The Lord’s Discipline, 1-13
It may be that we have a poor chapter division at this point. It seems to make good sense to view the ‘witnesses’ of v1 as those ‘heroes’ of the faith of which we have read in chapter 11.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, 12:2 keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
How to run the race, 12:1-3
We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses – The picture here is of a Greek amphitheatre. Those who had won their events in the morning would not receive their prizes until the evening, but would join the crowd of spectators and with them would watch and wait and cheer on the other athletes. In a similar way, then, today’s spiritual athletes are surrounded and encouraged by those who have gone before. The saints of old are ‘witnesses’ (Gk ‘martyrs‘) in the sense that they testify to God’s faithfulness. Moreover, their testimony remains as an encouragement to us who follow after them.
‘The appeal to the witnesses’ example is intended to inspire persistent Christian discipleship. The author reminds his readers of their ‘possession’ of this wonderful assembly of faithful predecessors who endured testing (Abraham) and abuse (Moses) as well as every kind of indignity (11:35–38); they did so by faith, trusting that God would reward them (11:6, 26). The parallels with the listeners’ lives are obvious and were meant to encourage them to endure faithfully.’ (O’Brien)
‘We do not struggle alone, and we are not the first to struggle with problems, persecution, discouragement, even failure. Others have “run the race” and crossed the finish line, and their witness stirs us to run and win also. What an inspiring heritage we have! These great believers’ lives, examples, and faithfulness in God, without seeing his promises, speak to all believers of the rewards of staying in “the race.”‘ (Life Application Bible Commentary)
The weights that hinder us. Negatively, let us throw off everything that hinders – let us get stripped for action (it being the Greek custom for competitors to be naked. Let us get rid of everything that slows us down; throw away all but the bare essentials. Question: What have we thrown away, or given up, in our quest to win the Christian race? What things, perhaps innocent in themselves, do we need to divest ourselves of in order to be victorious? We should love our families and friends; but if we love them more than Christ, we are unfit to call ourselves Christians. We should be diligent in our wordly business and affairs; but if we allow them to crowd out the things of the things of God, we are unsuited for the kingdom of heaven. Can we say with Paul, ‘I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’? Php 3:8.
The wickedness that entangles us. Such hindrances include the sin that so easily entangles – that so easily clings to us. The picture here is of a loose-fitting garment which entangles the limbs of the runner, tripping him up and impeding his progress. ‘Whatever darkens our views or shakes our confidence with respect to any of the great principles of our Christian faith, cuts the very sinews of duriful exertion, so that it becomes very difficult, or rather altogether impossible, to persevere in running.’ (John Brown).
In Greek Mythology, Achilles was a great warrior. His mother dipped him into the river Styx as an infant to make him invulnerable to attack. The magical waters of the river covered everything except Achilles’ heel, by which his mother held him. As he grew to manhood, Achilles conquered all his foes. He was invincible in the Trojan War until his enemy Paris struck him with a fatal arrow in his only vulnerable spot, his achilles heel. Do you realize that the Achilles tendon in the heel is only about three inches long? And yet an injury to that tiny spot can completely immobilize a basketball star who is seven feet tall. Similarly, many of us allow relatively insignificant weaknesses to dominate our lives while neglecting our more obvious strengths and spiritual gifts.
Positively, we are to run with endurance – This requires effort, determination, stamina, and perseverance. We are to press on, to force our ways through all obstacles and set-backs, until we reach the goal. The word for ‘the race’ suggests a fight or conflict, cf. Php 1:30; Col 2:1; 1 Thess 2:2; 1 Tim 6:12. Paul could say, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,’ 2 Tim 4:7. This race is ‘marked out for us’ – it is not of our own choosing; we do not decide the rules or plot the course or determine the distance to be run. Let us be reminded that the Christian life does not consist in mystical feeling, abstract thinking, or idle talking. The Christian life is a race. It is a vigorous race, it is not for those who are looking for a life of ease. It is a tiring race: it is to be run with energy and determination. It is a regulated race: it is ‘marked out for us’, regulated by the commandments and instructions of God. It is a progressive race: we are not to run on the spot, but we are to press on, growing in knowledge, faith, hope, love, and so on. It is a lifelong race: we finish the race when we finish our lives here in this world.
The Hebrew Christians to whom this letter was addressed had begun promisingly, 10:32-39, but were lacking in effort, 2:1. Sin was impeding their progress, 3:17-4:1, and they needed to regain a sense of urgent purpose, 4:11. They were to shake off their sluggish mood, 6:11-12, and regain their competitive spirit, 12:12.
Author – either ‘founder’ or ‘leader’.
Perfector – Jesus perfects our faith by his own intercessory prayers, Jn 17:20f. We are assured that ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,’ Php 1:6. He is also the ‘perfector’ of faith in that (keeping the illustration of the race) he ‘sits now on an exalted throne, near the goal, as judge of the competitors, and with garlands in his hand to crown the victors’ (Brown).
‘God is at the bottom of the ladder, and at the top also, the Author and Finisher, yea, helping and lifting the soul at every round, in his ascent to any holy action.’ (Gurnall)
Our faith – the original has the definite, rather than the possessive article. It is, then, ‘faith’, or ‘the faith’, and thus summarises the whole of belief and practice, both of us and those who have gone before us. On Jesus as the author of the faith of the OT saints, see Jude 5 1 Cor 10:3-4. He has led his people along the path of faith from the beginning until now.
‘Jesus, in virtually all translations since Luther’s, is described as “the pioneer and protector of our faith.” Now, no Greek manuscript suggests that we should insert the word “our” into the text here, and there are good reasons not to do so. The opening verses of Hebrews 12 are in fact the climax of Hebrews 11, the so-called Hall of Faith chapter, which lists the faithful men and women of history, from Abraham through the prophets. Heb 12:1-2 presents Jesus as the ultimate example of faithful living. Jesus Christ is the trailblazer, the pioneer and perfecter of the faithful life. In short, this text is about Jesus as a model of faith for us; it does not refer to our faith. Nevertheless, because of the weight of translating tradition, such influential translations as the New Revised Standard Version continue to mistranslate the phrase as “our faith.”‘ (Ben Witherington III, http://www.bib-arch.org/bswb_BR/bswbBRColumnist.html)
Jesus’ own life was marked by perfect trust in his Father. ‘In looking to Jesus, then, we are looking to him who is the supreme exponent of faith’ (Hughes). His earthly race was solitary, and led to unparalleled suffering. Yet he endured it for the joy set before him – which joy he himself referred shortly before his passion, 17:13. This joy after suffering is also hinted at in Isa 53:11. See also Ps 16:11. And his joy is that also of the elect, Jn 15:11.
The cross was the ultimate instrument of torture, and yet was endured willingly because of what lay beyond. Jesus ‘endured the cross’ – indeed, he consciously chose it, Lk 18:31ff, even though he could have avoided it, Jn 10:17-18.
Scorning its shame – he regarded its disgrace and humiliation to be of no consequence in the light of the joy ahead. ‘It is important to recognise that the shame of the cross, where Christ bore the sins of the world, is something infinitely more intense than the pain of the cross. Others have suffered the pain of crucifixion, but he alone has endured the shame of human depravity in all its foulness and degradation.’ (Hughes) Paul’s attitude was like that of his Master, when he said, Rom 8:18 ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’
Sat down at the right hand of God – here, as so often in the NT, mention of the cross is immediately followed by mention of exaltation. For the cross without exaltation would have meant tragedy rather than triumph. See also Rev 3:21 “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.”
So, then, Jesus had joy set before him, and so do we. Because of the joy set before him, he ran with endurance, and so must we. He counted the shame of the cross as nothing compared with the joy, and so must we. He overcame in the end, and so shall we. He entered into his joy, and so shall we. He has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God, and so we need have no fear, seeing that he is Lord of all.
12:3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up.
Think of him – an unusual word, this, neither occurring elsewhere in the NT nor in the LXX Sometimes used in the papyri for ‘reckoning up’, in the mathematical sense, and so carries the meaning of careful assessment. In considering our own hardship, we are to look away from ourselves and take a long hard look at Christ’s endurance in the face of wickedness and hatred.
Opposition – hostility, both in word and deed. Let them consider what it meant for him, the Sinless one, to endure the implacable hatred of ‘sinful men’. Cf Isa 53:7.
So that you will not grow weary and lose heart – for there is a constant tendency to do so. The struggle is relentless and tiring. There is an ever-present danger of discouragement. The picture is still that of the race-track. There are no encouragements greater than to keep in mind one who has already achieved what you are striving for, and to keep your eyes firmly fixed on the finishing line. But ‘the constant consideration of Christ in his sufferings is the best means to keep up faith unto its due exercise in all times of trial.’ (Owen). 1 Pet 2:21-24, ‘To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.’
12:4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin.
You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood – as Christ himself had, and also many of the heroes of ch. 11. Their affliction has been lighter than that of many others, even though it has not been without a severe struggle, 10:32-34. They have been publicly abused, their goods have been plundered, and some have been imprisoned. But they are not to give up now. Let them persevere, and be willing to suffer, if necessary, as their Master had suffered.
12:5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons?
“My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline
or give up when he corrects you.
12:6 “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”
Cf. Prov 3:11f.
Encouragement = Gk. paraklesis, which also means ‘exhortation’. Note the form which this quotation from scripture takes: the written word of God is treated as the voice of God addressed to men in every age.
We need this reminder not to make light of (belittle) the Lord’s discipline, for we have a built-in resistance to discipline. We heed this warning when we (a) remember that the Lord does discipline us; (b) recognise those occasions when the Lord is disciplining us; (c) realise that it is for good, although the benefits are frequently long-term; (d) profit from it, neither despising it nor despairing because of it.
‘I feel that repeated afflictions come, not as lightning on the scathed tree, blasting it yet more and more, but as the strokes of the sculptor on the marble block, forming, it into the image of beauty and loveliness. Let but the Divine Presence be felt, and no lot is hard. Let me but see his hand, and no event is unwelcome.’ (Power of Illustration) See: Job 23:10 Heb 12:11 1 Pet 1:7.
‘The notion of discipline as familial chastisement remains in the New Testament. (Eph 6:4 2 Tim 2:25 Heb 12:5-11) In addition, the concept is derived from Hellenistic athletics of the Christian life as “training” for righteousness. (1 Cor 9:24-27 1 Tim 4:7-8 Heb 5:14) Akin to these notions is the recurrent promise that instruction, submission to others, and experiences of pain will prepare the believer for greater righteousness and heavenly reward.’ (Rom 5:3-5 2 Cor 5:16-18 2 Tim 3:16 1 Pet 2:18-21) (EDBT)
‘In Hebrews 12.5, the Christian is cautioned against either despising the Lord’s chastenings or fainting beneath them. Yet, notwithstanding this plain warning, there remains a tendency, in all of us, not only to disregard the same but to act contrary thereto. The apostle anticipates this evil and points out the remedy. The mind of the Christian must be fortified against it. But, how? By calling to remembrance the source from which all his testings, trials, tribulations, and troubles proceed – namely, the blessed, wondrous, unchanging love of God…Here, a reason is advanced why we should not despise God’s chastening nor faint beneath it – all proceeds from His love. Yes, even the bitter disappointments, the sore trials, the things which occasion an aching heart are not only appointed by unerring wisdom but are sent by infinite love. It is the apprehension and appropriation of this glorious fact, and that alone, which will preserve us from both the evils forbidden in verse 5.’ (A.W. Pink)
God punishes his enemies, but he disciplines his children. The one is inflicted in wrath, the other motivated by parental love. The Lord’s discipline is not malicious, as human discipline can be. It is exercised with fatherly love. We learn, then, how strong and how deep real love is, for true fatherly love does not hesitate to chastise and correct. How is this truth needed in our day!
God’s fatherly discipline is limited to this present life. ‘There is no chastisement in heaven, nor in hell. Not in heaven, because there is no sin; not in hell, because there is no amendment.’ (Owen)
‘We can be sure that poverty and trial are not certain proofs of God’s anger. They are often blessings in disguise. They are always sent in love and wisdom. They often serve to wean man from the world. They teach him to set his affections on things above. They often show the sinner his own heart. They often make the saint fruitful in good works. What does the book of Job say? “Blessed is the man whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (Job 5:17) What does Paul say? “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”‘ (J.C. Ryle)
12:7 Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 12:8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. 12:9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 12:10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness.
Endure hardship as discipline – The word ‘hardship’ is not present in the original.
TNIV translates: ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their parents?’ It has been noted that ‘the TNIV obscures the illustration of the Fatherhood of God by mistranslating the Greek singular pater (father) with the neuter plural ‘parents.’ The Greek masculine singular huios can only mean ‘son,’ and not the neuter plural form ‘children.’ See also, Gal 4:7.’
v7f we are to ‘endure’ hardship just as Christ did, v3. Indeed, we should welcome discipline as a sign of our adoption as sons of God. ‘Corrections are pledges of our adoption and badges of our sonship. One Son God hath without sin, but none without sorrow. As God corrects none but his own, so all that are his shall be sure to have it; and they shall take it for a favour too, 1 Cor 11:32.’ (Trapp)
Here, from the Scriptures, ‘our writer draws an analogy to help us understand God’s role in our suffering-that of a father’s “tough love.” The logic of the argument runs from lesser (human) to greater (divine) but the very use of the analogy suggests that what we think of God may first be shaped by what we think of our fathers. When verse 9 says, “we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it,” it speaks to first century Mediterranean cultures rather than to twentieth century America. Unfortunately, neither discipline nor respect are a part of the experience of most children of today. Fewer and fewer have human fathers who discipline with a consistent, character-building goal in mind and our culture with near unanimity degrades such fathers. Blessed is the child whose father cares enough to draw careful, clear rules for right living and then justly punishes infractions. Such fathers imitate God in this grace, for we have a heavenly Father who cares enough to do just that for his children.’ (College Press)
The exercise of responsible discipline leads to respect. The home is a microcosm of society, and respect for authority in the one, will promote respect for authority in the other. This human relationship illustrates a higher, spiritual principle, as is emphasised by the unique reference to God as the Father of our spirits. We have earthly fathers, and we have a spiritual Father. If the former discipline us as best they can, how much more will God discipline us in perfect love and wisdom! God’s discipline is perfect: it is (a) based on a perfect knowledge of us; (b) always for our good; (c) never too much or too little; (d) with the long-term aim of making us holy.
12:11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. 12:12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, 12:13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed.
Discipline is painful, yet fruitful. We may only appreciate its loving motives and beneficial effects later on. It is akin to pruning, which produces greater fruitfulness. The harvest is of ‘righteousness and peace’: these are linked, for the heart which is right before God is at peace, cf. Rom 5:1.
We are trained by discipline by submitting to it and reflecting on it.
A.B. Cooper said that one autumn day he went to a chrysanthemum show and observed some wonderful blooms. He inquired of a gardener, “How in the world do you manage to produce such marvelous flowers?”
“Well, sir, we concentrate all the strength of the plant in one or two blooms. If we would allow it to bear all the flowers it could, none would be worth showing. If you want a prize specimen, you must be content with a single chrysanthemum instead of a score.”
For the same reason, God sends trials to prune from our lives the useless blooms of self, popularity, and comfort, so that he may perfect in us one exquisite white blossom of holiness.
Cf. Ps 94:12.
Tidball (The Message of the Cross, 265) suggests that the question of weariness is a central theme in this letter. He quotes Thomas Long, who says,
‘The Preacher is not preaching into a vacuum; he is addressing a real and urgent pastoral problem, one that seems astonishingly contemporary. His congregation is exhausted. They are tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired weven of Jesus. Their hands droop and their knees are weak, Heb 12:12, attendance is down at church, Heb 10:25, and they are losing confidence. The threat is not that they are charging off in the wrong direction; they do not have enough energy to charge off anywhere. The threat here is that, worn down and worn out, they will drop their end of the rope and drift away. Tired of walking the walk, many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith.
We recognise the problem, of course, but the Preacher’s response may astound us. What is most striking about Hebrews is that the Preacher, faced with the pastoral problem of spiritual weariness, is bold enough, maybe even brash enough to think that Christology and preaching are the answers. The Preacher does not appeal to improved group dynamics, conflict management techniques, reorganisation of the mission structures, or snappy worship services. Rather he preaches – preaches to the congregation in complex theological terms about the nature and meaning of Jesus.’
Dawson Trotman, the founder and first president of The Navigators, once said, “The greatest time wasted is the time getting started.”
‘There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree. You can climb it or you can sit on an acorn and wait. We need to actively live the Christian life and not passively sit on our platitudes.’ (Zig Ziglar)
Do Not Reject God’s Warning, 14-29
12:14 Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord.
Pursue peace with everyone – Everywhere, and with all people (not just in church and with fellow Christians). See also the equally comprehensive Rom 12:18.
But, as the close connection with holiness indicates, this does not mean peace at any price. ‘Peace with all men is possible only within the limits of what is right. There are in fact times when standing for just causes brings intense antagonism and peace is inevitably shattered.’ (Guthrie)
…holiness, without which no one will see the Lord – This may refer either to the state of holiness, or to the process of becoming holy.
Holiness cannot but repel unholiness. Therefore, God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (1 Pet 1:16, quoting Lev 11:44).
We ‘see the Lord’ here, with the eye of faith. We shall see him hereafter, in a yet more complete way (cf. 1 Jn 3:2).
12:15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled.
Stott (Authentic Christianity, 294) notes that, in a sense, all Christians are to be ‘bishops’ (overseers) of one another:
‘It is a mistake to suppose that God commits the oversight of his people to ministers only, and that the laity have no share in it. Heb 12:15 contains the exhortation: “see to it that no-one fails to obtain the grace of God”. The words “see to it” translate episkopountes. This is a general exhortation to members of the local church to accept spiritual responsibility for each other and to care for each other. Moulton and Milligan quote papyrus examples of the use of the verb as a common salutation at the end of letters, as we might say “look after yourself” or “look after so and so”. In this sense…every believer is a bishop also!’
Bitter root – ‘a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit’ (RSV).
‘The phrase comes from Deut 29:18; and there it describes the man who goes after strange gods and encourages others to do so, and who thereby becomes a pernicious influence on the life of the community. The writer to the Hebrews is warning against those who are a corrupting influence. There are always those who think the Christian standards unnecessarily strict and punctitious; there are always those who do not see why they should not accept the world’s standards of life and conduct. This was specially so in the early Church. It was a little island of Christianity surrounded by a sea of paganism; its members were, at the most, only one generation away from heathenism. It was easy to relapse into the old standards. This is a warning against the infection of the world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously, spread within the Christian society.’ (DSB)
12:16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 12:17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears.
He sought the blessing with tears – Gen 27:35-38.
12:18 For you have not come to something that can be touched, to a burning fire and darkness and gloom and a whirlwind 12:19 and the blast of a trumpet and a voice uttering words such that those who heard begged to hear no more. 12:20 For they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” 12:21 In fact, the scene was so terrifying that Moses said, “I shudder with fear.”
Two gatherings are contrasted. The first, at Mount Sinai, was visible, tangible, and terrifying. The second is invisible, spiritual, and joyful.
This is a sevenfold description of Mount Sinai.
Something that can be touched – It was physical, and susceptible to the senses.
A burning fire – revealing God in his glorious majesty and consuming power.
Those who heard begged to hear no more – The voice of God at Sinai was perceived as distant, impersonal, and threatening.
‘God’s words were meant to facilitate a relationship with him, but the encounter at Sinai showed the danger of being in his presence and the need for him to provide a safe method of approach.’ (Peterson, TNTC)
Moses said, “I shudder with fear” – These exact words are not found in the narrative, but it is clear that even Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, trembled with fear, Deut 9:19.
12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly 12:23 and congregation of the firstborn, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, 12:24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.
After a sevenfold description of Mount Sinai, a contrasting sevenfold description of Mount Zion.
Peterson compares the two:
‘Although it is true that ‘the terrifying atmosphere that characterized the theophany at Sinai (vv. 18–21) throws into bold relief the festive joy of Zion’ (Lane 2, p. 459), it should be noted that God is still portrayed in the centre of the heavenly city as ‘the Judge of all’ (v. 23) and as ‘a consuming fire’ (v. 29). So the contrast between the two scenes should not be drawn too sharply.’
You have come to Mount Zion – Peterson (NBC) remarks that this was the ultimate goal of God’s people when they left Egypt. Indeed, this is what they were looking forward to (Heb 11:10-16). The New Testament does not replace, but rather completes, the Old Testament.
These words indicate we Christians believers have, in one important sense, already reached our final destination. As Paul would put it: already, ‘our citizenship is in heaven.’
The place we have ‘come’ to has no geographical location on earth. It is the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. Cf. Gal 4:26; Rev 21:2.
As Peterson (TNTC) observes, our heavenly home has already been described as
‘”a better country” and a city prepared for them (Heb 11:10, 14–16; cf. 13:14, ‘the city that is to come’). Other related terms are “the world to come” (Heb 2:5), God’s “rest” (Heb 4:1–11), “the promised eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:15), “an even better resurrection” (Heb 11:35) and “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28).’
‘Taken together, these terms portray the future for God’s people in concrete terms, but as a transcendent reality that already exists and will one day have an earthly manifestation (cf. Rev. 21:1–5).’
The spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect – ‘Whose spirits these are is debated: whether they are of old covenant or new covenant saints, and whether they include the living. It is probably best to take them as all the redeemed of all ages, who because of the new covenant can together participate in the ultimate worship of God in heaven (Heb 12:22-24; cf. Heb 11:40), either including the living (Dumbrell) or perhaps referring only to “the godly dead” of all ages, for this is the meaning of the expression “spirits of righteous persons” in Jewish apocalyptic literature (Lane, 2:470).’ (DLNT)
Lane remarks that the expression can be taken either eschatologically (they have passed through final judgement and have been declaredc righteous) or soteriologically (they have been perfected by the sacrifice of Christ, applied to them). Notwithstanding that the writer has just referred to God as judge, Lane favours the soteriological interpretation, citing Heb 10:14 in favour of this.
They are ‘righteous’, in the sense that their lives reflected the kind of faith of which God approves (Lane; cf. Heb 11:4).
‘These are the spirits of those who have died in the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8; Rev 14:13) Particularly in view are the Old Testament and intertestamental saints to whose righteousness by faith God himself testified (Heb 11:2, 4, 5, 39), and who are now perfected (Heb 11:40) through the sacrifice of Jesus.’ (New Geneva)
These spirits are ‘righteous’. Thomas Watson comments:
‘At death the souls of believers recover their virgin purity. Oh! what a blessed privilege is this, to be sine macula et ruga, without spot or wrinkle; to be purer than the sunbeams; to be as free from sin as the angels! Eph 5:27. This makes a believer desirous to have his passport and to be gone; he would fain live in that pure air where no black vapours of sin arise.’
John Flavel notes that this verse sheds light on the intermediate state:
‘The souls of the just when separated from their bodies, do not wander up and down in this world, nor hover about the sepulchres where their bodies are; not are they detained in any purgatory, in order to their more perfect purification; nor do they fall asleep in a benumbed stupid state: but do forthwith pass into glory, and are immediately with the Lord.’
‘We may consider the state of our minds in glory. The faculties of our souls shall then be made perfect, Heb 12:23 “The spirits of just men made perfect.” (1.) Freed from all the clogs of the flesh, and all its influence upon them, and restraint of their powers in their operation (2.) Perfectly purified from all principles of instability and variety, -of all inclinations unto things sensual and carnal, and all contrivances of self-preservation or advancement, -being wholly transformed into the image of God in spirituality and holiness. And to take in the state of our bodies after the resurrection; even they also, in all their powers and senses, shall be made entirely subservient unto the most spiritual actings of our minds in their highest elevation by the light of glory. Hereby shall we be enabled and fitted eternally to abide in the contemplation of the glory of Christ with joy and satisfaction. The understanding shall be always perfected with the vision of God, and the affections cleave inseparably to him; -which is blessedness.’ (Owen)
…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant – ‘It is an irony that the incarnation of Christ is often used as a reason in Catholic spirituaity to have visible and tangible spirituality. In Hebrews the incarnation of Christ brings an end to the visible and tangible practices of Old Testament religion, because they point forward to the coming of Christ. They are “shadow”, not “substance”.’ (Peter Adam, Hearing God’s Words 156f.)
Coming to God through Jesus, the mediator, is also a prominent thought in Heb 4:16; 7:25; 10:22; 11:6.
…better… – ‘If light be pleasant to our eyes, how pleasant is that light of life springing from the Sun of righteousness! If a pardon be sweet to a condemned malefactor, how sweet must the sprinkling blood of Jesus be to the trembling conscience of a law-condemned sinner? If a rescue from a cruel tyrant be sweet to a poor captive, how sweet must it be to the ears of enslaved sinners to hear the voice of liberty and deliverance proclaimed by Jesus Christ?’ (Flavel)
12:25 Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven?
12:26 Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 12:27 Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain.
12:28 So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. 12:29 For our God is indeed a devouring fire.
Let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe – ‘The proper response to God’s gracious offer of a kingdom that cannot be shaken is to be thankful. Such gratitude is the basis and motivation for true and acceptable worship. The Greek verb here (latreuein) may also be translated ‘to serve’, as it is in Heb 9:14. Christian worship cannot be restricted to prayer and praise in a congregational context. As ch. 13 illustrates, we are to worship, or serve, God by faithfulness and obedience in every aspect of our lives (note particularly Heb 13:15-16; cf. Rom 12:1). However, the writer also insists that acceptable worship is characterized by reverence and awe, and supports his challenge with a description of God as a consuming fire.’ (NBC)
Our “God is a consuming fire” – The writer concludes his argument with one of those quotations which he ‘flings like a thunderbolt’ (DSB) at his readers. This is particularly fitting in view of the ‘reverence and awe’ just mentioned. Deut 4:24, from which the quotation is taken, adds that God is a ‘jealous’ God, and we may assume that clarifies the sense in which ‘our God is a consuming fire’: he burns with holy jealousy. But the context in Hebrews indicates that the author is also thinking of the ‘consuming fire’ of judgment.
‘This is a further reason why we should serve God with profound reverence and unwavering fidelity. The quotation is made from Deut 4:24 “For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” The object of the apostle here seems to be, to show that there was the same reason for fearing the displeasure of God under the new dispensation which there was under the old. It was the same God who was served. There had been no change in his attributes, or in the principles of his government. He was.no more the friend of sin now than he was then; and the same perfections of his nature which would then lead him to punish transgression would also lead him to do it now. His anger was really as terrible, and as much to be dreaded, as it was at Mount Sinai; and the destruction which he would inflict on his foes would be as terrible now as it was then. The fearfulness with which he would come forth to destroy the wicked might be compared to a fire that consumed all before it. The image here is a most fearful one, and is in accordance with all the representations of God in the Bible, and with all that we see in the Divine dealings with wicked men, that punishment, as inflicted by him, is awful and overwhelming. So it was on the old world; on the cities of the plain; on the hosts of Sennacherib; and on Jerusalem; -and so it has been in the calamities of pestilence, war, flood, and famine, with which God has visited guilty men. By all these tender and solemn considerations, therefore, the apostle urges the friends of God to perseverance and fidelity in his service. His goodness and mercy; the gift of a Saviour to redeem us; the revelation of a glorious world; the assurance that all may soon be united in fellowship with the angels and the redeemed; the certainty that the kingdom of the Saviour is established on a permanent basis, and the apprehension of the dreadful wrath of God against the guilty, all should lead us to persevere in the duties of our Christian calling, and to avoid those things which would jeopard the eternal interests of our souls.’ (Barnes)