Volume 11, Issue 2: Exegetica
Straight Paths - Hebrews 12:12-17
This passage of the epistle to the Hebrews opens with the word Therefore. So that we may be properly grounded, let us back up and consider the previous section upon which the author is to build his argument. The readers were being threatened with persecution and hardship at the hands of evil men, though not yet to the shedding of blood, and were in danger of becoming weary and discouraged. The author exhorted them to look to the examples of great men of faith who suffered similar afflictions, and to look especially to Christ, who endured the cross and is now at the Father's right hand. He reminded them that such afflictions were not coming upon them because God had somehow lost control. Rather, because God was in control, their suffering was to be taken as discipline from the hand of a sovereign, loving Father, discipline meant for their good. When with eyes of faith we recognize that the Lord works out all things, even the work of evil men, for our good, then we are strenghtened to do what is required of us as children of God.
"Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" (Heb. 12:12). Hanging hands and feeble knees are sure signs of exhaustion, of the weariness that was coming upon them because of their trials. As such they were in no condition to "run with endurance the race," but rather were ready to give up hope of ever finishing. They were exhorted then to strengthen themselves, not by their own self-will, but by remembering what was said before, looking to Christ. The author is here quoting Isaiah's prophecy: "Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful-hearted, `Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you'" (Isaiah 35:3-4). They were to take courage, knowing that their persecutors would soon be repaid for their evil work at the coming judgment of the Lord, a judgment which fell like a mountain on their heads in ad 70.
They are next encouraged. "And make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather healed" (Heb. 12:13). No good will result from being strengthened to walk if we then follow devious paths. The crooked path will cripple the weak. The straight path is a planned path, purposefully made to travel on, quickly and safely. It is, looking back to Isaiah, a "Highway of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it," a path on which "the redeemed shall walk" (Isa. 35:8-9). The author of our epistle alludes here to the words of Solomon: "Ponder the path of your feet, and let all your ways be established. Do not turn to the right or the left; remove your foot from evil" (Prov. 4:26-27, cf. LXX). The straight path is a path of holiness.
"Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). Peace is more than just the absence of conflict; it is the presence of order. Our relationships with all men, even our persecutors, must be ordered by the word of God. Obedience to God in our dealings with all men is our highest standard. Thus in a parallel passage, Paul writes, "If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18). We are to pursue universal peace, as long as doing so does not lead us to compromise with evil or in any way impinge upon living a life of holiness. We are to be holy as God is holy, hating sin and turning from it, for God will not allow sin into His presence. Peace and holiness are our twin banners. "Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it" (Ps. 34:14).
We are to do this, "looking diligently lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled (Heb. 12:15). In our flesh is no good thing. In our flesh we "bite and devour one another" (Gal. 5:15). The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor, and yet how much fighting and bitterness do we find in our churches! Bitterness lies underground like a root, waiting for any excuse to spring up into anger and cause trouble among brothers. Let us be blunt. If you are bitter because someone has sinned against you, then the sin is yours. Put it away, and forgive. "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you" (Eph. 4:31-32). To live in holiness and at peace with all requires the grace of God, a grace for which it is our duty to look diligently.
We must also pursue holiness "lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, " (Heb. 12:16). The word for "fornicator" is pornos. In every biblical context in which this word is used, it speaks either of the judgment of God against such a person (Heb. 13:4), or commands believers not to keep company with such a one who calls himself a brother (1 Cor. 5:9f). All such sexual immorality is opposed to holiness.
Most generally opposed to holiness is profanity. Esau is the prime example of a profane person, "who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears" (Heb. 12:16-17). Such a person treats the duties and benefits of true religion lightly. Like Esau they would trade the precious diamond of the name of Christ for the dry crust of their belly's pleasures. Let us not be named among them, but pursue holiness and walk straight paths.