Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated,but rather healed.
Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “and if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot through with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceeding afraid and trembling.”
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
Scripture tells us that every true believer experiences trouble of one kind or another. It’s God’s way of weaning us away from the world and bringing us to Himself. As someone has said, whether or not trouble is a blessing to us depends on where it is in relation to us and God. If it comes between us and God, then it’s not a blessing, because it acts as a wedge, driving us away from God, but if God is between it and us, then it brings us closer to God.
I think it’s this latter idea that the writer has in mind in our text for this post. We’re to strengthen that which is weak and straighten out what is crooked. We’re to look at trouble as something designed to bring us closer to God. In our vernacular, I think the writer might be saying, “Take a deep breath.”
The trouble with trouble is that it tends to make us contentious. To counteract this tendency, the writer says to pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Trouble tends to make us self-centered, forgetting not only those around us, but He who is above us. We’re to “look carefully,” or be diligent, in this matter, because becoming absorbed by our troubles tends to make us bitter, and this leads to nothing good.
Bitterness acts as a poison, corrupting not only ourselves, but our interactions with others. It doesn’t just affect us; it affects others – and not in a good way.
Self-absorption also opens the door to sin to enter. The writer mentions Esau as a classic example of this. The incident he refers to is in Genesis 25:29-34. As the firstborn son, his was a double portion of inheritance, as well as a priority in blessing. When the father died, the firstborn became the leader of the family. Esau threw all that away because he was hungry. His brother Jacob was at fault here, to be sure, but the responsibility was Esau’s. He was supposed to be the leader. Esau might have had other faults, as well, since the writer describes him as a fornicator and profane. This latter word doesn’t mean that he swore or used bad language, though that may be included. It simply means “common,” as opposed to “sacred.” Esau had no thought for the things of God. In the words of Philippians 3:19, his belly was his god. He set his mind on earthly things. And, because of this, he lost heavenly things. He sold his birthright, Hebrews 12:16.
Earlier, the writer had mentioned that there is an “afterward” for the believer, v. 11. But there is an “afterward” for the unbeliever, as well. In v. 17, he says, For you know that afterward, when he [Esau] wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears, emphasis added. This incident occurs in Genesis 27:30-40. And this “place of repentance” wasn’t in himself; it was in his father.
Isaac’s family was a mess. Several chapters in Genesis tells us this, but when the dust was settled in this event, Isaac realized that it was Jacob who was to receive the blessing, not Esau, though Esau was his favorite, and Isaac had intended to give him the blessing. That Jacob deceived his father in this matter in no way cancels out the fact that God had said, “The older [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob],” Genesis 25:23. (There was an “afterward” for Rebekah as well. After Jacob’s deception came to light, she sent him away, hoping that he wouldn’t have to be gone too long, Genesis 27:41-45. She never saw her favorite son again.)
Notice here also that the writer says of the blessing that Esau sought it diligently, v. 17. It didn’t matter. It was too late! His father confirmed this. After Esau had begged him for the blessing, Isaac said, “I have blessed him [Jacob] – and indeed he shall be blessed,” Genesis 27:33. The time for Esau to have been diligent, to “look carefully” [v.15], would have been when he was hungry! I wonder how many blessings we lose because we’re careful too late. We get “hungry” for the wrong things!
The rest of our text, vs. 18-24, might seem strange. What do they have to do with how we’re to handle trouble? I think the answer lies in the main difference between the two covenants alluded to. Vs. 18-21 describe the scene at the giving of the Law, or the Mosaic Covenant. This was when Israel officially became a nation. The things given to her on Sinai were her constitution and bylaws. Vs. 22-24 have to do with the New Covenant, which the writer has already mentioned in 8:7-13.
There’s probably a lot we could say about these two covenants, but we’ll try to restrict ourselves to only one. The Mosaic Law had no provision to help the OT Jew fulfill his obligations. In Deuteronomy 29:2-4, Moses referred to this. He said to the crowd gathered before him, “You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land- , the great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs and those great wonders. Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day“ (emphasis added.) This explains why Israel was so slow to obey and so quick to rebel. The Law has no provision to help the sinner obey its commands and can do nothing about the sinner’s condition. Israel was on her own. It was up to her to make herself righteous. That’s why Israel failed so miserably. That’s why those today who believe they can keep the Law fail so miserably. They’re on their own.
Work and run, the Law commands,
but gives me neither feet nor hands.
But sweeter sounds the Gospel brings;
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.
The New Covenant, on the other hand, is all about remedying the plight of the sinner. In chapter 8:7-12, the writer quoted an extensive portion from Jeremiah 31:31-34 describing the provisions and benefits of the New Covenant:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be My people. None of them shall teach his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
Under the Mosaic Covenant, Israel was on her own. Under the New Covenant, Israel will have divine assistance. And be sure that it is Israel the nation that is in view here, not some “spiritual” Israel, not some convoluted idea that “the church” is really what is meant here. Under the Mosaic Covenant, God gave no assistance to Israel. Under the New Covenant, God will put His laws into their hearts and minds. Every single Jew alive at that time will know God, regardless of their state in life. This will be the fulfillment of Romans 11:26, So then, all Israel will be saved, a verse where Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20, 21.
But, if all this refers to Israel, then what good does it do us? God never made any promises to Gentiles in the OT, only about them when He promised Abraham that in him all families of the earth shall be blessed, Genesis 12:3. I don’t know that the OT, being concerned mainly with Israel, particularly tells us how this will be accomplished. It’s not until the NT that we find that out. It is in the NT that the Lord Jesus introduces a new player, as it were, into this thing we call salvation. In Matthew 16:18, He said, I will build My church, or “My assembly,” emphasis added. This was to distinguish what He was going to do from every other “assembly” in the world. The word translated “assembly,” – ekklesia – means a group of people. It was used to refer to any group or gathering, whether sacred or secular. In the NT, it’s usually translated, “church,” though it’s used in Acts 19:40 of the riotous crowd which gathered because of the preaching of the gospel in Ephesus, that disorderly gathering which was offended at it.
The Lord’s assembly was to be unique. It wasn’t like any other “assembly” or gathering or group of people in the world. It wasn’t just to be a continuation of the nation of Israel or her replacement.
It was, is, His. He builds it and He rules it. He will come for it. It is through Him that Gentiles – us – are able to receive the blessings of salvation.
Some people believe that it’s through the church itself that salvation is received. Not so. Not so. There is no salvation in any church or denomination, but especially not in those who claim that it is.
At the same time, the church – a group of people, not a building – is important. It’s through her that the gospel is to be preached. It’s through her that missionaries are to be sent around the world. It’s through her that the corruption of this world is to be hindered and countered. Not through politics, not through legislation, not through any of the things men have foisted on her over the years, but through the preaching of the Gospel, and Christians living as if they believed what they say they believe. Not through the latest social contortions, but through the Scripture.
The strength of the church – the strength of the individual believer – doesn’t come from personalities or programs or promotions. These should have no place in the church. It’s a shame that they do. It’s the reason the church has no power in this increasingly wicked and corrupt world. Indeed, things have gotten so bad that her voice, that is, the voice of those who say they belong to her, sometimes is heard in favor of that wickedness and corruption.
The strength and success of the church, the true church, the church our Lord started, not this thing called “the church” in our day, comes from her Founder and Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a telling thing in the Book of Revelation that the Lord describes Himself as standing at the door, wanting admission to His church, Revelation 3:20. It’s true that this verse is usually thought of as the Lord patiently waiting at the door of the sinner’s heart, waiting for that sinner to open the door and let Him in. However, Revelation 3:20 has nothing to do with sinners and salvation. In v. 22, He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches, emphasis added. Incredible though it may seem, the Lord has effectively been shut out of that place where He should be honored and obeyed. That’s why the world’s in the mess it’s in – the church is in the mess she’s in.
Things won’t get better until the Lord Jesus is given His proper place, the place of preeminence and honor, and that probably won’t happen until He comes back and physically takes it. And Christians are only able to “continue” as they follow the counsel of the writer in v. 2: