Second Reformed Church

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"Be Holy" Sermon: Hebrews 12:12-17

“Be Holy”
 (Hebrews 12:12-17)

February 2, 2014 Second Reformed Church
Be holy.


            It is important that we know why we should be holy – why we ought to be striving for holiness.  Many people would say that we should do good because I’m good and you’re good and we want everyone to be good so everything is good.  We should do what’s right so we will live a happy life and everyone else will live a happy life.  But if that is why we are striving after holiness, we are not different from the Jew or the Muslim or the atheist who strives after holiness.  All we are doing is embracing moralism – the belief that it is good to be moral, so we should be moral – and that is not enough for Christianity, because Christianity tells us we can never be good enough to be right with God – and that is the biggest and most important problem that every human has to deal with – how do I become right with God?

            The answer – as I hope we know – is the Gospel – we can only become right with God through the Gospel – through believing with our minds and hearts – acknowledging the truth of and believing savingly that God came to earth in the person of Jesus, lived a holy life under God’s Law, died for the sins of everyone who would ever believe, and physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His throne.  We can only be right with God through knowing as true that God did send the Promised Savior and by loving that truth to salvation.

            If we understand and believe that, then we can understand the author of Hebrews as he tells us that we a running the race of faith – encouraged by the saints who are in Paradise and Jesus – Who not only gives us the faith to be able to receive Him and run, but perseveres us in the race so we will assuredly make it to the end.

            We talked about why He did this in the past few weeks as the author of Hebrews instructs us to be “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfector of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV).  Jesus came as the Savior of His people for the joy that was set before Him – that He would make a people right with God and bring them into His Kingdom to the glory of God.

            So, the cross was for the glory of God.  The Incarnation was for the glory of God.  In fact, the fact of creation is for the glory of God.  It is said that the greatest philosophical question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  Christianity gives the answer: it’s for the glory of God.  Everything that was and is and will be is to direct all of Creation to see God for Who He is.  And then to respond to seeing Him.

            Last week, we saw that God, as our loving Father, will discipline us for our sin.  God will cause us pain and suffering.  And the author of Hebrews explained that a reason behind our being disciplined by God is that it will yield the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.”  That is, that we would recognize that God disciplines us for our good, as any faithful parent does, and that we would respond in awe and respect of God by striving to live a godly and holy life.

            And so the author of Hebrews turns in this morning’s text to tell us things that we should do and things that we should not do.  And as we hear God’s Word in this text, we understand that what we are being told is not the whole of what it means to be holy – the author of Hebrews is addressing a specific group of Christians who are suffering severe persecution and engaging in certain sins, so he addresses those things.  That does not make this any less true for us, but we need to understand that this is not a comprehensive and detailed list.

            What we see is:

            First, we are to get up, run, and be healed.

            Second, we are to strive for peace and holiness.

            Third, we are to see that no one fails to obtain God’s Grace.

            Fourth, we are to see that no bitterness arises.

            Fifth, we are not to engage in sexual immorality.

            And sixth, we are not to engage in unholiness.

            Let us remember that the primary reason we strive for holiness – that we do all these things – and any good thing – is for the glory of God.

             First, we are to get up, run, and be healed.

            “Therefore, lift your dropping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”

            The author of Hebrews quotes Isaiah, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 25:3, ESV).  Isaiah said these words to the people of Israel who would spend seventy years in exile in Babylon.  He was telling them that though they were going to spend all this time in exile, they were not to atrophy there – they were not to become weak and give up in running the race of faith that every believer has been called to from the Garden until Jesus’ return.

            And so the author of Hebrews applies this to the first century Christians who were suffering severe persecution from the Romans and the unbelieving Jews, and he reminds them that they are running a race – the saints are cheering them on – Jesus has supplied them with faith and is sustaining their faith and is bringing their faith to completion in Him, by the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God.  And he tells them to spiritually – get off their couches, get back to training – strengthening your knees, because they take a beating when you run, run on the straight path that Jesus has set before us – not up and down mountains and across rocky ground, because that will wreck your feet.  He’s using imagery – we don’t physically run to live the life of faith, so we don’t physically use our hands and knees and feet – this is symbolic – just as runners must strengthen their knees and uses their hands –arms – and run on the best surface for running – one that will not destroy their feet – so we, in the race of faith, need to continually be in training, strengthening ourselves and seeking out the Way that we should run.

            How do we do that?  The primary way is to be in worship with other Christians under the preaching of a pastor who preaches God’s Word alone.  If you want to be strengthened in the race of faith, you must be in worship with other Christians under the preaching of a pastor who preaches the Whole of God’s Word as God’s Word.  You and I need to be with other Christians hearing the Word of God read and preached.

            Secondarily – importantly, but definitely secondarily, we need to be reading the Bible every day.  I can see a hundred excuses coming up behind your faces – I can make excuses, too.  R. C. Sproul said, “We fail in our duty to study God’s Word, not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work.  Our problem is not lack of intelligence or lack of passion.  Our problem is that we are lazy” (in Murray, How Sermons Work. 17).

            If we don’t gather together in worship and sit under a pastor who preaches God’s Word alone, we will become lame.  Just as a runner who sits without moving for a year will find his legs unworkable, so, when we do not regularly gather and sit under the preaching of God’s Word alone, we become lame in the race of faith – we become less courageous in the faith, we become despondent.   We start saying, “maybe the Bible doesn’t mean what it clearly says.  Maybe Jesus isn’t the Only Way.  I’m not going to tell anyone what I believe; I’m going to leave that to the pastor and the other professionals.”  Lame.

            No!  Get up, run, be healed.  Gather and sit under the right preaching of the Word of God.  Be obedient to the Word of God.  Receive God’s Grace through the reading and preaching of the Word and the Sacraments.  And trust that we will be successful in our race because Jesus will not allow us to fail in completing the race but will see us all the way to the finish line.

            Second, we are to strive for peace and holiness.

            “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

            We have hear a duty to humans and a duty to God:

            We are to be at peace with each other.  Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18, ESV).  What does that include?

            We are to wrong no one.  We are not to sin against anyone.  We are not to do any evil against anyone.  We are not to steal or lie or covet or gossip or physically or emotionally hurt anyone – and so forth.

            We are to be useful.  We are to do everything within our power to be useful and helpful to each other.  If you can help someone, you should help someone.  That doesn’t mean that we should be doormats – what it means is if our neighbor broke his leg and it snows, and you have a snow blower, and you’re healthy, and you have the time, snow blow your neighbor’s walk and driveway.  If you enjoy cooking, share food with other people as you are able.  And so forth.  Especially, it means to let others know the Gospel – tell them the historical facts of Jesus and invite them to worship – to sit under a pastor who preaches the Whole Word of God.

            And it means that we avoid offending others.  Now, this isn’t always possible – especially when it comes to the Gospel – the Scripture tells us that the Gospel is an offense to the fallen mind, so people will find it offensive, even if we present it in a kind and caring manner.  It’s also not possible not to offend when someone invites us to sin with them, and we say no – they might be offended that we do not want to join in.

             However, there are people who go out of their way to offend others – just look at any political campaign from any party.  Sometimes our parents were right when they said, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”  For example, if I were to greet you this morning and you said, “Good morning, pastor, you look fat.”  That would not be peacemaking; that would be offensive.  It would not be helpful.

            We’re also told that our duty to God is to strive for holiness, without which no one will see God.  Jesus put it this way, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8, ESV).

            Holiness is perfect obedience to God without sin.  With few exceptions, we recognize that we are not holy, and our best efforts will not erase our sin or make us holy in this life.  But that is not what we are being told here: we are told to strive for holiness – that is, we are to be determined to progress towards the goal of holiness.  Christians are indwelled by God, the Holy Spirit, and by His Power, we desire to follow after God – to be holy, and we are enabled by the Holy Spirit not to sin and to follow God.  So we should be progressing in holiness, in sanctification – as we practice, as we run more, as we continue to strive towards perfect obedience in all things to God, we, in God’s Grace, become closer and closer to perfect holiness.  And the promise is that when Jesus returns, He will make us holy, because nothing unholy can stand before God.  God will put us through the judgment on that final day and remove everything that is left of our sin nature and imperfection, but for now, we are to be striving – relying on God, the Holy Spirit, working harder and harder to keep God’s commands and not sin.

            Third, we are to see that no one fails to obtain God’s Grace.

            “See that no one fails to obtain the grace of God;”

            That’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it?  How can we keep others from failing to receive the Grace of God?

            What does the author of Hebrews intend for us to understand by “the grace of God”? 

            The author of Hebrews is not saying that we have the ability to save anyone.  He is not saying that anyone’s salvation hinges on anything we do or do not do.  He’s not saying, “if anyone doesn’t receive salvation, you’re going to be held responsible.”

            He’s also not saying that someone can “fall” from God’s Grace.  He’s not saying that we should make sure that no one loses their salvation.  Salvation is all of God – God’s uses humans to proclaim His Gospel – but salvation is God’s Work – we cannot give it or lose it.

            So, what is he saying?

            He’s telling us that we ought to do everything in our power to make sure that we and all believers receive all that we can receive from the Grace of God.  The Grace of God is received through the reading and preaching of God’s Word and through the Sacraments.  The Grace of God assures us of salvation and gives us what we need to be His people for this day.  The Grace of God matures us in the faith, so we continue to better understand all that God has said and how we are to live it all out to the glory of God.

            We are to make sure that no one is prevented – as far as it is possible with us – from reading and hearing God’s Word preached and receiving the Sacraments, which leads to spiritual growth.  We are to remove any impediment to the reception of God’s Grace.  We are to do everything possible to make sure that people can be in worship with other Christians hearing the Word of God read and preached and receiving the Sacraments.

            That means we’re going to make sure that we keep telling others what we believe about Jesus – the Gospel.  We’re going to make it possible for people to get to the church and into the church for worship.   We are going to present the things of God in a language that others can understand.  We are not going to refuse someone for being rich or poor, white or black, gay or straight, criminal or law-abider, and so forth – everyone – believer and non-believer – is welcome to come into the house of God and hear the Word of God read and preached.  And every Christian of every background, ethnicity, and tradition is welcome to come to receive God’s Grace.

            Yes, we are to make this a safe environment, so there may be people at any given moment that we cannot give access to for all of our safety.  And there are people who may be restricted under church discipline.  But we are to do nothing and keep people from putting anything up as a stumbling block – other than Jesus – the coming to hear the Word of God read and preached.

            Fourth, we are to see that no bitterness arises.

            “That no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;”

            If we put a stumbling block before anyone or allow any person to put a stumbling block before himself or herself that keeps them from hearing God’s Word – other than the Gospel – that person may send out a root of bitterness which can lead to trouble and others being effected.

            God said, “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of the 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” (Deuteronomy 29:18b-19, ESV).

            What is God saying?  What is the author of Hebrews warning his readers about?

            What we are being told is that people who are denied or deny themselves the Grace of God, will begin to lean towards apostasy – they will begin to lean towards denying the Gospel.  Going back to the image of running – if that runner refuses to train, his body will not be able to run as he would like it to, and when he joins in a race, he will not do as well and may become bitter and begin to blame other things or deny the truths about things.  Someone might say,  “The judge was bought off.  They changed the course.  The starting gun was fired before I was ready.”

            If we are not regularly under the Whole Word of God alone, preached rightly by a called pastor, we will begin to become bitter in our heart, and we will begin to deny the truths of God’s Word.  Someone might say, “People don’t physically rise from the dead; Jesus was spiritually alive in the hearts of those who believe in Him – that’s what it really means.”  – and that’s a popular view – and it’s heresy.  Someone might say, “Well, we’re saved by faith, not by the Law, so we don’t have to keep the Law of God any more – we’re free to live and do and be anything our hearts can conceive.”  That’s a lie – Paul addresses it at length, but there are people today who hold that view.  How about this: “I don’t need to be around all those weird people; I can get just as much from staying home and reading my Bible.”  You cannot be a healthy Christian if you do not gather with other Christians and sit under the Word of God rightly preached.

            With these three examples, we can see that if one person keeps himself or herself away from receiving the Grace of God and begins to become bitter in spirit and tend towards apostasy – denying the truth of God’s Word, the view that a person adopts will spread and infect others.  One person who defiles himself or herself in denying God’s Word will lead others to do the same.  That’s why we are not to allow people – to the extent that we are able – to get to that point.  And the best way to do that is to get to worship with other Christians sitting under the Whole Word of God rightly preached.

            Fifth, we are not to engage in sexual immorality.            

            “That no one is sexually immoral”

            Sexual immorality – sexual sins – are particularly against holiness.  Engaging in sexual sins begins a pattern that is one of the most difficult things to break free of, and engaging in sexual sins is a particularly offensive act against God and progress in holiness..  Sexual immorality distorts the use of the body, the meaning of love and marriage, and the understanding of right physical pleasure.

            I remember my pastor in 1979 – in the last sermon he preached with us – saying, “We don’t like to talk about s-e-x.  But it’s time to bring the body back into the church.”  Because we are to love God with our bodies.  That involves more than just sex, of course, but as we consider sex, we need to understand that sex is given to us for pleasure, for reproduction, and as a means to worship God.  When we have holy sexual relations, we worship and display the glory of God.  That may sound strange – and it’s shameful that it does – but we don’t have time to go into a whole theology of glorifying God in sexual intercourse this morning.

            What we do have time to say is that we are not to engage in sexual sin and we are to do everything we can to help others avoid sexual sin.  And the temptations are all around us – in books and magazines and movies and on the Internet – sex sells – and it is a slippery slope towards apostasy.

            And some of us may be thinking, “That’s right –we need to stop rapists and pedophiles.”  Some might add, “and adulterers and pornographers.”  And that’s good, but that doesn’t cover all sexual sins.  It is really quite straightforward and clear in the Scripture: the only place God allows for sexual intimacy is between one man and his one wife – between one women and her one husband.  Everything else is sin.

            And some of us may be thinking, “Whew!  I’m married, so this part of the sermon isn’t about me.”  Or, “I’m single and not in a relationship, so this part of the sermon is not about me.”

            But Jesus throws a wench in the works of that thinking.  Jesus said, “You have heard that  it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28, ESV).  If you have lusted after someone – if you have thought about someone who is not your one husband or one wife, you have committed adultery – you have committed sexual sin.  Look around the sanctuary – we have all committed sexual sins.

            If you’re tempted to sin sexually, do everything you can to avoid it – God has made a way so you don’t have to.  If you have a friend who is struggling with sexual sin, be there and help your friend to avoid sin.  Besides identifying when and where we tend to be tempted and stopping ourselves from being there, and being part of worship with other Christians sitting under the Word of God rightly preached, finding a friend you can trust and confide in and pray with and be held accountable by is one of the greatest helps and resources in fighting this type of sin.  It’s may be hard to find someone you can trust that much and expect will be there for you, but if you can, it is well worth it.

            Finally, sixth, we are not to engage in unholiness.

            “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.”

            Here we come full-circle – we are to be holy, or we shall not see God.  We are not to be unholy, like Esau, or we will not see God.

            Despising – neglecting – the Word of God and not obeying it are living in unholiness.  When we love the world and despise Heaven, we are unholy.  When we treat the Lord’s Supper as a snack before coffee hour, we are being unholy.  When we say to ourselves, “Hurry up, hurry up, don’t you know the big game is today,” we are being unholy.  When we say we don’t have time to read and study the Bible – we are despising it – we are acting in unholiness.  If we know that God has gifted us in a certain way and we refuse to use it for the Church, we commit unholiness.

            We’re given the example of Esau.  We will remember that Esau was the elder of the twin sons of Isaac.  We won’t read the whole story, but, as the elder son of Isaac, Esau had the birthright.  That means that when Isaac died, Esau would inherit twice as much as his brother, Jacob.  He would get two-thirds and Jacob would get one-third of the inheritance.  It meant that Esau would be the head of the family, the ruler of his family.  And it meant that he would get the blessing from Isaac.  These were the gifts of God for the firstborn son.

            One day, Esau came home from hunting (cf. Genesis 25:29-ff).  He was exhausted and hungry – and he saw that his brother, Jacob, was in the kitchen making some red lentil stew.  And Esau, led by his nose, went into the kitchen and said, “Serve it up!”  Jacob, being a con-artist who always looked out for himself said, “For the small sum of your birthright, you can have it.”  And Esau despised his birthright – he said in unholiness, “I am about to die; of what good is a birthright to me?” (Genesis 25:32b, ESV).  And he swore it over to Jacob for the stew.

            Sometime – about forty years later – Isaac was dying and called Esau in, but Jacob had dressed up as Esau and stolen the blessing from his blind father.  And Esau cried out, “Is he not rightly named Jacob?  For he has cheated me these two times.  He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36b, ESV).

            Esau despised the things of God, and when the time came that it really mattered, he wept and pitched a fit, but it was too late.  He had to live with consequences.

            And so we are warned not to take the things of God, and especially His Word, lightly.  We are not to be unholy, and we are to help others pursue holiness in Jesus.

            If you are a Christian, in response to our God and Savior, Who for the joy that was set before Him – glorifying God in bringing a people for God into the Kingdom:

            Let us be in training for the race we are running, gathering together regularly with other Christians, sitting under the right preaching of the Whole Word of God, let us strive to be at peace with others and to progress in sanctification – in holiness.  Let us make sure everyone possible hears the Gospel and has access to sitting under the right preaching of the Whole Word of God.  Let us turn people away from false teaching and make sure that we are believing what the Bible teaches.  Let us repent of our sexual sins and strive against temptation that we would not sin again.  And let us prize the things of God, being willing to let the whole world go, that we would not lose our reward, as we race forward into the arms of our Savior, Who waits at the finish line for each one God has chosen.

            Let us pray:

            Almighty God, we thank You for Your Word and the opportunity to hear it read and preached.  Help us to believe all that You have said and to be obedient to You as lovers of Jesus Christ.  Let us never believe that being moral is enough, but as believers in the Savior, let us desire and run well until we finish the race that You have set before us.  For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

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