Unholy Like Esau: Hebrews 12:12–17

Unholy Like Esau: Hebrews 12:12–17

Esau had his mind firmly fixed upon the things of the world rather than the things of God, and that is the road to apostasy for both individuals and congregations. In a way, Esau embodies all three of the dangers listed in verses 15-16. He failed to obtain God’s grace because of his apathy to the blessings of God. He was also a bitter root among God’s covenant family. His unholy life broke the peace within his family. Of course, there are certainly far greater sinners found within the Scriptures, but the reality is that most people will not fail to enter the kingdom of God because of how heinous and outrageous their sins were. Like Esau, they will fail to obtain God’s grace simply because they are secular and worldly, striving for neither peace nor holiness. 

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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.

Hebrews 12:12-17 ESV

Our first introduction to Abraham is when God calls him to leave the country of his father to walk by faith to a land that God will give to him and his descendants. That was a walk of faith in every way because Abraham wasn’t told which land was going to be his and he did not yet have even single son to be his first descendent. Of course, God proved Himself faithful and gave Abraham a son, Isaac. When Isaac was grown, God gave the same promised blessing to him that He had given to Abraham, and though Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, was barren, Isaac prayed and God gave them twins. The older twin was Esau, and the younger was Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Genesis 25:29-34

The story of Esau continues on in Genesis 27, where Jacob disguises himself as his brother Esau in order to trick Isaac into blessing him. Jacob’s blatant deception and Esau’s pitiful tears can easily leave us confused as to who we are meant to be supporting. Indeed, the remainder of their stories can be just as confusing. Although Esau is not mentioned much more, he evidently went on to be great and prosperous, enough at least to have four hundred men at his command and for chiefs and kings to descend from him. Meanwhile, Jacob’s life was a perpetual struggle and striving with both God and men, and though his son Joseph was the right-hand of Pharaoh, his descendants quickly became a nation of slaves for four hundred years. While Jacob wrestled, Esau prospered. While Jacob’s descendants were enslaved, Esau’s descendants reigned as kings in their own land. Was God vindicating Esau? Was He punishing Jacob? In Malachi 1:2-3 God gives us an answer: “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” Indeed, God’s disciplining hand upon Jacob and his descendants was a sign of God’s fatherly love for them, while Esau’s being left to his own devices was proof of God’s hatred for him.

In our present passage, the author of Hebrews pulls the racing imagery from 12:1 and the goodness of God’s discipline together to give us this exhortation: our race of faith can only be run with endurance by striving against our sin and for peace and holiness. In verses 12-13, the author recalibrates us to the marathon metaphor, encouraging us to wrestle together against our sin and against growing weary and fainthearted. Verse 14 is the heart of our passage, commanding us to strive for peace and for holiness. Verses 15-16 provide three dangers that will hinder our peace with others and holiness before God, jeopardizing our entire race of faith. Finally, verse 17 concludes with the warning example of Esau, who did not strive for peace and holiness but despised his inheritance of Abraham’s blessing.

Make Straight Paths for Your Feet: Verses 12–13

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.

The word therefore is our signal that the author is building directly upon his previous thought. Indeed, he is now reaching back to verse 1 and making an exhortation for us. In verses 1-3, the author painted the Christian life of faith as marathon, a race that necessitates much endurance. In verses 4-11, he then presented the bitter yet beautiful truth of God’s loving hand of discipline upon His children. Here the author brings those two ideas together by returning to the imagery of a marathon and exhorting us to run in a manner that displays that we have been disciplined.

Drooping hands and weak knees ought to make us think of a weary runner who looks as though he will collapse at any minute, failing to reach the finish line. This imagery comes from Isaiah 35:3, which reads: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” The following verse notes that these are “those who have an anxious heart” and gives them this encouragement: “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (Isa. 35:4).

Is that not the message that the author of Hebrews has also been making to his readers? He has been exhorting them to endure in faith and not to shrink back in fear. He has called them to behold Christ, to fix their eyes upon the salvation that He has accomplished for them in His first coming and that He will consummate upon His second coming. Thus, by drawing from this verse in Isaiah 35, the author is telling them again to consider Jesus and to hold fast to the confession of hope that they have in Him.

For those who are already growing weary and fainthearted, keeping to straight paths makes a collapse far less likely. This imagery is drawn from Proverbs 4:26-27, though the whole section (beginning with verse 20) ought to resonate with what Hebrews has been teaching:

My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.

Dennis Johnson notes:

Such paths will keep what is lame from being twisted—in two ways. First, on such paths the lame will not be “put out of joint,” twisted to the point of dislocation, but rather will be “healed.” The verb rendered “put out of joint” (ektrepo) often describes straying “off course” from the way that leads to life (1 Tim. 1:6; 5:15; 2 Tim. 4:4). Hebrews adjusts the wording of Proverbs 4:26 LXX, changing the number of the verb “make straight” and the of the possessive pronoun “your” from singular to plural, transforming a father’s advice to an individual son into an exhortation to an entire congregation. When Christians are spiritually weak (drooping hands, feeble knees) or disabled (lame), fellow believers must gather around them, clearing away obstacles and pointing them straight ahead to the finish line.[1]

Strive for Peace & Holiness: Verse 14

In verse 14, the author gives us a twofold command that forms the essential means of accomplishing verses 12-13: Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

First, we should consider the principal command: strive. This is a fitting word to use, since no marathon can be completed without much striving. Likewise, it should also remind us of 12:4, which said that our race is also a “struggle against sin.” Like Jacob, who strove with God and with men (Genesis 32:28), so is the life of all God’s children one of striving. It is all too common to find parents who spoil their children, claiming that they love them too much to discipline them. Proverbs 13:24 calls that hatred rather than love: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Our Father is too loving to tolerate spoiled children; therefore, painful though it may be, He is diligent to discipline us. And we ought to be active in learning from His discipline, striving forward in the faith.

Yet while Jacob’s life was a striving with God and with men, the author of Hebrews is calling us to strive against our own sin so that we may have peace with men and the holiness before God. It is right that the author would connect these two, for our vertical relationship with God is always bound intimately with our horizontal relationship with our neighbors, both Christian and non-Christian. We see this in the two greatest commandments. Love God and love your neighbor. The two are bound together, for we cannot properly love our neighbor without first loving God and we do not truly love God if we do not also love our neighbor. Likewise, Jesus places these two ideas side-by-side in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:8-9).[2] Even so, let us view them briefly one at a time.

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