints on display, with no mention of their failures we might add, and not only do we see their perseverance unto death, but we find a magnificent display of the faithfulness of God in the lives of His children.  With the evidence of His faithfulness held up in fulfilling the lesser promises, we can be sure that He will continue to be faithful with the greater promises that have now come through His Son Jesus Christ.  Let us then, as our brothers and sisters before us, by faith, stand firm on the promises of God.


Standing on the promises of Christ my King
Through eternal ages let his praises ring
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing
Standing on the promises of God
Standing, standing
Standing on the promises of God my Savior
Standing, standing
I’m standing on the promises of God
Standing on the promises, I cannot fall
Listening every moment to the Spirit’s call
Resting in my Savior as my all in all
Standing on the promises of God
Standing, standing
Standing on the promises of Christ my Savior
Standing, standing
I’m standing on the promises of God
– Russell Kelso Carter 1886

The Gateway to Apostasy


Recently, in working again through the controversial warning passage from Hebrews 6, I was struck with the reality that this passage is less a matter concerning salvation for those who may have a false conversion, but simply do not realize it and more about those who have made a willful rejection of Christ, thereby apostatizing.  The difference is this:  Those from Matthew 7:21-23  claim to have a relationship with Christ, but actually don’t vs. Judas, who we may assume claimed, even evidenced, to have a relationship with Christ but willfully rejected Him.  Even less in view are those who have weak faith or lack assurance.  For example, Peter may have at one point lacked faith (sinking in the water and temporarily denying his relationship with Christ), but Judas willfully rejected Christ unto death.

With this clarification in mind, how then does one drift from the point of professing salvation and Christ as Savior to completely denying Him and rejecting anything having to do with salvation?

Let’s look again at the passage:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 6:4-6

Here we see a list of the positive experiences that this particular case of apostates have participated in, but not really anything explaining how something like a falling away could happen.

Previously, we’ve seen how Hebrews warns against the danger of sluggishness, which opens this warning in Hebrews 5:11 and closes it in Hebrews 6:12.  This could give us some insight into how apostasy occurs.  Working from this earlier post on  sluggishness, and combining what we know from the other four warnings in Hebrews (chap. 2, 4, 10, 12), the pattern towards apostasy might best be described as sluggishness, which lulls a person to sleep,  creates an opportunity for temptation leading to sin, which proceeds to harden the heart, blinding the mind unto apostasy. Sluggishness, temptation, sin, apostasy.  Sluggishness assumes a neutrality in one’s profession, it’s a coasting, a drifting, a lack of concern for advancement, a failure to recognize the essentiality and necessity of Christ.

The author of Hebrews has already warned against drifting, which is akin to sluggishness.  However, as a genuine believer may know all too well, there can be no neutrality or coasting in the Christian walk.  Any such resignation to a position of drifting will inevitably result in at best a backslidden state or at worst a falling away, or what Hebrews describes as drifting past the destination port, missing your harbor.  Temptation thrives on opportunity and sluggishness creates the greatest opportunity for temptation to lead to sin.  Over time, continued sluggishness, a lowered guard, repeated assaults from temptation, and advancing into the depths of sin leads to hardness of heart. Hardening of the heart comes by degrees and drifting into sluggishness is the first sign.  Perhaps this is why Hebrews frames the most severe warning around the concept of sluggishness.

Often when we witness such a departure from fervor and passion in one’s walk with Christ, or even when we examine our own hearts, we are apt to label it as backsliding.  While it is true that such a temporary condition may mark the Christian life from time to time, that is not the condition being described in Hebrews 6, which has likely led to some of the confusion on interpreting the passage.  The condition of Hebrews 6 is willful apostasy, but it too has the similar starting point as backslidding, namely sluggishness.  The apostate does not simply wake up one morning and deny Christ as Savior, rejecting Him as Lord and retracting their profession of faith.  It is a process, and while it may be unwise to place a time constraint on that process, it nevertheless happens over time, whether that be a short period or years.

Commenting on this passage in Vol. 7 of his works, an addendum to his massive commentary on Hebrews, John Owen makes the following observations on this process of apostasy

“For the first I shall offer but one or two texts of Scripture.  Luke viii. 13, “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy, and have no root, but for a while believe.”  Well!  how long do they believe?  They are affected with the preaching of the word, and believe thereon, make profession, bring forth some fruits; but until when do they abide?  Says he, “In the time of temptation they fall away.”  When once they enter into temptation they are gone forever.  Temptation withers all their profession, and slays their souls.  We see this accomplished every day.  Men who have attended on the preaching of the gospel, been affected and delighted with it, that have made profession of it, and have been looked on, it may be, as believers, and thus have continued for some years; no sooner doth temptation befall them that hath vigour and permanency in it, but they are turned out of the way, and are gone forever.  They fall to hate the word they have delighted in, despise the professors of it, and are hardened by sin.” pg. 102-103

As we are suggesting here, drifting or coasting, i.e. sluggishness, in ones profession creates opportunity for temptation to strike a fatal blow.  The relationship between temptation and apostasy is precisely what Owen is drawing on in the comment above.  In another volume he makes the connection even more explicit, “Entrance into temptation is…an entrance into apostasy, more or less, in part or in whole; it faileth not.” (Owen Vol. 6 pg 103)  Simply stated, temptation is the gateway to apostasy and entrance into it is a terrible malady.  However, make no mistake, sluggishness is the road that leads to this gateway.

It should be noted that apostates are not genuine believers who suddenly wake up one day willfully rejecting Christ, spitting upon Him and His work on the cross, and utterly denying the satisfactory atonement of His death.  They are indeed lost, unbelievers from the start made manifest by descent into worldliness, collapse under trials, or as we are noting here, falling into temptations.  Each or any of these will ultimately reveal the person’s true identity.  Conversely a genuine believer WILL NOT love the world, WILL, by God’s grace, persevere through trials coming out refined, and WILL, through the Spirit, shun temptations.

It is then clear why our Lord teaches His disciples to pray, “lead us not into temptation.”  As Martin Luther famously quipped, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but only let them fly. Don’t let them nest in your hair.”  Sluggishness allows the nests to be built.  Temptation then has a place to rest when it flies by.  It is far too dangerous to assume backsliding instead of apostasy, so don’t assume.  Make every effort to recognize sluggishness and kill it.  But pray against temptation and avoid it.