Digging in Deeper: Hebrews 12:15-17

“Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many. And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for a single meal. For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, even though he sought it with tears, because he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

All product user guides follow the same basic format. They begin with warnings, go on to instructions for proper use, and end with a section on troubleshooting. Troubleshooting is essentially one more set of warnings. It is a list of things that might go wrong, and what to do if they happen. Here, as we draw near to the end of the letter, the author of Hebrews offers us a bit of troubleshooting. Let’s take a look at one last warning and how we can avoid some trouble.

In the last verse we looked at last week (refresh yourself on that here), we saw the author of Hebrews call us to the righteousness of God. Here, we see him offer one last warning for us. This time, he focuses on two different things that both spring from a single source: missing out on the grace of God.

Now, that idea by itself is a pretty scary one. God’s grace is supposed to be for everyone. How could someone miss out on it? If you’ll think about it for just a second, those two ideas aren’t contradictory. God’s grace is indeed for everyone, but if someone doesn’t ever accept it, it is possible for them to miss out on it.

Okay, perhaps that’s true, but still, how could that happen? I’ve honestly been wrestling with getting my heart and mind around these verses (and in fact all three of our passages from the end of chapter 12 for this week), but I think I’ve finally gotten somewhere with the Spirit’s help. Stay with me here, though (and for the next couple of days), because this gets a little tricky.

After cautioning us against missing out on God’s grace by falling short of it, the author offers us two different indicators that someone is in danger of this terrible end. The first indicator is a root of bitterness. What is this? He’s talking about a person’s heart that has been overcome by bitterness. Bitterness is pretty uniformly a result of unforgiveness that has taken root in someone’s heart. Exactly what the original offense was doesn’t matter. The problem is that instead of forgiving the offense, the person has hung onto it. Rather than seeking to heal the wound the offense caused, it has been allowed to sit open and fester.

The thing about bitterness like this is that it doesn’t go away over time. Time is not a healer of wounds, contrary to the old adage. Just like with a physical wound, a spiritual or relational or emotional wound has to be addressed. Sure, the skin may heal up over the initial tear, but on the inside, an undressed wound can allow for infection to creep in which will eventually kill you. A broken bone that isn’t properly set can heal incorrectly resulting in a lifetime handicap. When it comes to wounds to our spirits caused by another person offending us in some way, forgiveness is the only way to dress and set things properly. Without it, bitterness begins to set in.

Allowing bitterness to take root in our hearts is like setting a glass of poison down in front of an enemy, drinking it, and then waiting for the enemy to die. It spreads throughout our hearts and minds and gradually becomes the lens through which we engage with everything and everyone in our lives. Like the author notes, it can cause all kinds of trouble and will make a mess of all our other relationships whether they are connected to the one that served as the vehicle for the original offense or not.

Worse than that, this bitterness can result in our being separated from God. Jesus was as clear as He could possibly be that if we don’t forgive others for their sins against us, we won’t have access to God’s forgiveness of our sins against Him. This is not because God is being petty, it is because we have moved ourselves out of the reach of His forgiveness. We are causing ourselves to miss out on God’s grace not because it isn’t being offered still, but because we have moved ourselves outside its circle of influence and are refusing to come back and receive it. This is serious business. If you have unforgiveness in your heart, move heaven and earth to extend forgiveness. Do whatever you can to avoid a root of bitterness taking hold.

The second indicator of someone in danger of missing out on God’s grace is a pattern of immorality. How exactly we are to understand this example is a matter of some debate among translators and interpreters. The Greek word the CSB I always use translates as simply “immoral” is the word pornos. Its most literal meaning is a man who is engaging in a sexual act with another man. Accordingly, many other translations use the phrase “sexually immoral” instead of merely “immoral” in their translation of this verse. The trouble with this fairly natural approach to translating the Greek is that the example the author uses here is Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. Esau was a lot of things in his various appearances in the Genesis narrative, but sexually immoral was not one of them. It could be that the author is relying on extra-biblical Jewish literature that was familiar to his audience, and which painted Esau in a more sexually deviant light than Genesis does, but the pairing of pornos with a word that means something like “irreverent” or “godless” suggests the approach of the CSB may be the best one.

More to the author’s larger point, though, a person who has fallen into a pattern of immoral behavior can be an indicator that he is steadily moving himself outside the reach of God’s grace. But wait, doesn’t God’s grace offered through Christ cover all sins? How could an immoral lifestyle not be covered by that? Is there some specific sin that is finally a bridge too far for grace to reach?

No, I don’t believe so. Nor do I see any Scripture that would suggest otherwise. Instead, what the author is talking about here is a pattern of behavior. One sin, God can forgive. Two sins, God can forgive. Three sins, God can forgive. We could keep counting on up ad infinitum, and God would forgive them all. But if we continue in a pattern of sin, something gradually begins to happen in our hearts. The more we sin, and the more sin comes to characterize our behavior, the more our hearts get hard. And when our hearts get hard, the problem we face is no longer God’s willingness to forgive us and to extend His grace to us (that never changes), but rather it is with our willingness to repent and receive His grace.

The danger here that the author wants us to not miss is that we fall into one of these patterns (unforgiveness or immorality) and don’t realize what we’ve done until it’s too late. That’s the Esau connection. He unthinkingly did what was convenient and felt good in a moment, but failed to consider what the impact would be later on down the road. Sin always feels good in the moment (and if it doesn’t, then you’re probably not doing it right…although it’s not a bad thing to be inept at sinning). If we give ourselves entirely to the immediate instead of the eternal, then when the time for eternity arrives, we could tragically discover we’ve made ourselves unfit for it. And if that discovery comes past the point at which all sales are final, we’ll be left out in the cold and unable to come to the party.

So then, what do we do with this? Well, we make sure we’re not on one of these two tracks. Keep a short account with the people around you. If you’ve been offended in some way, forgive quickly and easily. There is no offense great enough that your refusal to forgive is worth missing out on eternal life (especially when God has already forgiven them in Christ). And if you have an area of sin in your life you are letting go unaddressed, address it. Get help addressing it if you need that (and the odds are good that you need that). Make sure that your greatest and best efforts are given to pursuing the righteous example of Jesus with the Spirit’s help. That moment of fun is not worth a hard heart that can’t receive the forgiveness God is trying to extend to you in Christ. In short: pursue a relationship with Jesus and its outworking with every fiber of your being. You’ll most certainly be glad you did.

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