Tag 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.

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.

On Guard


In the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, we find Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.  The LORD is speaking to Moses instructing him to take a census of Israel and to subsequently divide and arrange the 12 tribes.  While these arrangements concerned both the camping and the marching of Israel, it may be properly said that God was forming battalions for war (Numbers 1:3).

As the census of chapter 1 is undertaken, we find the people of Joseph, “namely, of the people of Ephraim,” constituting one tribe, while, “the people of Manassah” constitute another tribe.  On the surface, this would create a problem numbering the tribes- creating an additional tribe – recalling the blessing of Jacob from Genesis 48, unless one of the original twelve were not counted.  This is precisely the case as God commands Moses not to count the tribe of Levi.

“For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel.” Numbers 1:48

Following this, we see the role that the Levites were to have in the camp of Israel, namely their oversight of the “tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it.  They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle.  When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up.  And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” Numbers 1:49-51

The Levites were the only tribe to whom this responsibility of caring for the tabernacle and all of its appurtenances were given.  In addition to the tasks of oversight of the tabernacle and its furnishings, care and camping around it, and set up and tear down, the Levites were also the guardians of the tabernacle.

52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Numbers 1:52-53

The Levites were exempt from day to day military campaigns, but were explicitly charged with guarding the tabernacle.  On the one hand, they guarded the tabernacle from outsiders.  In other words, the access to God was restricted by the Levites, lest those who encroached were to be put to death.  In this light, there is also guardianship to protect the people from the wrath of God.  In this respect, the Levites function as two-way guardians to prevent the common from coming into contact with the holy and also providing protection from the holy, namely God, from coming into contact with the common via His wrath.

As to the particularity of their guardianship, this is the same word used in reference to Adam in Garden.  Recall that in Adam’s Rest, we looked at Genesis 2:15 and determined that Adam was “rested” in the Garden in order to “tend and keep” it.  There we saw that this particularly phrase was priestly and is elsewhere translated in priestly contexts as guard and minister or serve.  Our passage under consideration from Numbers is one such example of this priestly context of guardianship.  This reinforces our conclusions regarding Adam’s role and function as a priest in the garden-temple of God. For the combination of both terms, see Numbers 3:7-8, where the Levitical guardianship and service are further defined.

Flowing out of a passage that discusses the mediation of God’s holiness by a Levitical Priest, one cannot help but see the parallels with the priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One Mediator between God and Man 1 Tim. 2:5).  However, as Hebrews tells us, His priesthood is after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10; 6:20; 7:17).  Access to God comes only through Christ (John 14:6).  It is through Him that we, the common, have access to the holy, namely the Father (Eph. 2:18).  But also it is through Christ that God’s wrath has been placated, or propitiated, towards us who have repented and placed our God-given faith in Christ (1 John 2:2; Heb. 2:17).  The typological picture painted for us in this Old Testament priestly passage is a picture of Christ.

With this in mind, the imagery of guardianship over God’s dwelling place can be used as an illustration for personal, individual duty of believers to guard God’s dwelling place, though not of a tabernacle made with hands, but the very temple of believer’s bodies in which God’s Spirit indwells (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  Our guardianship is likewise against the common, or profane, to keep it from coming into contact with where the holy dwells.

We are to guard against corruptions, those external and internal that would defile the tabernacle of God.  We are to guard against the placement of idols, high places if you will, that would attempt to subvert the worship of God in our hearts.  We are to guard with a recognition of the fear of God, knowing that the discipline of God is meted out against all unrighteousness.

Through this passage, perhaps somewhat obscure in its details of the Levitical guardianship of the tabernacle, we have opened up for us a gateway into meditation on the High Priestly ministry of Christ.  It should draw our hearts and minds unto Christ who stands on guard daily at the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us.  This is the direction that the passage points us.  But we also have a picture drawn for us, one that shows a priestly duty is still required by God’s priests (1 Peter 2:5-9; Heb. 4:16, 10:19), a duty unto holiness in guarding the temple of God from being profaned by the common and unholy.