An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
A Call to Diligence
The connection between the verses which were before us on the last occasion and that which is now to engage our attention is not apparent at the first glance. There the apostle made a practical application to his readers of the important considerations he had been setting before them in the preceding verses, calling them unto the duty of steadfastness. Here there is a lively exhortation unto the pursuit of peace and holiness. The relation between these exhortations and those which follow, is more intimate than a number of pearls strung together, rather is it more like that of the several members of our physical body, which are vitally joined and dependent upon one another. Failure to observe this fact results in loss, for not only do we fail to appreciate the living connection of one part with another, but we lose the motive and incentive which they mutually supply. It is the business of the teacher to point this out, that we may be duly affected thereby and rejoice together in the perfect handiwork of God.
"From his exhortation unto patient perseverance in the profession of the Gospel under sufferings and affliction, the apostle proceeds unto a prescription of practical duties; and although they are such as are absolutely necessary in themselves at all times, yet they are here peculiarly enjoined with respect to the same end, or our constancy in professing the Gospel. For no light, no knowledge of the truth, no resolution or courage, will preserve any man in his profession, especially in times of trial, without a diligent attention unto the duties of holiness and Gospel obedience. And he begins with a precept, general and comprehensive of all others" (John Owen).
The connection between Hebrews 12:14, etc., and verses 12, 13, is threefold. First, the diligent pursuit of peace toward our fellows and of holiness toward God are timely aids unto perseverance in the faith and in consequence, powerful means for preservation from apostasy. The one is so closely joined to the other that the former cannot be realized without an eager striving after the latter. Second, inasmuch as love toward our neighbor ("peace," with all that that involves and includes) and love toward God ("holiness") is the sum of our duty, it is impossible that we should devote ourselves unto their cultivation and exercise so long as we axe permitting afflictions and persecution to paralyze the mind: the spirit of resolute determination must possess us before we can develop our spiritual graces. Third, oppression and suffering provide an opportunity for the exercise and manifestation of our spiritual graces, and are to be improved by us to this very end. "If the children of God grow impatient under afflictions, they will neither walk so quietly and peaceably towards men nor so piously toward God as they should do" (Matthew Henry).
The first thing which needs to be borne in mind as we approach each verse of this epistle is the special circumstances of those immediately addressed, and to perceive the peculiar pertinency of the apostle’s instruction to those who were so situated, for this will the better enable us to make a correct application unto ourselves. Now the Hebrews were living among a people where their own espousal of Christianity had produced a serious breach, which had stirred up the fierce opposition of their fellow-countrymen. The attitude of these Hebrews towards Christ was neither understood nor appreciated by the unbelieving Jews; so far from it, they were regarded as renegades and denounced as apostates from the faith of their fathers. Every effort was made to poison their minds against the Gospel, and where this failed, relentless persecution was brought to bear upon them. Hence, it was by no means an easy matter for them to maintain the spirit of the Gospel and live amicably with those who surrounded them; instead, they were sorely tempted to entertain a bitter spirit toward those who troubled them so unjustly, to retaliate and avenge their wrongs. Here, then, was the need for them to be exhorted "follow peace with all men!"
Now while it be true that Christians are now, for the most part, spared the severe suffering which those Hebrews were called upon to endure, yet faithfulness to Christ is bound to incur the hostility of those who hate Him, and will in some form or other issue in opposition. There is a radical difference in nature between those treading the narrow way to Heaven and those following the broad road to Hell. The character and conduct of the former condemn and rile the self-pleasing disposition and flesh-indulging ways of the latter. The children of the Devil have no love for the children of God, and they delight in doing whatever they can to annoy and aggravate them; and nothing gives them more pleasure than to see successful their efforts to tempt them to compromise or stir up unto angry retaliation. Thus it is a timely injunction for all believers, in any age and in any country, to strive earnestly to live in peace with all men.
"Follow peace with all men." This is a very humbling word that Christians require to be told to do this. Its implication is clear: by nature men are fractious, wrathful, revengeful creatures. That is one reason why Christ declared "it must needs be that offenses come" (Matthew 18:7)—"must" because of the awful depravity of fallen human nature; yet forget not that He at once added, "But woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." It is because of this contentious, envious, revengeful, spirit which is in us, that we need the exhortation of our text, and in view of what is recorded in Scripture, even of saints, its timeliness is the more apparent. Have we not read of "the strife" between the herdsmen of Abraham and Lot which caused the patriarch and his nephew to part asunder? Have we not read of the discords and fightings between the tribes of Israel issuing in their kingdom being rent in twain? Have we not read of the "contention" between Paul and Barnabas which issued in their separating? These are solemn warnings, danger-signals, which we all do well to take to heart.
"It is the duty of Christians to be at peace among themselves, to be on their guard against all alienation of affection towards each other; and there can be no doubt that the maintenance of this brotherly-kindness is well fitted to promote steadfastness in the faith and profession of the Gospel. But in the words before us there seems to be a reference not so much to the peace which Christians should endeavor to maintain among themselves, as that which they should endeavor to preserve in reference to the world around them. They are to ‘follow peace with all men.’
"They live amidst men whose modes of thinking, and feeling and acting are very different from—are in many points directly opposite to—theirs. They have been fairly warned, that ‘if they would live godly in this world, they must suffer persecution.’ They have been told that ‘if they were of the world, the world would love its own; but because they are not of the world, therefore the world hateth them.’ ‘In the world,’ says their Lord and Master, ‘ye shall have tribulation.’ But this, so far from making them reckless as to their behavior towards the men of the world, ought to have the directly opposite effect. If the world persecute them, they must take care that this persecution has in no degree been provoked by their improper or imprudent behavior. They must do everything that lies in their power, consistent with duty, to live in peace with their ungodly neighbors. They must carefully abstain from injuring them; they must endeavor to promote their happiness. They must do everything but sin in order to prevent a quarrel.
"This is of great importance, both to themselves and to their unbelieving brethren. A mind harassed by those feelings which are almost inseparable from a state of discord is not by any means in the fittest state for studying the doctrines, cherishing the feelings, enjoying the comforts, performing the duties of Christianity; and, on the other hand, the probability of our being useful to our unbelieving brethren is greatly diminished when we cease to be on good terms with them. As far as lies in us, then, if it be possible, we are to ‘live peaceably with all men’" (John Brown, 1872).
"Follow peace with all men." The Greek word for "follow" is a very emphatical one, signifying an "earnest pursuit:" it is the eager chasing after something which flies from one, being used of hunters and hounds after game. The Christian is to spare no effort to live amicably with all men, and no matter how contentious and unfriendly they may be, he is to strive and overtake that which seeks to flee from him. Peace is one of the outstanding graces which the Christian is called upon to exercise and manifest. All things pertaining to the Church are denominated things of peace. God is "the God of peace" (Heb. 13:20), Christ is "the Prince of peace" (Isa. 9:6), a believer is designated "the son of peace" (Luke 10-6), and Christians are bidden to have their "feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace" (Eph. 6:15).
In this term "follow," or pursue, the apostle continues to preserve the central figure of the entire passage, introduced in the first verse of our chapter, of the running of a race: the same word is rendered "I press forward" in Philippians 3:14. Peace may be elusive and hard to capture, nevertheless strive after it, run hard in the chase thereof, for it is well worth overtaking. Spare no pains, strain every nerve to attain unto it. If this exhortion be duly heeded by us then Christians are plainly forbidden to embroil themselves or take any part in the strifes and quarrels of the world: thus they are hereby forbidden to engage in politics, where there is little else than envy, contention and anger. Still less may the Christian take any part in war: there is not a single word in all the N.T. which warrants a follower of the Prince of peace slaying his fellowmen. "Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it" (Ps. 34:14).
The word "follow" or pursue does not imply the actual obtainment of peace: the most eager hunters and hounds often miss their prey. Nevertheless, nothing short of our utmost endeavors are required of us. "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18): with fellow-Christians, with those who are strangers to Christ (Eph. 2:19), with our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Few things more adorn and beautify a Christian profession than exercising and manifesting the spirit of peace. Then let us prayerfully strive to avoid those things which occasion strife. Remember the old adage that "It takes two to make a quarrel:" therefore see to it that you provoke not others. Give no encouragement to those who love contention; refrain from all argument—the things of God are too holy: debating is a work of the flesh. To "follow peace with all men" presupposes righteousness in our dealings with them, for we most certainly are not entitled to expect them to treat us amicably unless we give unto each his due, and treat others as we would have them treat us.
Do not merely be placid when no one irritates you, but go out of your way to be gracious unto those who oppose. Be not fretful if others fail to render the respect which you consider to be your due. Do not be so ready to "stand up for your rights," but yield everything except truth and the requirements of holiness. "If we would follow peace, we must gird up our loins with the girdle of forbearance: we must resolve that as we will not give offense, so neither will take offense, and if offense be felt, we must resolve to forgive" (C.H. Spurgeon). Remember we cannot successfully "pursue peace" if the heavy burden of pride be on our shoulder: pride ever stirs up strife. Nor can we "pursue peace" if the spirit of envy fills the heart: envy is sure to see faults where they exist not, and make trouble. Nor can we "pursue peace" if we are loose-tongued, busybodies, talebearers.
Even when opposed, our duty is to be peaceful toward those who persecute—a hard lesson, a high attainment, yet Divine grace (when earnestly sought) is "sufficient" even here. Remember the example which the Savior has left us: and cry mightily unto God for help to emulate the same. "When He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not" (1 Pet. 2:23): He prayed for God to forgive His very murderers. "With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love" (Eph. 4:2). Ah, there are the prerequisities for the procuring of peace—the lack of which being the cause of so much confusion, strife and war. If love reigns our skirts will be dear, for "Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; doth not behave itself unseemly; seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked; thinketh no evil, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
"Follow peace with all men." This includes even more than we have intimated above: the Christian is not only to be a peace-keeper, but he should seek to be a peace-maker: such have the express benediction of Christ—"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9). Seek, then, to restore amicable relations between those who are at enmity and be used of God as a medium of their reconciliation. Instead of fanning the flames of dissension or driving the wedge of division further in, endeavor to cool them by the water of the Word, and by a gracious demeanor and wise counsel seek to smooth out difficulties and heal wounds. "And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace" (James 3:18). "Peaceable men do sow a seed that afterward will yield sheaves of comfort into their own bosoms" (T. Manton).
"Follow peace with all men and holiness." First, the cultivation of peace is a great aid unto personal and practical holiness: where discontent, envy, and strife dominate the heart, piety is choked. The two things are inseparably connected: where love to our neigh-bout is lacking, love to God will not be in exercise. The two tables of the law must not be divorced: God will not accept our worship in the house of prayer while we entertain in our heart the spirit of bitterness toward another (Matthew 5:23, 24). "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1 John 4:20). O my reader, if we imagine that we are sincere in our quest after holiness while striving not to live peaceably with all men, we are cherishing a vain deceit.
"Some who have aimed at holiness have made the great mistake of supposing it needful to be morose, contentious, faultfinding, and censorious with everybody else. Their holiness has consisted of negatives, protests, and oppositions for oppositions sake. Their religion mainly lies in contrarieties and singularities; to them the text offers this wise counsel, follow holiness, but also follow peace. Courtesy is not inconsistent with faithfulness. It is not needful to be savage in order to be sanctified. A bitter spirit is a poor companion for a renewed heart. Let your determination principle be sweetened by tenderness towards your fellow-men. Be resolute for the right, but be also gentle, pitiful, courteous. Consider the meekness as well as the boldness of Jesus. Follow peace, but not at the expense of holiness. Follow holiness, but do not needlessly endanger peace" (C.H. Spurgeon, on text, 1870).
"Follow peace with all men, and holiness." By a harmless, kind, and useful behavior toward their unbelieving neighbors the people of God are to conduct themselves. They must avoid that which fosters bitterness and strife, and make it manifest they are followers of the Prince of peace. Yet in pursuing this most needful and inestimable policy there must be no sacrifice of principle. While peace is a most precious commodity nevertheless, like gold, it may be purchased too dearly. "The wisdom which is from above is first pure, then peaceable" (James 3:17). Peace must not be severed from holiness by a compliance with any evil or a neglect of any duty. "First being by interpretation king of righteousness, and after that also King of peace" (Heb. 7:2). "Peace has special relation to man and his good, holiness to God and His honor. These two may no more be severed than the two tables of the law. Be sure then that peace lacks not this companion of holiness: if they cannot stand together, let peace go and holiness be cleaved unto" (W. Gouge).
There may be the former without the latter. Men may be so determined to maintain peace that they compromise principle, sacrifice the truth, and ignore the claims of God. Peace must never be sought after a price of unfaithfulness to Christ. "Buy the truth and sell it not" (Prov. 23:23) is ever binding upon the Christian. Thus, important though it be to "follow peace with all men," it is still more important that we diligently pursue "holiness." Holiness is devotedness to God and that temper of mind and course of conduct which agrees with the fact that we are "not our own, but bought with a price." Peace with men, then, is not to be purchased at the expense of devotedness to God: "infinitely better to have the whole world for our enemies and God for our friend, than to have the whole world for our friends and God for our enemy" (John Brown).
The Christian is not only to be diligent in his quest for peace, but he is to be still more earnest in his pursuit after personal and practical holiness. Seeking after the good will of our fellows must be subordinated unto seeking the approbation of God. Our chief aim must be conformity to the image of Christ. If He has delivered us from wrath to come, we must endeavor by all that is within us to follow Him along the narrow way which leadeth unto Life. If He be our Lord and Master, then He is to be unreservedly obeyed. To "follow" holiness is to live like persons who are devoted to God—to His glory, to His claims upon us, to His cause in this world. It is to make it evident that we belong to Him. It is to separate ourselves from all that is opposed to Him. It is to mortify the flesh, with its affections and lusts. It is to "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and of the spirit" (2 Cor. 7:1). It is a life task from which there is no discharge while we remain in the body.
To urge us the more after holiness, the apostle at once adds "without which no man shall see the Lord"—"which" is in the singular number, showing that the antecedent is "holiness." The believer may fail to "follow peace with all men," and though he will suffer loss thereby and bring himself under the chastening rod of his Father, yet this will not entail the Loss of Heaven itself. But it is otherwise with holiness: unless we are made partakers of the Divine nature, unless there be personal devotedness to God, unless there be an earnest striving after conformity to His will, then Heaven will never be reached. There is only one route which leads to the Country of everlasting bliss, and that is the Highway of Holiness; and unless (by grace) we tread the same, our course must inevitably terminate in the caverns of eternal woe.
The negative here is fearfully emphatic: "without which (namely, "holiness") no man shall see the Lord"—in the Greek it is still stronger the negative being threefold—"not, without, no man." God Himself is essentially, ineffably, infinitely holy, and only holy characters shall ever "see" Him. Without holiness no man shall see Him: no, no matter how orthodox his beliefs, how diligent his attendance upon the means of grace, how liberal he may be in contributing to the cause, nor how zealous in performing religious duties. How this searching word should make everyone of us quail! Even though I be a preacher, devoting the whole of my life to study and laboring for the good of souls, even though I be blest with much light from the Word and be used of God in turning many from Satan to Christ, yet without holiness—both inward and outward—I shall never see the Lord. Unless the earnest pursuit of holiness occupy all my powers, I am but a formal professor, having a name to live while being spiritually dead.
Without holiness men are strangers to God and cannot be admitted to His fellowship, still less to His eternal habitation. "Thus saith the Lord God; No stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh shall enter into My sanctuary" (Ezek. 44:9): such as have no holiness within and without, in heart or in life, cannot be admitted into the sanctuary. If God shut the door of His earthly sanctuary against such as were strangers to holiness, will He not much more shut the doors of His celestial tabernacle against those who are strangers to Christ? "For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor. 6:14, 15).
Unholy persons have fellowship and are familiar with Satan: "Ye are of your father the Devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do" (John 8:44); and again "The whole world lieth in the Wicked one" (1 John 5:19). It would be awful blasphemy to affirm that the thrice holy God would have fellowship with those who are in covenant with the Devil. O make no mistake upon this point, dear reader: if you are not walking after the Spirit, you are walking after the flesh: if you are not living to please Christ, you are living to please self; if you have not been delivered from the power of Darkness, you cannot enjoy the Light. Listen to those piercing words of the Redeemer, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3), and the new birth is holiness begun, it is the implantation of a principle of holiness in the heart, which is the life task of the Christian to cultivate.
The "holiness" referred to in our text is not imputed holiness, for we cannot be exhorted to "follow after" that! No, it is personal and practical holiness, which is not attained by standing still, but by an earnest, diligent, persistent pursuit after the same. "It will be well for us to remember that the religion of Jesus Christ is not a matter of trifling, that the gaining of Heaven is not to be achieved by a few half-hearted efforts; and if we will at the same time recollect that all-sufficient succor is prepared for us in the covenant of grace we shall be in a right state of mind: resolute, yet humble, leaning upon the merits of Christ, and yet aiming at personal holiness. I am persuaded that if self-righteousness be deadly, self-indulgence is indeed ruinous. I desire to maintain always a balance in my ministry, and while combating self-righteousness, to war perpetually with loose living" (C.H. Spurgeon).
But for the comfort of the poor and afflicted people of God, who find sin their greatest burden and who grieve sorely over their paucity of holiness, let it be pointed out that our text does not say "without the perfection of holiness no man shall see the Lord." Had it done so, we would not be writing this article, for then the editor had been entirely without hope. There is none upon earth who is fully conformed to God’s will. Practical holiness is a matter of growth. In this life holiness is but infantile, and will only be matured in glory. At present it exists more in the form of longings and strivings, hungerings and efforts, rather than in realizations and attainments. The very fact that the Christian is exhorted to "follow" or pursue holiness, proves that he has not yet reached it.
"Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" spiritually, not corporeally: with an enlightened understanding and with love’s discernment, so as to enjoy personal communion with Him. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth" (1 John 1:6): how clear is that! "The pure in heart shall see God" (Matthew 5:8): see Him in His holy ordinances, see His blessed image reflected, though dimly, by his saints, see Him by faith with the eyes of the heart, as Moses, who "endured as seeing Him who is invisible" (Heb. 11:27); and thus be prepared and capacitated to "see" Him in His unveiled glory in the courts above. O to be able to truthfully say, "As for me, I will behold Thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness" (Ps. 17:15). How we should labor after holiness, using all the means appointed thereto, since it is the medium for the soul’s vision of God.