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
- That no one fails to obtain the grace of God.
- That no that “root of bitterness” springs up, causes trouble, and defiles many
- 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.