To the idolatrous and immoral
What’s your biggest struggle in this pandemic?
Maybe that seems like a stupid question, but it’s an important one because when we’re faced with challenges, we can fool ourselves into thinking that the challenge is the greatest struggle. We just need to survive. Or we need to keep clear of the virus. Or we need to figure out how to get our church community back into the building. Or we need to know how to care for people who have been bereaved or made redundant.
These are all important. But none of these is the greatest struggle facing you.
The first readers of Hebrews weren’t in the midst of a pandemic. Their challenge was opposition from their community and families because of their Christian faith. Strikingly, though, the writer doesn’t even see that as the main challenge. He describes their principle ‘struggle’ as being ‘against sin’ (Heb. 12.4).
That’s always the biggest challenge.
Our problem isn’t primarily ‘out there’ in the world, struggling with coronavirus, but ‘in here.’ Our greatest struggle is against the temptation to commit sins, that are always ready to entangle us (Heb. 12.1). In Hebrews 12.15-17, the writer identifies three. He challenges us to watch out for these in ourselves and in other believers. Those of us in leadership will have a special role in this oversight (see Heb. 13.7), but mutual care and attention to the well-being of all is the responsibility of the whole community.
The ultimate danger the writer is warning against is apostasy – that some of his readers might abandon Jesus altogether and return to Judaism. The sins of verses 15-17, in their fullest form, would be nothing less than a rejection of the faith. But apostasy isn’t usually an overnight decision. Its seeds are sown long before its fruit is eaten. So, I think it’s important to identify these sins in their earliest stages, and to guard our hearts against them.
The first sin is the basis of the other two: the possibility that we fail to obtain God’s grace (v.15a). Earlier in the book, the writer urged his readers to come confidently to God’s ‘throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4.16). So, the question isn’t whether God’s grace is available – it’s abundant – or whether we can do enough to earn it – it’s free – but whether we receive it. Will we come to God through Jesus?
Times of struggle should be times of increased prayerfulness. God’s gracious provision saves us from the other two sins described in verses 15-17.
The first sin is becoming a ‘root of bitterness’ among God’s people (v.15b). The phrase comes from Deuteronomy 29.18-20, describing a person who produces bitter fruit because they have turned from God to worship other gods. On the surface, this person seems like part of the covenant community. However, in his heart, he convinces himself that his idolatry is justifiable because he’s covered by the words of the covenant. He’s described as ‘stubborn.’
And stubborn hearts bear bitter fruit.
This certainly happened in Israel, where people began to grumble against God and His appointed leader, Moses. The rebellion of the nation started with hearts that one by one became bitter and fell into idolatry. Playing around with idols impacts the whole community. We can cause trouble and defile many.
In Hebrews, the writer warns against people who sow division and discord rather than pursuing peace with one another. In verse 14, he urges the people to be united in pursuing Jesus. You’ve seen it in your church, haven’t you? I’m sure you’ve met those who allow their problems to dominate their thinking, so that they inevitably slip out in conversation. They spread negativity and criticism among God’s people. Instead of encouraging others, they are a discouragement. Thanksgiving is squeezed out by complaint. Generosity to people who differ from us on non-essentials (for example, how to interpret government guidance on physical meetings) is replaced with judgementalism and gossip.
When we behave like this, we damage others and we may even defile many. First, make sure that isn’t you, but second, don’t let it get a grip in your community. Nip it in the bud. Speak to such people and focus on the heart. You won’t remove the bad fruit unless they renovate the bitter heart. Captivate them with Jesus. Encourage them in the gospel. Inspire them with grace. And if they won’t receive God’s grace, keep praying and be ready to discipline them for the sake of the whole community.
The second sin that sets in when we don’t receive God’s grace is immorality (v.16-17). In Hebrews, the standout Old Testament example of this is Esau, who lost the promises because he despised his birthright (Gen. 25.29-34; 27.1-40). Here was a man who couldn’t see past what this world offered – a bowl of stew – to the inestimably greater promises of God – his birthright and his line in the covenant.
We may not reject God altogether as Esau did, but during struggles, it’s easy to veer to the right or left into temptations to indulge our appetites, sexual or otherwise. When we feel weary or hardened, we’re prone to indulge our appetites as a way to distract us. We use them to compensate for the burden we feel. As we do that, we spiral further away from the throne of grace. We need to confess these sins, and break the habits that support them. Here are just a few:
Staying up too late.
Mindlessly browsing the internet.
Flicking through the channels, binge watching without discernment.
Stocking our cupboards with high sugar foods.
There are many more.
It’s time for an honest assessment of our hearts. What forms of immorality have crept into our lives over these months? And what about the people we lead? Are we asking them? Are we challenging them? Do we know them well enough to recognise the signs? Of course, COVID has made it harder to visit people, but faithful shepherds won’t leave the sheep unsupported. In our preaching, we need to be honest about the sins that so easily entangle us. In our pastoral conversations, by Zoom or in a garden if not on the sofa, we need to listen well, and help people see their need of grace to forgive. God’s grace is well able to sustain them through temptation. Remind them of this.
We cannot play around with sin. God is a consuming fire (v.29). He loves us with a jealous love, and He will have no rivals. Furthermore, He wants us to bear the peaceful fruit of righteousness (v.11). More of that in the next post, when we’ll look at God’s goals for us as we go through trials.
For now, though, you need a bigger vision of His holiness, and so do your people. You also need a greater grasp of His grace, and so do they. So make God’s holiness and grace the great themes of your teaching and your life.
This week, we're releasing the first of David Partington's articles on addiction, called "Garbage, or Grace and Glory?". In this article, David Partington and friends explore addiction and provide an "insider's view" on how God can be at work.