The Danger of Apostasy
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, September 2, 2007
Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
Hebrews 12:12-17 warns us about the danger of apostasy. Apostasy means to stand away from something-in this case, to stand away from God, from life, from light, from wisdom, from hope, and from all that is good. An apostate person is the most miserable person in the world. Hell is full of apostates.
In some ways we are all tempted to become apostates. Five minutes into my regular treadmill exercise, I get discouraged and want to stand away from it. But I persevere for the full forty minutes. Some married people decide after a few years that they want to stand away from marriage. They divorce, which is a form of apostasy. Others may have jobs they want to stand away from, and they find all sorts of reasons not to go to work. That is also apostasy. Some people join churches, only to stand away from them later on. May God help us to learn from this passage how to avoid this serious danger of apostasy.
In our previous studies we learned that the Lord pours out wrath on those who reject his Son and the salvation he accomplished on the cross. But God does not pour his wrath out upon those who believe in his Son. Our heavenly Father does not discipline unbelievers, but he disciplines his children, that they may share in his holiness and become like him. God from all eternity purposed that his adopted children be holy and blameless, so that they may dwell with him forever. Divine discipline is proof of our heavenly Father's love and relationship to us. Therefore we must by grace endure our Father's discipline, though it is painful for the moment. As I said, when I exercise, I often want to quit. But I endure and later rejoice that I did so, and am able to work more productively. Likewise, the author of Hebrews tells us that we must endure God's painful discipline in view of the future blessings it will yield in our lives.
The Christian life is like a footrace. In view of the good design of God's loving discipline, the Hebrews author now exhorts God's children to strengthen their feeble hands and palsied, paralyzed knees and run the race until they reach the finish line. He is giving us the practical application of the doctrine of discipline.
Strengthen Your Feeble Arms and Weak Knees
The first exhortation is to strengthen ourselves: "Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 'Make level paths for your feet,' so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed" (vv. 12-13). In the Greek it means, "Straighten up the drooping hands and weak knees." In Luke 6 Jesus on a Sabbath day commanded a man with a shriveled hand to stretch out his hand. He did so, and his hand was completely restored. In fact, Paul tells us that one purpose of Scripture is to correct us (2 Tim. 3:16). Many people do not like rebuke and correction. But God gives us his word for that very purpose, so that we may be straightened up from our crookedness and restored.
The believers in this Hebrew church were discouraged, despondent, and exhausted because of their trials and persecutions. They wanted to quit before finishing the race. They were in danger of becoming apostates. Therefore, the author exhorts them, "Consider [Jesus] . . . so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12:3). Then he encourages them from the book of Proverbs, "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline and do not lose heart when he rebukes you" (Heb. 12:5). He then says, "Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees" (v. 12).
The phrase "feeble [or drooping] hands and weak knees" is an idiom used to describe people who are about to quit a race. Eliphaz used similar language when he spoke to Job: "Think how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees" (Job 4:3-4). Philo uses this expression also to refer to those who rebelled against Moses in the wilderness because they wanted to quit and return to Egypt. The Hebrews author is exhorting the Jewish believers to receive strength from the teaching on God's discipline and keep running the Christian race.
We all are tempted to quit at times. Here we are exhorted to keep on running and enduring God's discipline. We are told to look to the cloud of God's saints who have already run the race and are with the Lord. Above all, we must look to Jesus, who endured the shameful death of the cross. We must learn the purpose of divine discipline and endure it so that we may enjoy its spiritual benefits later on. We must resist self-pity, sulking, dismay, and discouragement. We are told to keep our eyes on the finish line, straighten out our hands and knees, and keep running.
In the Greek, the word for "straighten up" is a present imperative, something God commands us to do continuously. God is commanding us to run this race every day of our lives. If we quit, we are not children of God, for the elect of God will run the race to the finish. We must not become weary and faint; God will help us. We are to compare our sufferings with those of Christ, and realize that ours are but trifles.
There is also the suggestion here that the strong believers must help the weak ones, that they also may finish the race. The author spoke about this idea earlier: "But encourage one another daily as long as it is called Today, so that no one of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Heb. 3:13). In Hebrews 10:24-25 he also exhorts, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day is approaching." Paul similarly speaks of the responsibility of the strong to the weak: "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not please ourselves" (Rom. 15:1). He also says, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourselves or you also may be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). James, the brother of the Lord, teaches, "My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death," that is, eternal damnation, "and cover over a multitude of sin" (James 5:19-20).
After we are told to strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees, the author says to "make level paths for your feet." As we go on in our Christian lives, we must choose straight, level, firm paths, not crooked paths that stray to the right or to the left. Such twisted ways would dislocate our ankles and prevent us from running the race. That would be apostasy.
The psalmist warns, "But those who turn to crooked ways the Lord will banish with the evildoers" (Ps. 125:5). Isaiah says about the wicked, "The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace" (Is. 59:8). Here, then, we are told to make level paths for our feet and continuously walk on these paths that lead to eternal life. We must travel all our lives on the well-traveled ancient paths, which is the straight and narrow way of the word of God.
The Lord spoke through Jeremiah, "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, 'We will not walk in it'" (Jer. 6:16). We must walk in the way of a godly father's wise instruction (Prov. 4). We must walk in the highway of holiness that Isaiah speaks about: "And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Is. 35:8-9). Do not turn to the right or to the left, lest you become an apostate. Follow Jesus, who opened up for us a new and living way to the Father.
Make Every Effort to Live in Peace
If we want to avoid the danger of apostasy, we must pursue, strive, make every effort, and be very diligent: "Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Again, it is a present imperative. All our lives we are to make every effort to seek peace and live in peace, especially with members of the Christian community. When Paul heard that there were divisions in the Corinthian church, he urged them to agree with each other and be united in heart and mind. The reason he gave is that Christ is not divided, implying Christ's church should not be either (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
Our God is called the God of peace (Heb. 13:20), the God who gives peace and established peace by the cross of Christ between God and man, as well as between men: "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). Jesus Christ is called the Prince of peace, and his gospel is the gospel of peace. Believers are blessed by God for being peacemakers. How, then, can God's children fight with each other? It is ugly to go a church that is fighting. David says, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! . . For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore" (Ps. 133:1, 3). From this we can understand that when there is division, there is curse and death.
Paul speaks of the same thing: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Rom. 12:18). Do not be a source of trouble in a family or in God's church. Paul also writes, "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (Rom. 14:19).
Sin destroys peace. Sin is self-seeking at the expense of the welfare of the community. But love sacrifices for the welfare of others. How can we look at the cross of Christ and not be at peace with one another! As Christians, let us be filled with the Spirit, who produces in us the fruit of the Spirit known as peace. Paul exhorts, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). May there be peace in our families, in the church, and in ourselves. Let us do everything to enjoy peace, though not at the expense of the gospel.
Make Every Effort to Be Holy
The Hebrews writer next admonishes us to pursue holiness in all of life. It is another continuous command. Louis Berkhof defines sanctification as "that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit, by which He delivers the justified sinner from the pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God, and enables him to perform good works."1 In justification, God declares us righteous. In sanctification, God makes us righteous.
The justified shall be sanctified and glorified. In other words, he whom God regenerates he justifies, and he whom God justifies he sanctifies. Sanctification is the proof of justification and regeneration. Unholy Christians are unjustified and therefore unregenerate. They are still dead in their trespasses and sins.
Unlike justification or regeneration, sanctification is a process in which we strive and cooperate with God, who sanctifies us. Our sanctification will not reach perfection in this life. Yet progressively we shall increase in holiness and become more like Jesus.
In the previous passage we learned that God's painful discipline brings about holiness. Holiness is inextricably linked to God's discipline. Without discipline we will not experience holiness. Let us, therefore, make the pursuit of holiness our great quest instead of the American dream of money and the happiness that money can buy.
Paul writes, "It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body . . . For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life" (1 Thess. 4:3, 7). John states, "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure" (1 John 3:3). Peter says the same thing: "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming" (2 Pet. 3:11-12).
Holiness is not optional. It is the essential condition of seeing God both now and in eternity: "Without holiness no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). In speaking about the second coming, the Hebrews writer says, "So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. And he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him" (Heb. 9:28). But without holiness no one shall see God, because such a man is an apostate. (PGM) Thus, the writer exhorts, "Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. But let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ's second coming] approaching" (Heb. 10:25).
God warns us, "But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him" (Heb. 10:38). Shrinking back is becoming apostate and living an unholy life. Jesus promises, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matt. 5:8). There is no salvation for those without sanctification and are unholy. Antinomians shall not see God. On that day the Lord will tell them, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" (Matt. 7:23).
Throughout the Old Testament God commands his people, "Be ye holy, for I am holy." This same requirement of holiness is found in John's description of the new Jerusalem: "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful and deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life . . . . Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. But blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may go through the gates into the city of God" (Rev. 21:27; 22:15).
See To It That No One Misses the Grace of God
"See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many" (Heb. 12:15). Here we find an interesting Greek word, episkopountes, which is translated, "See to it." This is a present participle declaring that all people of God are to function as overseers. We are to run the Christian race, pursuing peace and holiness, but we are not to run alone. We are running the race together with others as God's dear children. There is no Jesus and me. It is Jesus and us, the church, the body of Christ, the family of God. Therefore, we have a responsibility to the rest of God's children. We are responsible for their peace and holiness as well as ours.
True, the Lord has appointed apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to prepare God's people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up and brought to maturity (cf. Eph. 4:11-13). We thank God for godly shepherds he has granted to the church. The Hebrews writer exhorts us: "Obey your leaders and submit to your authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them, so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you" (Heb. 13:17).
Yet Hebrews 12:15 is telling us that each believer also has a responsibility of watching over both himself and others, a responsibility of functioning as an episkopos. In one sense, then, each person in the body of Christ is a pastor and a watchman for the welfare of the entire community. Paul speaks of this also: "Be filled with the Spirit . . . [and] submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. . . . Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. But in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Eph. 5:18, 21; Phil. 2:3-4).
Each person must make sure the community is biblically healthy, that there is no division, that there is peace, and that there is no heresy or evil in the midst. Cain was wrong when he said he was not his brother's keeper. In the church, we are our brothers' keepers, and we ourselves need the pastoral care of others to keep us from self-deception. "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Prov. 14:12). How many people are self-deceived, insisting that their ways are right! But they do not know that the end thereof is the way of death: "There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers, those who are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not cleansed of their filth" (Prov. 30:12).
When we sin, we need other people to tell us to get rid of that sin so that we can go to heaven. Listen to the language of Jesus himself as he spoke to the church of Laodicea: "You say, 'I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked." (Rev. 3:17). Paul writes of such people, "For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness" (2 Thess. 2:11-12).
We should not tell those who counsel us to live a holy life to leave us alone and mind their own business. As fellow members of the body of Christ and the family of God, we cannot mind our own business when it comes to our brothers' problems. Individualism may be as American as apple pie, but it is not biblical.
When I have problems, please do not leave me alone; rather, counsel me and help me to pursue peace and holiness. We need each other to be made holy through Jesus Christ.
We are exhorted to see to it that not even one fails to experience the grace of God, that not even one becomes an apostate, that not even one turns away from Jesus to Moses, meaning from the new covenant to the old covenant, from life to death, from reality to shadow. We must exercise our responsibility to others. "Therefore since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that no one of you be found to have fallen short of it. . . .Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience . . . .We want each of you to show the same diligence to the very end in order to make your hope sure" (Heb. 4:1, 11; 6:11). To come short of the grace of God means to come short of the rest of salvation. Paul writes, "As God's fellow workers, we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain" (2 Cor. 6:1). Elsewhere he speaks about falling away from grace (Gal. 5:4).
Without grace, we become apostates. We need more grace, and, thankfully, more grace is available. We have the Spirit of grace, the Spirit who gives us grace (Heb. 10:29). We have the word of God's grace (Acts 20:32). We can come to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for all our needs (Heb. 4:16). Hebrews 13:9 tells us, "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace."
We need the strength of God's grace to run the race of the Christian life. Paul said that though he was given a thorn in the flesh, God told him, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor. 12:9). Grace comes to us in many ways from God to meet our every need. Such means include reading the word of God daily, praying daily, worshiping regularly, fellowshipping with the people of God frequently, receiving the Lord's Supper often, and listening carefully to the preached word. God gives us grace through all of these means. God gives grace to the humble, that we may grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. Each one, therefore, is to watch over the others, that everyone may have grace and no one becomes apostate. Are you watching, or are you sleeping, like the blind watchmen of Israel (Is. 56:9-12)?
See to It That No Bitter Root Springs Up
We are also told to watch that no bitter root spring up and cause trouble, defiling many (Heb. 12:15). The author is quoting Deuteronomy 29:18. A bitter root refers to a false brother, an idol worshiper, who lives among God's people and pretends to be a Christian. Such a person may appear to be very charming and charismatic, but his true intentions are hidden, as a root is hidden. But sooner or later the root will spring up and manifest itself, and his true colors will be revealed.
Such people are like Korah, who influenced many to oppose Moses. They are like the ten spies who brought an evil report and defiled many, causing many to rebel and be killed. Such people can cause great trouble in the church, destroying its peace and holiness and staining many. That is what the Greek text says. They spread their apostasy like a contagious disease. They are like the second and third soils in the Lord's parable of the soils. They bear no good fruit, and the fruit they bear is bitter and poisonous. They go after the idols of pleasure and wealth. Always murmuring and complaining, they are like the majority of the Israelites in the wilderness who, because of unbelief, did not enter into God's rest.
Be shepherds of God's people. Keep your eyes open for bitter roots of idolaters and troublemakers in the church. Paul exhorted the Corinthian church: "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans. . . . When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the flesh may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord" (1 Cor. 5:1, 4-5). Then he warns, "Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?" (1 Cor. 5:6). We must be careful and observant. To Timothy he writes, "Avoid godless chatter because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some" (2 Tim. 2:16-17). Watch out for such people. They are troublemakers and idolaters who have no interest in the word of God, peace, or holiness. They are heretics who practice their immorality in the church itself. Today immorality and fornication is like eating ice cream-even in the church. May God raise up young people like Joseph who said, "How can I do this wicked thing and sin against God?" (Gen. 39:9). Flee all sexual immorality. There is coming a day the Lord will judge the secrets of men's hearts. "Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral" (Heb. 13:4). William Barclay, a liberal theologian, states, "If a young man loses his purity or a girl her virginity, nothing can ever bring it back. The choice was made and the choice stands."2 Young people, keep in mind that our choices have eternal consequences.
It is our job as shepherds to keep the church pure of sexual immorality. The unrepentant sexually immoral person must be put out of the church. Discipline, the third mark of the church, should be vigorously practiced, especially today, when it is deliberately neglected out of fear.
Finally, the writer warns us to watch out for any profane, godless people like Esau. Bitter-root people are always in the church. They soon manifest themselves as irreligious, secular hedonists who live to satisfy their bodily desires rather than pleasing God. They are like Esau, who rejected his firstborn rights to covenant blessings. He looked at spiritual blessings, and he looked at the delicious cup of soup, and happily made the trade.
Not only was Esau the firstborn, but he was also circumcised, which was the sign of the covenant. Yet this covenant child became an apostate. Therefore, keep an eye on those who are hedonists and secularists. Such people are fools, for they affirm the temporal world and deny God. They are materialists who have no interest in God and his word, but only live to indulge their bodily appetites. That is why fasting is a good thing, especially in American churches. Such hedonists despise all discipline. They seek pleasure and avoid pain. They leave Jesus for Moses and live a life governed by lust. Like Judas, they sell Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Like Achan, they break covenant for gold and silver. Like Demas, they abandon Paul and Jesus for the good things of this present world. Jesus asked, "What does it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?" The rich young ruler was miserable, yet he chose his wealth instead of Jesus and the eternal life he came to give.
Watch out, therefore, for secularists like Esau and do not be like them. They reject God and are rejected by God. Incapable of true, authentic repentance, they are pigs who trample underfoot the pearl of the gospel. They are to be put out of the church before they destroy it.
Be vigilant, brothers and sisters. Be full of the holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Do not become apostate; rather, imitate Moses, who rejected all his treasures in Egypt for Christ. Above all, look to Jesus, who refused the devil's offer of all the glories of the kingdoms of this world. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. So fix your eyes on Jesus and know the benefits of your present sufferings. They produce holiness, with which you will be able to see him on that day. Straighten out your drooping hands and weak knees. Receive the grace that comes to you. Run the race, finish the race, be holy, and you shall see the Lord!
1 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 532.
2 Cited by Leon Morris in Hebrews, Vol. 12 of Expositor's Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, et al, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 140.
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Copyright © 2007, P. G. Mathew
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