Why join a church? We’re getting near the end of this book. The theological argument of the book is that now that Jesus has appeared to inaugurate the New Covenant, the Old Covenant associate with Moses has been fulfilled and thus abrogated. We might now be tempted to think that the difference between the Old and New covenant is that whereas before God dealt with the people of Israel as a nation, he nows deals with us as individuals. After all now, instead of being represented by a priesthood, we can all now follow our High Priest into the Holy Heavenly places, we can directly access the Father and approach the throne of Grace.
Just as in the Old Covenant people related to one another and had responsibilities toward one another within the community, so now also in the New Covenant do we relate to one another and have responsibilities toward one another within the community. You can’t be united with Christ in the New Covenant without also being united with the church, the New Covenant Community. This passage is one of the most powerful passages in understanding the rationale for joining oneself to a local church and the obligation that we have toward one another as members of a local church.The passage does not name the church, but it describes a covenant community.
Now whereas the ESV connects verse 14 to the paragraph that precedes it, verse 14 begins a new unit of thought, that speaks to our responsibilities within the covenant community that Christ has established.
14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
The text is introduced by a imperative command which governs the rest of the passage, but many English translations miss the emphasis, setting “with everyone” as part of the object of the sentence, as if this is an individual call to live at peace with all the others. Yet here I follow William Lane, who has written the most esteemed modern commentaries on Hebrews, notes that every time the author of Hebrews uses the Greek construction found here, he means “along with”, so that the with everyone is part of the subject of the sentence, “Together with everyone, pursue peace and holiness”. Now obviously, not everyone is pursuing holiness and peace - unbelievers are not for example, pursuing the holiness and peace of the Lord. So the phrase likely “has reference only to persons within the community of faith. It signifies “together with all the other believers” pursue peace and holiness. Thus there is a Mutual Shared Pursuit among the brothers and sisters of the New Covenant Community.
Secondly, there is a Mutual Shared Oversight which is alluded to in the second part of verse 14: without which no one will see the Lord, and is unpacked in the following verses:
15 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; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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.
Before we unpack these verses, we’ve got to go back in time a little bit, because as I’ll show you, these instructions don’t come out of nowhere. Come back with me to Deuteronomy 29. In Deuteronomy 29, Moses is leading the people of the nation of Israel in a ceremony to renew the covenant that God made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. This covenant was made with that first generation who came out of Egypt at Mount Sinai, when God called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and then the entire mountain was wrapped in smoke and fire and lightning and terrors, with the voice of the Lord shaking the mountain, so that the children of Israel could see a glimpse of the glory and terror of the Lord. They were so terrified that when Moses came down from the mountain, they told Moses, ‘You speak to us; don’t let God speak to us like that any more, lest we die.” You’d think that that experience of God’s majesty and power and holiness would have left a lasting impression on that generation, yet they turned against God in the wilderness, and rebelled against his word, so that God did not let that generation enter into the restful land promised to them. Now here in Deuteronomy, the next generation is gathering to enter into the land, and so Moses is standing before them once again, pointing them pack to the covenant that God had made with their fathers.
“You are standing today all of you before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, 13 that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 14 It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, 15 but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today.
Note here before we go on that this covenant ceremony is to re-establish them as his people. The covenant forms the community. Now let’s keep reading and see if any duties or obligations are spelt out in regards to how the members of the covenant community are to relate to one another:
18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 And the LORD will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.
What do you notice about these duties? They are precisely the same obligations that are listed in the book of Hebrews! The author of hebrews is paraphrasing these instruction to the Old Cov. Comm. and prescribing them to us in the New Covenant Community.
We are to watch out for any dead branches
- See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;
- Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations.
We who are bound to one another by the covenant of God are called to watch out for one another that every one of us continues in the faith and has truly been born again by the grace of God. The phrase “see to it” is the word episcopountes - meaning oversee. Its the word used to describe the work of elders, bishops and pastors who have a specific official duty to oversee the community, but here each member is given the charge to oversee and keep watch over one another. Specifically, watching over one another that no one falls away. The covenant community is to be a believing community, but not everyone who is joined to the covenant community truly has a believing heart. So the church is to be pure - filled with only believers, but also purifying, continually calling one another to faith and repentance.
We are to watch out for any divisive roots "that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble,and by it many become defiled;"
- Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit
It is helpful to compare the two passages, because it is clear in the Deuteronomy passage that the “root of bitterness” described here is a person, who gains influence in a congregation and causes trouble. these are the wolves in sheep clothing, that Paul warns us about in Acts 20, that rise up from our own ranks to lead people astray. These may not be necessarily cause trouble through their teachings, but perhaps through their attitudes, where they go bitterness and division follow.
We are to watch out for any deviant fruit "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."
- one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.
These two verses give us a very clear picture of the type of false-believer we are to watch out for in our midst. This is a person who looks like one of us, and remains in the church considering themselves to be participating in the blessings of the New Covenant, even when their hearts are far from God. They walk in the stubbornness of their own heart, all the while presuming the blessing of God, even while they have never truly repented. Ultimately, they are like Esau, who sought the blessing, but never found repentance. When Esau’s blessing was taken from him, he cried out with loud tears, give me the blessing Father, but never sought to repent.
Notice I called this Mutual Shared Oversight. The emphasis of both of these passages is that each member of the community is to oversee the attitudes, practices, and spiritual walk on one another. While each one of us is charge to watch over one another, the Covenant Community of the church must be administrated in a manner that members understand and expect the church to keep watch over them. We pursue peace and holiness together (our mutual shared pursuit) by seeing to it that not one of us is led astray (our mutual shared oversight).
Let’s turn now to the rationale for these obligations of the New Covenant Community.
Heb. 12:18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
The basic rationale is that since New Covenant is greater and more substantial than the old, how much more are we in the New Covenant community to keep watch over each other in our share pursuit of peace and holiness. Remember, in the book of Hebrews we’ve seen time after time that the seen things are secondary and less real thats the unseen things of heaven, which are primary and lasting. If the Isrealites trembled at Mount Sinai, how much more should we tremble who have been brought to the feet of the unseen Mount Zion. If the Israelites trembled at the sound of the trumpet of the angels, here we have made our procession into the city of God in a festal gathering of angels innumerable. While the first covenant enrolled the people into the nation of Israel, we who are truly born again make up the invisible assembly of the firstborn with our names enrolled in heaven. Even Moses trembled before God, whereas Jesus Christ our great high priest boldly entered in and mediated this New Covenant. Whereas the blood of Abel cried out from the ground seeking justice the blood of Christ cries out, “Grace”!
If the first, inferior covenant brought the children of Israel into community with one another and called them to a shared mutual focus and shared mutual oversight, how much more does Christ’s superior New Covenant call us into the same sort of community.
Finally, similar to the Old Covenant which came with blessings and curses, so to does this New Covenant, and this is how the passage concludes, with a warning and promise to those assembled.
Heb. 12:25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
A warning is Issued to those hypocrites who presume blessing without repentance
Being a member of the body of Christ does not replace a listening obedience heart of faith. Yet today you can find a place of repentance, trust in the finished work of Jesus and his blood.
A promise is issued to those faithful who rest in the unshakable kingdom of God
What an encouragement to those Hebrews who saw their world shaking around them. What an encouragement to us, when we see the world crumbling around us, that God’s kingdom cannot be shaken.