June 15, 1997
What matters in the Christian life is not a series of flashy performances but steady persistence that lasts over time. In this message, Alistair Begg unpacks several commands that believers must follow if we are going to endure and grow in discipleship. As Hebrews makes clear, those who wish to reach spiritual maturity must pursue harmony, holiness, and growth in grace. Meanwhile, we must reject bitterness, immorality, and godlessness, remembering that it is the Lord who requires our acceptable worship.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, can I invite you to turn with me to Hebrews chapter 12? If you are here and you don’t have a Bible, I suggest strongly that you reach into the pew in front of you and get ahold of a Bible. Because it’s very, very important to me that you actually understand that what is being said here is in the Bible. The profit involved in listening to somebody talk for a while is very small, no matter how good they are at talking. And the real impetus for anything taking place is in the dawning awareness that what is being said here is actually not just something that this gentleman has decided to feel passionate about, but it is actually the very Word of God that he has given to us in the Bible. And it is with that conviction that we come to all that we do. And it is certainly with that conviction that I come to this study tonight.
Hebrews chapter 12, and we are picking up our studies at the twelfth verse. We noted this morning that in discipline, it is a privilege; that its purpose is in order that we might be conformed to God, that it is for our holiness; and that the product of discipline, according to verse 11, is “righteousness and peace.” And the emphasis this morning was upon the reaction: that we should accept discipline by focusing not upon how it hurts in the present but upon what it holds for us in the future.
Now, when we come here to the twelfth verse, the writer moves on from teaching us how to accept discipline to show us how we can advance in discipleship. And F. F. Bruce, in his commentary on this particular section, gives it a title, “Let Us, Then, Be Up and Doing.” “Let Us, Then, Be Up and Doing.” If that has kind of a British ring to it, you should not be surprised, because F. F. Bruce, of course, was an Englishman, and he speaks with that kind of clarity.
Now, this particular section, not only through the seventeenth verse but all the way through to the end of the chapter, draws very heavily on the Old Testament. And so, what I’d like to do is to employ a phrase which comes in verse 15, it comes again in verse 25, and it almost comes in verse 16, and it is the phrase “see to it.” “See to it.” In other words, it is a phrase of direction. It’s the kind of phrase that parents use in telling their children that they want them to take care of something: “I want you to see to it,” that they say. If they leave, they may say, “See to it that you water the plants. See to it that you make sure the dog is fed. See to it that you lock the door at night,” and so on. And the person has to make a list, and they’re in no doubt whatsoever that the reason the list has been left with such clarity is in order not to hinder the individual but in order to help them.
Now, what we have here, then, in the second half of Hebrews 12 is a “see to it” list for the Christian life. And as we think about it, we realize again that in this journey, the real emphasis, the real need, is not upon a few special performances but is rather upon steady persistence that lasts all the time. Most of us can manage to come up with the odd burst of enthusiasm now and then, and that is not particularly difficult. We may impress people for a moment or two with that, but the real challenge is to stay the course over the long haul. And I think that is what impresses most of us when we look at the lives of other people: not that they are a kind of flash-in-the-pan person, but they are able to sustain it over the long haul.
And so it is that before us we have a number of these points of emphasis, and what I’d like to do is to confront you with the fact that they are here not as optional extras, but they are here as obligations. And where it doesn’t say “see to it,” I’m going to add “see to it” to it, so that you can have them all the same. And I think I have six of them, but I’m not going to dwell long on any of them.
Number one, then, in verses 12 and 13: “See to it that you keep strong and keep straight.” “See to it that you keep strong and keep straight.”
The writer is quoting, first of all, here in verse 12, from Isaiah 35:3. And when you turn to that at your leisure, you will discover that the prophet there is describing the way of holiness. And as he describes the highway of holiness, he describes also the characteristics of those who walk on that highway. And the picture of listless hands or “feeble arms and weak knees” is simply a familiar description of discouragement and despair, in much the same way that we could refer to a sportsman who was playing fairly well; he was perhaps doing well in the golf; he was quite a considerable number of holes under par, strokes under par, and then he made a hash of it; in one hole he took a triple bogie; and the commentator says, “Ah, his chin has dropped.” And as a result of that, his posture changes. To that point, he’d been walking with a relative confidence up the fairway. Now he begins to slouch. Now his arms lose something of their vigor. Now his legs begin to droop a little more in the middle. And the writer is using this picture. He says, “I don’t want you to buckle. I don’t want you to fold. I want to ensure that you stay straight and you stay strong.”
You see, one of the great challenges that was facing these early readers was the challenge to keep their chins up. Despondency is one of the great avenues of attack that comes from the Evil One—simply to discourage God’s people. And he can use it in our lives to great effect. He uses it to great effect in the lives of people who are involved in ministry, not least of all in pastoral ministry.
I recall some time ago doing a seminar at the Moody Bible Institute at the Pastors’ Conference. It was, I think, the very first occasion that I had gone there to speak at the Pastors’ Conference. No one knew my name―not that they know it particularly now, but they definitely didn’t know it then―and there was absolutely no reason why they would attend the seminar that I was giving, insofar as many of the seminars were being given by some of the well-known people within the Christian community. But my seminar was the largest attended seminar of all the seminars. Now, why was that? Well, interestingly, because I said that I would give a seminar on dealing with ministerial depression―that I would speak to pastors about what it is to face despondency and discouragement in the ministry. We filled all the seats, people sat on the floor, and there was standing room only.
Anybody who has the impression that to serve Christ, as these individuals were seeking to serve Christ, is to somehow or another walk around in a blissful unawareness of the realities of life has never, ever known the experience for themselves. And therefore, it is not a word that simply rings in their ears; it is a word that reverberates in their hearts. It is imperative that those who seek to follow Christ are prepared to declare, “I absolutely refuse to gratify the devil by being downhearted.” Because one of the things that he will try to do is to see our arms enfeebled and to see our knees buckling.
And so, it is imperative that we keep strong, and also that we keep straight. That’s the reference here, quoting from Proverbs chapter 4: “Make level paths for your feet.” We need not only to be levelheaded, but we need to level-footed. Failure to follow the straight path of grace will have a harmful effect on others who are running around us. The people who have begun to limp don’t want to be in the company of a bunch of limpers; they want to be in the company of people who are strong, because they don’t all want to be limping and stumbling along the road. You need a few strong chaps with you in order to hold one another up. And the folks who are wandering from the path, the last people they should hang with are people who are also wandering from the path. What they need are people who are staying strong and staying straight. And the great challenge, you see, is to allow ourselves to be vacillating and to be dislocated, not only, as it were, in the joints of our bodies but in our very commitment to the journey.
So, that’s the first one. “See to it that you stay strong and you stay straight.” Now, you might want to just put a little note to yourself, which is, “How strong am I, and how straight am I? And am I stronger and straighter than this time last year? Or am I weaker and drifting? And what do I need to do in response to this word?” It’s on the “see to it” list.
Secondly, “See to it that you pursue harmony and holiness.” That’s the significance here in verse 14: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy,” because “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Now, the phrase here, “make every effort,” is a graphic phrase. The writer is not saying, “Why don’t you have a go at it? Why don’t you give it a try? Why don’t you take a chance?” No, he is saying, “I want you to pursue this with the same kind of passion that hounds pursue a fox.” That is actually the verb that is used. It was a verb that was used for the straining of the muscles and sinews of a horse in running or a hound in pursuit of its quarry. Now he says, “If you want to be the kind of people who don’t shrink back and are destroyed but who continue and are saved, then you need to see to it that you make sure that you are applying yourself to harmony and to holiness.” “Make every effort to live in peace with all men.”
Now, there’s something reassuring in that, is there not? In other words, it’s not straightforward to live in peace with all men. It takes effort to live in peace with all men. And the Bible is very realistic. And the danger is that, again, we abandon the quest for harmony, we are happy when we come to roadblocks on the way to happiness and holiness and harmonious living, and we just chuck it. He says, “I don’t want you to do that.”
“And incidentally,” he says, “the harmony that you seek with one another is not at the expense of holiness.” Indeed, it is holiness which provides the framework for the harmony that we enjoy. The Bible is clear about this. We saw this when we studied in 1 Thessalonians. First Thessalonians 4:3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” and “that you should avoid sexual immorality.” It’s perfectly clear. You don’t have a discussion about it. First Corinthians 6:20, Paul says, “You [were] not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” This isn’t an optional extra. This is not something that you can add to your life like electric windows on a car: “Well, I think I’ll have the optional extra,” someone says. The writer says, “This is not an optional extra. This very thing gives evidence that you really belong to Christ.”
Because it is as we make every effort to live in peace with all men and to pursue holiness that we declare the fact that we’re different. Otherwise, how does anyone know that we’re different? How do I know I’m different? All I’m doing, then, is I’m just talking. If there is no change in my heart, if there is no change in my expectations, if there is no pursuit, if people don’t spend time with me and say, “This guy’s going for the goal, this guy is going for the gold,” then they would presume that simply I have a strange interest in things religious. And that’s why, you see, it is in our lives lived that we begin to declare the fact that the list is not simply something stuck on the refrigerator door, but it is something that is fastened into the very core of our being, and it is beginning to change us.
Thirdly, and in verse 15: “See to it that you grow in grace and not in bitterness.” “See to it that you grow in grace and not in bitterness.” Look at what he says: “Don’t miss the grace of God.” “Don’t miss the grace of God.” “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” Isn’t that an interesting phrase? How do you miss the grace of God? If it is the grace of God that sets our feet at the entryway to the path of faith, and it is the grace of God that enables us to continue on the pathway and to complete the journey, how do you miss the grace of God? I’ll tell you how you do.
Paul, when he writes in 2 Corinthians 6:1, he says, “We urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” How is God’s grace communicated to us? Well, it is communicated to us in the Scriptures. And when the Scriptures are taught, it is possible for us, metaphorically or literally, simply to sit around with our fingers in our ears. And God ministers his grace through his Word in the revealing of his Son, and people attend upon the means of grace―part of which is the teaching of the Scriptures, part of which is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, part of which is the enjoyment of fellowship with one another. And what happens is that it all becomes external. People say, “Yes, I was there, and I listened, but I never heard a thing. Yes, I was there, and I participated, but it didn’t mean a thing. Yes, I was there, and they were there, and I spoke with them, but I don’t care about them.” What’s happening? There’s just the constant missing of the grace of God.
That’s why when James writes, he says, “Make sure that when you’re receiving the Word of God as it is taught to you, that you make sure that the soil of your souls is not acidic and is not full of alkaline.” Because those are the very things: envy and bitterness and anger and rage and despondency make our souls impervious to that which God has given us for our best. If we miss the grace of God, it is not on account of it being inaccessible to us but because we are not availing ourselves of it.
“Don’t miss the grace of God,” and “Don’t mess around with bitter roots”: “See to it that … no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Now, he’s using a picture here that emerges from the Old Testament―actually, from Deuteronomy and from chapter 29, I think. It’s always nerve-racking when you mention the chapter and then go to look for it. Deuteronomy 29:15. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all in looking at it. Oh yes, it’s a little further on. This is the renewal of the covenant, and verse 16:
You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
That’s interesting that it talks about roots. Because you can’t see roots the majority of the time. So people say, “Well, we don’t have any of that around us here.” You know, “We don’t have any of those things.” Apparently not. But what about the roots? “No, I don’t have that in my life. I mean, you can check, you can look at me.” Yes, but what about the roots―the bitter roots that defile, that cause trouble?
I had a little session this week with dandelions. You know how much I love dandelions. And Sue got me an implement. I’ve now moved on from the screwdriver. I’ve gone upmarket; actually, I borrowed the appliance from the lady next door. But I’ve now come up with what is essentially like a screwdriver, only it has a thing like this at the end so that you’re able to go down and wiggle it, which is a lot better than the screwdriver, ’cause often I was missing it, but now I can go at it and get it up. And the intriguing thing is, I never found a dandelion on its own―I mean, just, like, sitting somewhere by itself. Every dandelion I went for was wrapped around the roots of something I wanted to keep. And so you couldn’t get out what needed to come out without harming stuff that you wanted to leave in.
And that’s why the writer says, “Make sure that you don’t allow the root structures of bitterness to become embedded in your lives.” Because when we have to go in and do surgery on them, the stuff that comes out with it makes it very, very painful. And so we have to apply and implement procedures within our fellowships to deal with sin. And the time to deal with it is when the root is small, not when it is big. And we do have some roots in our yard that come from the trees, and they are impossibilities, at least for me. Because they’ve been there so long, and they’ve gone so many places; they’ve gone under pathways, they’re embedded in concrete, they’re wrapped around and in and through brickwork. Goodness, you’d have to bring half your house down to take up these roots!
We were praying in our elders’ meeting this evening, in part, that God would make sure that no such bitter roots become embedded here at Parkside Church. Because we can have a nice place, and we can have another nice place and another nice place. But interestingly, Cleveland is filled with nice buildings—churches all across Cleveland that tonight are in total darkness. Actually, in the mornings they’re in total darkness too. They didn’t set out to be dark, lonely, empty places. What happened? Well, they didn’t pay attention to the “see to it” list. And what happened was that over time they lost confidence in the Scriptures, they lost confidence in the sufficiency of Christ, and they began to do things just out of a sense of routine. And the root structure became so embittered and so embedded that it has actually begun to rot the very core of the building.
Now the fourth one, in verse 16: “See to it that immorality and godlessness are rejected.” “See to it that immorality and godlessness are rejected.” There are two sides to holiness: the positive side, in which we’re told that we are set apart to God; the negative side, we are set apart from sin. And the society in which these readers lived was pagan, and consequently, immorality was given a place of exaltation, much as it is in twentieth-century America. And so the writer says, “It’s very important, if you’re going to live in this world, as you are, that you make sure that you don’t allow this root structure to get in, and at the same time that you don’t tolerate sexual immorality—that you don’t begin to worship the creature rather than the Creator, which will lead in turn to all kinds of chaos.”
And that, incidentally, is the reference here to Esau: “See [to it] that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” What is that all about? Where did he pop up from all of a sudden? How does that apply? Simply in this way: physical appetite meant more to Esau in the heat of the moment than the birthright that was due him as a heritage in his home. And so he sold out in a moment for something that he could’ve got anywhere, anytime, and in abundance.
Do you know how many people have sold out in a moment in the area of sexual immorality? You can build your life for thirty years and throw it away in five minutes because you won’t “see to it”? You don’t need a prayer meeting about this. You don’t need to have a big discussion group. You just need to see to it! That’s what you say to your children all the time: “We don’t want to have a big discussion about this. Just take the garbage cans out. Just see to it. Why do we have to have a discussion? There is no discussion! They’re in. They’re supposed to be out. Get ’em out!”
Now, that’s the same thing. This garbage can of immorality is right here. It stinks! See to it that it’s out of here. Every inroad that sexual immorality would make into our hearts and minds is to be resisted, not in order that God would accept us but because we’re aware of the fact that God in his grace has accepted us. So we’re not doing the “see to it” list in the hope that we might get to heaven. We’re doing the “see to it” list because God has said that he’s going to take us to heaven on the basis of his Son, and we’re seeing to it because that’s what sons and daughters ought to do.
Verse 17, look at the sadness afterwards: “As you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could[n’t] bring about [a] change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.” Interestingly, the reason that he wept was for the blessing that he’d lost, not on account of the sin that he’d committed.
Now, I want just to come to two more points, but I want to give you a summary of what is in front of you here in verse 18 and following: “You[’ve] not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm” and so on. “But,” verse 22, “you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” What is this about?
Well, what the writer does here is he paints a wonderful picture once again. And on one side he paints Mount Sinai. And Mount Sinai is representative of the giving of the law. And on the other hand he paints the picture of Mount Zion, which is representative of the coming of the gospel in the Lord Jesus. And he reminds these folks that they have not come to this mountain of the law―to legalism―but rather that they have come to the mountain of Zion, which is full of light and joy and peace and reality. “You were there,” he says. “You lived like that before. You were afraid of God. You were doing all these things because you thought that God would accept you for doing them. You were trying to earn your own way to heaven. But you came to Mount Zion, and you came to the new Jerusalem, and you came to understand who Jesus is. And in that moment, it suddenly made sense to you: ‘I don’t have to earn my way to heaven! Jesus died on the cross. Under the basis of his shed blood, I may go to heaven on the strength of what he has done.’ That was radical.”
Now he says, “I don’t want you to go back and live over there. Don’t go back and live over there. This is where you live. You live over here.” They have arrived not at the foot of an unapproachable earthly mountain, but they have arrived at the very threshold of the gates of a gloriously accessible and eternal city. He says, “You’re right there. You can see the finish line as you turn the corner into the final straight. Don’t quit!”
Fifthly, penultimately, verse 25: “See to it that you do[n’t] refuse him who speaks.” “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” Whoo! This is tremendous for these readers. ’Cause they know what he’s saying. He’s saying, “The prophets came walking across the stage of history to warn the people again and again.” And so often the people responded by putting their fingers in their ears and running for it: “Oh, we don’t want to hear this. We don’t like this word from the prophets. We want nice prophets. We want cheery prophets. We want prophets that come and tell us lovely things. And here comes Amos, and he’s a right wailing prophet. And here comes Jeremiah, and he’s always crying in his beard. And here comes Isaiah, and he’s got some dreadful things to say. And here comes Jonah pronouncing the destruction of Nineveh. Give us a few decent guys, would you? We want to go to church and have a nice time.”
No, he says, “When they refused him who warned them on earth, do you remember what happened to them? Do you remember the Babylonian captivity? Do you remember the sound of the boots of the alien soldiers coming in and ripping children out of their homes and taking the people of God into captivity?” He says, “You remember the history, don’t you?” He said, “Well, let me just put the argument to you as clear as I can: If God did that to people who refused his earthly prophets, what do you think he’s going to do to those who refuse the word of his Son, which comes to you from heaven?” And how does the word of God’s Son come to us from heaven? It comes to us by way of the book that he has left to us, the Bible. And how does it come by way of the Bible? It comes by way of the Spirit of God taking the Bible and saying to somebody as they listen to it preached, or as they read it for themselves, or as they discuss it with others, saying deep into the core of an individual, “This book is true. You better do what it says.” It is like no other book at all.
Ironically, I noted this afternoon, watching a portion of the United States Open, that the USGA came up with a quite incredible advertisement. I wonder, did you see it? They did the advertisement with, like, a boys’ choir or an angelic choir singing in the background—not a Gregorian chant but singing what was clearly religious music. And up onto the screen, against an image of the golf course, comes first of all—and I can’t put them in order, but it came up like, “Thou shalt leave no spike marks. Thou shalt…” And it came up with about six commandments. And then it faded to the voice-over: “For those who worship golf, we have provided you with a bible.” And it cut to the rule book of the USGA. And I said to myself, “This is incredible!” Because there are twenty-five million people in America saying to themselves, “That’s right! That’s right! We must do what that book says! We must abide by the letter of the law of that book. That book is our very lifeline. Otherwise, we’ll be disqualified.” And I could just see all the people; I could imagine them sitting in their house going, “Right on! What a great commercial.”
Now I’d like to do one! Similar music. “Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Can you imagine the outrage? “Who are these people that put this on the TV? Where did you come up with this stuff?” Do you think this is a relevant word? “If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?”
Will you heed the warning tonight, if you’re here and you’re an unbeliever? Why does he warn us? Because he loves us. “Don’t go down that broad road any longer,” he says. “I’m gonna tell you, although the sign over the broad road says ‘Happiness and Heaven and Fun and Games,’ I want you to know,” he says, “down there is hell.” And our friends and our neighbors say, “Oh, don’t listen to that stuff. Find a nice prophet. Find someone who’ll encourage you in your life. Don’t listen to that stuff.” “See to it.”
And finally, in verse 28: “See to it that you worship God acceptably.” “See to it that you worship God acceptably.” “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably.” What does it mean to worship God acceptably? He tells us: “with reverence and [with] awe.” In other words, not with superficiality, not with triviality. There ought to be about every experience of worship―irrespective of the genre or the style of the event―there ought to be that about the experience of worship which is marked by awe. And more than any style of worship, I long for a genuine sense of awe when the people of God set about the business of declaring his glory.
And indeed, it is only in that experience of genuine awe, which recognizes that worship that is God’s begins with God and his glory rather that with man and his need. It’s not about whether I’m satisfied. It’s not about whether I’m enjoying it. It’s not about whether it was long or short, or fat or thin, or contemporary or ancient. It is about whether, out of a thankful heart, I have come like Moses to take the shoes off my feet in recognition of the fact that “God is a consuming fire.”
Well, we’ve hastened through a lot of material. Let me recap for you, and I’ll pray.
See to it that you keep strong and keep straight.
See to it that you pursue harmony and holiness.
See to it that you grow in grace and not in bitterness.
See to it that immorality and godlessness are rejected.
See to it that you don’t refuse him who speaks.
See to it that you worship God acceptably.
Father, we thank you that you haven’t left us to our own devices to struggle and try and think of things to say, but that you’ve given us your Word, and it is that Word which is all- powerful and life-changing. And we pray today that you will write your Word in our hearts. We pray that you will send us out from here, on this first day of the week, in the power of your Spirit to declare the good news; to sound the warnings; to be as lamps, as it were, in darkness; to be as lighthouses on the raging seas of the lives of turmoil that are all around us. May your Word find a resting place in our hearts tonight. May none of us miss the grace of God. For the sake of your Son, the Lord Jesus, we ask it. Amen.
 Proverbs 4:26 (NIV 1984).
 See Hebrews 10:39.
 1 Corinthians 6:19–20.
 See James 1:21.
 See Romans 1:25.
 See Exodus 20:1‒17.
 See Exodus 3:5.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.