Hebrews 12 – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries
CHRIST’S EXPECTATIONS OF BETTER SERVICE FROM US
This final division of Hebrews is a sustained exhortation designed to establish wavering Christians more firmly in faith. In preceding chapters, the Christ has already been exalted as the source of available power in believers, and his superiority over anything available to the ancient heroes of the Old Testament has been stressed repeatedly. This great privilege and power should result in a more faithful community of believers in the love and service of God.
THE RACE OF LIFE;
THE CHASTENING OF BELIEVERS FOR THEIR CORRECTION;
A WARNING FROM EXAMPLE OF ESAU;
MOUNT ZION CONTRASTED WITH SINAI
Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
THE FIFTH EXHORTATION
Here begins the fifth and last of a series of grand exhortations in this epistle, all of them having a single purpose, which was to check the threatened defection of Christians back to Judaism. The author achieved a marvelous urgency in his words and argument. The great exhortations exhibit his purpose in writing; and of all the considerations called forth from their history and from their scriptures had only one design, namely, to keep them in the holy faith. The success of the inspired author is evident in the fact that for nearly two thousand years it has been practically impossible for Christians to be proselyted to Judaism; and yet that was the big problem confronted by the author of Hebrews. True, his readers had grown up in Judaism, or at least were of Jewish background and sentiments; but the judgment of history can only confirm the success of Hebrews in achieving its purpose.
The analogy brought forward in this exhortation is between a foot race, such as those seen in the great Olympic games, and the race of life. This type of comparison was used a number of times by Paul; and the appearance of that apostle’s favorite metaphor in this epistle surely suggests his authorship of it.
A great cloud of witnesses has primary application to the imposing list of Old Testament heroes just detailed in the preceding chapter; and, in the metaphor of a great athletic contest before a vast throng in a coliseum, these witnesses correspond to the spectators; but there is much difference of opinion regarding the question of whether the inspired writer intends to say that the departed faithful actually see and know all that subsequent generations do, or if, on the other hand, it is only a figure of speech, such as Napoleon used when he told his army in Egypt, “Soldiers, forty centuries are looking down on your deeds today!”
Barnes said of this expression, “It is a figurative representation, such as is common, and means that we ought to act AS IF they were in sight.” Lenski also rejects the concept of the ancient worthies as spectators, saying, “The souls of the saints are at rest; they are no longer concerned about the trials that occur on earth.” Macknight wrote, “The apostle did not mean to insinuate that the saints in the other world know what we are doing in this.” Cargill went so far as to say, “The word `witness’ never means spectator.” It is certain that Cargill’s view is not sustained by passages like these: “Confess the good confession before many witnesses” (2 Timothy 6:12), where the witnesses of Timothy’s confession were necessarily spectators, else they could not have been witnesses; and the same thing is true in this epistle (Hebrews 10:28) where the mention of “two or three witnesses” requires that they too be understood as spectators. The purpose here is not to list the opposite views of scholars but to show the uncertainty of the meaning. Alford, as quoted by Milligan, affirmed that “They who have entered into the heavenly rest are conscious of what passes among ourselves.” Milligan approved that view, saying, “The spirits of the just made perfect are real witnesses of our conduct.” Westcott, Dummelow, and Bruce also find the meaning of “spectators” in the word, while admitting that it has other meanings as well. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has purposely used a word here that is not intended to be fully comprehended until God shall make all plain. On the question of whether the righteous dead know exactly what Christians in this age are doing, this verse, at best, could give only an intimation, and would have to be understood in the light of all else that the scriptures say on this subject. The conversation of Christ with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:30) is enlightening on this point. The view most nearly corresponding to that of this writer is the one expressed by Westcott, who said:
At the same time it is impossible to exclude the thought of spectators in the amphitheater … These champions of old occupy the place of spectators, but they are more than spectators. They are spectators who interpret to us the meaning of our struggle, and who bear testimony to the certainty of our success if we strive lawfully (2 Timothy 2:5).
Lay aside every weight is the order for all who would win in the Christian race. There are two classes of impediments to be avoided by the successful contender in the race of life, the first of these being “weights,” as mentioned here. This class of hindrance includes just about everything that can get in the way, or impede the Christian contender’s progress. Things not bad at all in themselves, but which, in the last analysis, hinder the work of the child of God must all be cast aside. Just as the runner in a race travels as lightly as possible, the Christians must avoid being weighted down with all kinds of worldly duties and commitments. What do Christians do with their time? There is the vacation cottage, the fraternal lodge, the club, the political party, the yacht, the alumni organization, the board of directors, the governing committee, the bridge club, the country club, the volunteer group, the P.T.A., the board of elections, the chamber of commerce, and a list of associations for almost any conceivable purpose, many of them no doubt worthy – but whatever one’s views about any or all such things, one fact is certain, no man can do all that and be a good Christian too! Far too many children of the King allow their time, talent, and money to be preempted by secondary things, things that must be recognized as “weights,” when understood in the light of their effect on dedication to Christ and his cause on earth.
And the sin which doth so easily beset us is the second class of hindrance the Christian contender must avoid. It refers to conduct inherently unrighteous, which is always a mortal enemy of faith. Nowhere else in the New Testament is the word equivalent to “easily besetting” to be found; and various views of what is meant by the expression have been advanced. The word from which such a modifier of “sin” comes is akin to the word “circumstance.” As Bristol noted, “The Latin translation is `circumstans’, denoting something that surrounds.” Adam Clarke observed this and defined the besetting sin accordingly, thus, “The well-circumstanced sin; that which has everything in its favor, time, and place, and opportunity.” If a paraphrase may be ventured, perhaps it means, “Lay aside the sin that is always so conveniently close to us.”
Run with patience the race that is set before us. Cargill described the race Christians must run as “Neither a saunter nor a stroll, but a race, a difficult struggle”; he also said, “The word for `race’ is [@agona] from which we get `agony.’ The race of life is an agonizing, grueling course and requires Christian endurance if one is to win.” “Patience,” then, is not merely sitting down and waiting until something happens. It means endurance and the power of perseverance, including the ability to finish what is begun. This metaphor of the race of life was especially dear to Paul who found a place for it in the last letter he ever wrote, saying, “I have finished the course, etc.” (2 Timothy 4:7). Other Pauline passages involving use of this metaphor are 1 Corinthians 9:24ff; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16; and 2 Timothy 2:5.
THE CHRISTIAN RACE
The metaphor comparing the Christian life to a race has the following Biblically supported analogies: (1) The contender must be legally enrolled in a contest in order to win: the Christian must contend lawfully by belonging to the church and accepting full obligations of Christian service (2 Timothy 2:5). (2) Some win and some do not (1 Corinthians 9:24). (3) For the contender in an athletic contest, discipline is an absolute prerequisite of success; the Christian runner, too, must lay aside every weight and the ever-convenient sin in order to win (Hebrews 12:1). (4) A host of spectators watch a race in the coliseum; the spirits of the just behold the efforts of the Christian contender (Hebrews 12:1). (5) Patience is required of both the athletic contestant and the Christian, endurance being necessary to win in both cases. (6) The winner is rewarded, the earthly contender with a perishable reward, the Christian with an eternal reward (1 Corinthians 9:25). (7) The analogy becomes a contrast in the matter of how many may win. In the earthly contest, only one receives the prize; but in the heavenly contest, every man may do so, since his victory does not depend upon any relationship between his achievement and the achievement of his fellow contestant. If he runs well, he may win; if all run well, all may win! How much better to run in such a contest where all may win.
 Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1963), Hebrews, p. 292.
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1938), p. 424;
 James Macknight, Apostolic Epistles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1960), p. 568.
 Robert L. Cargill, Understanding the Book of Hebrews (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1967), p. 115.
 R. Milligan, New Testament Commentary (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1962), Vol. 9, p. 341.
 Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), p. 391.
 Lyle O. Bristol, Hebrews, A Commentary (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: The Judson Press, 1967), p. 157.
 Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: Carlton and Porter, 1829), Vol. 6, p. 776.
 Robert L. Cargill, op. cit., p. 114.
Looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured on the cross, despising the shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Above the great cloud of witnesses is the great King himself, Jesus our Lord; and, although some doubt may prevail concerning the ability of the other witnesses mentioned to behold our trials, there is no doubt about this in regard to Christ. Indeed he does see, know, understand, and eternally intercede on our behalf that we might indeed win the prize. How wonderful is the contrast between such a spectator of our trials as Jesus and the vile Roman emperor, sitting in the stands of the Coliseum, dispensing life or death in heartless, capricious disregard of every virtue, and with total indifference to the human feelings and emotions of the contestants. Jesus is on our side. He died for us, beholds our trials, is sympathetic with our condition; and his holy desire is for our glorious success. He suffered and was tempted in every way as are we; but he prevailed and passed through such things to joy unspeakable and full of glory; and looking unto him, as here admonished, is the means of finding grace to follow his blessed example. “Looking unto Jesus” means focusing all of one’s spiritual vision upon the Lord; for it is true of us, no less than of Peter, that our strength is in beholding the Saviour; and just like Peter, who as long as he looked to the Lord walked on the sea, but who diverted his attention and began to sink, so long as Christians keep the Lord in view, they shall prevail over every trial (Matthew 14:30).
The author and perfecter of our faith means “captain and perfecter,” or as in the KJV, “the author and finisher” of our faith. Christ did not merely preach faith as an obligation for others but was himself a perfect demonstration of the life of faith while living in the limitations of the flesh, in spite of all the oppositions of the kingdom of evil. During his earthly ministry, Jesus exhibited true faith in all his actions without availing himself of any of the personal advantages derived from his supernatural powers. Thus, he performed no miracle for his own benefit, feeding his faith with the same word of God available to all, and having recourse to prayer, just like all other men, and even choosing not to know certain things, such as, for example, the day and hour of the end of the world (Matthew 24:36). In the sense, then, of having lived it to the fullest, Jesus perfected our faith, and, in addition, made the atoning sacrifice and built the institution which he called “my church” as a sanctuary for all who believe him.
Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, … sets forth the means of Christ’s power to endure the cross. It was from the full knowledge of the joy that would flow out of his victory. For the sake of setting the shame and the joy in proper contrast, we shall note the shame first. It is nearly impossible for modern man, so far removed from the event, to appreciate the full and dreadful meaning of the cross. Paul struggled to shock people’s minds on this very point, reminding the Galatians that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:33).
The death of our Lord upon the cross cast a heavenly glow even upon the rude and terrible instrument itself, encircled it with the nimbus of light and salvation, and made it to glow in the conscience of all mankind for two millenniums. Therefore, today, when people think of the cross, they think of that which is sacred in the song and story of two thousand years, that which is fashioned in gold and worn as an ornament of the good and the beautiful, that which stands in the most honored places of the world’s greatest cathedrals, and that which has become a symbol of love, mercy and truth. It is lifted to the sky atop a thousand thousand houses of worship all over the world; and it crowns the highest mountains, “towering o’er the wrecks of time.” It is painted on canvas, woven in tapestry, depicted in glass, engraved upon precious metals, and fashioned in costly jewels. It provides the most recurrent theme in the literature and music of Western civilization; and, in view of all this, it cannot be surprising that people fail to appreciate the shame of the cross, as intended by the author of Hebrews. In the days when our Lord confronted the cross and perished upon it, it symbolized the very opposite of all those glories associated with it ever since. It stood for degrading, humiliating, shameful, and horrible death, and for all the crimes, debaucheries, treacheries and brutal sins of which the cross was the penalty. Christ deeply felt the ignominy and repugnance associated with the cross and found the ability to endure it only by the contemplation of a greater joy that loomed beyond it, a joy that Christ himself would possess in superlative measure, and likewise a joy that would be made available to the millions of earth who would accept it.
The joy that was set before him was the joy of reversing, at last, the tragic defeat of humanity in the Paradise of Eden; the joy of knowing that Satan’s purpose of destroying man was foiled; the joy of “bringing many sons unto glory” (Hebrews 2:10); the joy of the saved entering heaven “with songs of everlasting joy upon their heads” (Isaiah 35:10); the joy of the herald angels’ “tidings of great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10); and such marvelous joy that, in truth, no vocabulary may describe it, no rhetoric suggest it, or finite mind fully conceive of it. Placed in the balances of consideration, and weighed against the epic sufferings our Lord passed through, that unspeakable joy overwhelmingly prevailed. It was precisely this type of weighing one thing against another that Paul had in mind when he wrote the Corinthians, “For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
And hath sat down at the right hand of God – this expression was discussed under Hebrews 1:3.
For consider him that hath endured such gainsaying of sinners against himself, that ye wax not weary, fainting in your souls.
For notes on “consider,” see under 3:1. It is no casual or nonchalant notice by mortals that our Lord is entitled to receive, or that will benefit them that look unto Jesus; but it is an intense, sustained and focal attention that people should give to Jesus, never relaxing or diminishing it until they have known him in the forgiveness of sins. What is said here of the “gainsaying of sinners” is no mere reminder of such things as the Lord experienced, but a warning for Christians to be on guard against the same kind of opposition today. The victory which the Lord promised his followers over “gainsayers” (Luke 21:15) derives from the knowledge of the scriptures (Titus 1:9) and was listed as one of the qualifications of an elder. Gainsaying is a verbal attack upon a believer for the purpose of destroying his faith, and it means “to oppose, contradict, deny, controvert, or dispute.” Those who resort to gainsaying are among the most despicable of mankind; for, having no faith of their own, they resort to all kinds of pettiness, quibbling, murmuring, complaining, and questioning regarding the faith of others. Stung by the serpent in their own consciences, deformed by sin, and unwilling to seek the healing of their own shame, they have recourse to a vile assault upon the faith of others, not hesitating to distort, misrepresent, pervert, or deny the most sacred truth in efforts to gain their unworthy objective.
The classical example of gainsayers were the Pharisees, especially as presented in the gospel by Matthew. They maliciously contradicted Jesus; and the record of our Lord’s patient endurance of their slanderous and shameful opposition is a source of encouragement for those of any age who must deal with the cunning deceit of the gainsayer, whose strategy, in the final analysis, boils down to this, that they will simply wear the believer out, if possible, causing him, at last, to faint and fall away. The apostles warned the Christians against fainting, and here is a good place to note that phenomenon a little more closely.
Paul said, “Let us not be weary in well-doing; for, in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). The Christian who faints becomes a spectacular failure, sometimes throwing a whole church into consternation, this being true both physically and spiritually. Once, this writer was the visiting evangelist for a campaign at University Avenue Church of Christ, Austin, Texas; where on the last night of a gospel meeting, as the congregation stood to sing the hymn of encouragement, a young woman fainted and fell prostrate in the center aisle! The singing stopped, and there were calls, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Four men carried the lady over the platform and into a side room (in the old building). Fortunately, the lady revived, but we were never able to revive that service! It has often occurred to our thoughts that such a physical case of fainting is an excellent illustration of its spiritual counterpart. One moment, a man is a part of the community of faith, making a contribution to the services and to the forward progress of the church; but then he faints; and suddenly he is a help no more, but it takes the time and attention of several others to minister to him! Certainly, the man who faints in the service of Christ not only suffers disastrous consequences to himself, but becomes a tax and burden upon others also.
What are the causes of fainting? (1) The arrogance of wicked men was a hindrance that brought the Psalmist near to fainting (Psalms 73:1-3). (2) Hunger and thirst, physically, can cause fainting; and the same is true spiritually (Psalms 107:5). People long separated from Bible study, prayer, and preaching tend to faint. (3) Adversity can cause one to faint (Proverbs 24:10). (4) Sin causes fainting (Lamentations 1:22). (5) Fear sometimes results in fainting (Luke 21:26), especially fear of men and of what they may do. (6) The chastening of the Lord can be an occasion of fainting, as the author of Hebrews pointed out a moment later (Hebrews 12:5). (7) In the physical world, some dreadful disease, such as cancer, can cause men to faint; and this has its counterpart spiritually; and, in a world where there are all kinds of pernicious doctrines of men denying every truth taught in God’s word, once such evil teaching enters the heart, it can cause fainting and death.
Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.
The sufferings of Christ, even unto death, are here contrasted with the sufferings of the Hebrews; and the interjection of the word “yet” appears to be the bluntest kind of warning that such a dreadful experience may indeed be waiting for them, just ahead. Westcott said:
This statement is in no way opposed to the view that the epistle was addressed to the Palestinian church out of which St. Stephen and St. James had suffered martyrdom.
Addressed to the second generation of Hebrew Christians, this epistle would gain deeper significance in calling to remembrance the first generation martyrs by the reminder that his readers had not yet crowned their faith after the example of Stephen and James. Sin is personified in this verse, being represented as the antagonist of Christians; and so it is. Some of the struggles of faith are against people, but the great struggle is against sin.
And ye have forgotten the exhortation which reasoneth with you as with sons, My son, regard not lightly the chastening of the Lord, Nor faint when thou art reproved of him; For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, And scourges every son whom he receiveth.
This quotation is from Proverbs 3:11,12, and it is here applied forcefully to all citizens of the new institution. The exhortation, in this reference, takes a new turn. He had just been speaking of the fact that they had not been required to sea1 their faith with their blood; but now he stresses that even the hardships and sufferings which they did experience, far from being anything unusual, were exactly what they should have expected; and he charges them with having forgotten that the sufferings of Christians are grounded in the benevolent purpose of God who imposes upon his children the kind of chastening that will strengthen and correct them. The doctrine of the chastening of God is neglected today; and it is likely that some have scarcely heard of it; but, of course, it is a valid teaching of the scriptures, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament; and the knowledge of it in Christian hearts can be the source of glorious light on many a dark day.
THE CHASTENING OF GOD
The nature of chastisement is explicit in the diversity of troubles and sorrows that are imposed by the Lord upon his children, usually in the sense that he allows such things to befall them, with the holy and benevolent intention of improving the quality of their spiritual lives. An Old Testament example is Job who suffered the loss of wealth, loved ones, reputation, health, and honor – all upon the specific permission of God. David also suffered chastening in the matter of Shimei’s throwing stones and cursing the king (2 Samuel 16:9ff); and David’s submissiveness to that sore trial was evidenced by his saying, “The Lord hath bidden him.” It is, therefore, a mistake for the Christian to view his tribulations in a sense of stoicism, or as a result of blind chance, or as the operation of the law of averages. There is an eternal purpose of God toward his children; and that purpose is personal and corrective – such is the meaning of chastisement. The full nature of it is revealed in that it wears many faces, appearing and reappearing in an infinite pattern of sorrows and hardships. It is the experience of all of God’s children, there being no exceptions whatever, the absence of it denoting no favoritism on God’s part, but the illegitimacy of the one apparently favored. It is a severe experience, as revealed by such a word as “scourgeth,” applied to it here, and is not to be understood as any mock trial or superficial difficulty; but the child of God is confronted with actual tribulations designed to test the hearts of all them that pass through them. The chastening of Israel (Isaiah 1:5,6) showed “wounds and bruises”; and the true Christian bears in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 6:16).
The purpose of chastisement, as revealed in the following verses, is totally benevolent and springs from the infinite love of God for his weak and sinful human children. Three designs are involved: (1) that of correcting our faults; (2) strengthening our faith; and (3) promoting our eternal welfare. It is not God’s will that his children should have everything they desire in this life. Riches and luxuries may cause pride to flourish in the heart; success in life’s various projects may cause people to trust in themselves; and even true righteousness may lead to despising others; but against all such eventualities, the chastening rod of the Lord is upon the believer.
The response of Christians to chastisement is fourfold: (1) The child of God must not despise it (Hebrews 12:5). (2) He must not faint under the impact of it. See above under the subject of “Fainting.” An example of how not to respond to chastening is that of Peter, when Jesus permitted Satan to “sift” him, that being only another name for chastening (Luke 22:31). Peter’s response to it at first was to faint, but he quickly recovered. (3) He must submit to it (Hebrews 12:9), saying at all times and under all circumstances, “O Lord, thy will, not mine, be done.” He must not murmur nor complain. (4) He must be exercised thereby (Hebrews 12:11), meaning that he shall cooperate with the divine purpose and strive for the deepening and strengthening of his faith under the chastening circumstances, giving God the glory, and making sure that he appropriates the profit the Lord intended him to have as a result of it.
It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not?
The chastening of sons by their fathers has gone out of style in the current generations; and, had these lines been addressed to the present age, they might well have been reversed, “What son is it whom his father does chasten?” Our age is the loser, however, in the abandonment of a principle old as humanity and which carries the sanction of divine approval. During a total eclipse of the sun in 1970, a beautiful young girl, age 13, was told by her mother not to look directly at the sun; but in the true spirit of a generation raised on Dr. Benjamin Spock’s formula of permissiveness, the young lady gazed at the sun intently for several minutes, and was totally blinded for life by the experience. She had never been chastened, at least not effectively; and now she must endure the frightful penalty of a life of darkness. Ninety-one teenagers in New York City have perished from the use of drugs in five months; and for the vast majority of them, if indeed not for every one of them, the reason for their tragic death was lack of discipline and correction.
Speaking of Dr. Spock’s influence upon the parents of America in this era, it is perhaps among the most shameful delusions of the present day. There are literally hundreds of child-abuse cases before the New York City judges every month, the average being over three hundred monthly; and, in the absolutely bestial conduct of parents involved, one may read the result of the permissive rearing of children. Sure, a DISCIPLINED parent may exhibit the self-control and humiliating subordination to the willful disobedience of a child brought up on the Spock principle; but when that child, in turn, becomes a parent, he does not merely by the biological experience of parenthood suddenly become a disciplined father or mother; no, indeed, such a parent is still the spoiled brat, as exemplified by the conduct of a father living three-quarters of a mile from where these words are written, who became vexed at the conduct of his little five year-old daughter, hung her up to the shower curtain rod and beat the flesh off her bones with the buckle end of his belt! The child’s screams aroused neighbors who called the police, but the pitiful victim was dead on arrival at the hospital. Christian parents who believe our age has discovered a substitute for the discipline taught in the scriptures, a discipline that God himself enforces upon his own spiritual children, and which, in the verses before us, is presented as an eternal aspect of God’s law, such parents will succeed only in multiplying the number of delinquents until, unless checked, the ruin of the whole civilized order could result.
Certainly, God does not intend, in a spiritual sense, that his children shall approach the ultimate test without the advantage of the corrective blessing of heavenly discipline.
But if ye are without chastening, whereof all have been made partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
This is only to say that there are no exceptions, that God does not overlook any of his children in meting out the needed chastening; and that, should there appear to be any omissions, it is not a mark of divine favor but a total rejection and alienation from God.
Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of Spirits and live?
Hebrews 12:7-11 are actually commentary on Proverbs 3:11,12; and coming from the pen of inspiration, the light shed on this subject is most helpful. In this verse, the contrast is between the fathers of our bodies and the Father of our spirits; and, as Barmby noted,
If a dutiful child submits patiently to the chastisements of his earthly parents, although he has derived only his body from them, how much more submissively should we bear the divine corrections, seeing they proceed from him from whom alone we have received our spiritual and immortal nature!
For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed good for them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness.
The punishment imposed by earthly parents is, at best, subject to error and to its admixture with caprice, anger and other elements of parental shortcoming; but the chastening of God is never unreasonable, never more than the child of God can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13), and is never imposed from any unworthy motive on the part of God. It is solely for the profit and ultimate holiness of the recipient.
All chastening seemeth for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yieldeth peaceable fruit unto them that have been exercised thereby, even the fruit of righteousness.
Several things appear here. The chastening of God is not expected to be a pleasant or delightful experience, but “grievous,” its purpose being to “exercise” the believer by forcing him to adapt to straitened, hazardous, painful, sorrowful, or discouraging circumstances; and its purpose being the ennoblement of spiritual life, the strengthening of character, and the enhancing of the prospect of eternal life. The most wonderful people on earth are those who have passed through the chastening experiences of life, whose faith, love, and understanding and sympathy are grounded in the true love of God and man; and whose lives, as a result, have been expanded and beautified.
‘Tis sorrow builds the shining ladder up, Whose golden rounds are our calamities, Whereon our firm feet planting, nearer God, The spirit climbs, and hath its eyes unsealed.
– James Russel Lowell
Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees; and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned out of the way, but rather be healed.
Here, once more, as throughout the first twelve verses of this chapter, the image of the great Olympian contest is the vision in the author’s mind; thus, the limp, relaxed hands and the palsied knees bring to mind a boxer who is “out on his feet,” or a runner who is about to falter in the race. See Isaiah 35:3 which has nearly this same language.
Make straight paths for your feet again suggests the language of Isaiah 35, and is a reference to encouragement of the weak and faltering by smoothing the way before them. It is the stronger members of the believing community who are to do this, or at least take the lead in it. In view of the difficulties and temptations through which all must pass, every Christian should be concerned with removing obstacles, in every way possible, from the course of his fellow believers. Perhaps, if their paths are made “straight,” even the lame, the feeble, and the injured may yet press on to victory. The tenderness of these lines is moving.
The exhortation thus far has dealt with the metaphor of the great athletic contest in such a place as the ancient Coliseum, with a digression in Hebrews 12:5-13 for the discussion of chastening; but, in the next verse, the author leaves the athletic metaphor and states the same urgent exhortation in more classical terms.
Before leaving the teaching here, as it concerns chastening, it should be remembered that here is an explanation of many of the tribulations that come to God’s faithful children. Here is the theological framework underlying the words of Paul who said, “Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Also, our Lord did not say, “Blessed are ye IF men shall reproach you,” but “Blessed are ye WHEN men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matthew 5:11).
Follow after peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord.
Follow after is translated “pursue” by some and carries with it the idea of diligence and urgency, “peace” being personified here and designated as the quarry which people are to pursue.
Peace with all men is the objective of Christians at all times and places. Jesus gave his blessing to the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and Paul commanded believers to be at peace with all men, “if it be possible” (Romans 12:18). The same qualifier, as to its possibility, is present by implication here, since both peace and sanctification are to be sought, and since true holiness sometimes makes peace difficult if not impossible of attainment.
Sanctification is a reference to practical holiness as manifested by the pure and virtuous lives of God’s children, being that state of life at the opposite pole from the sins enumerated in the next verse. It does not refer to any so-called second blessing, or special endowment of the child of God, making him invulnerable to temptation, or giving him any advantage not enjoyed by all Christians.
Without which no man shall see the Lord … These words show the vital necessity of the peaceable and holy lives of Christians. The holy life is not an elective or optional matter for Christians, but is demanded and required of all who hope to enter heaven. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8); none others need apply.
Hebrews 12 – Coffman Commentaries on the Bible – Bible Commentaries