An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Final Warning
(Hebrews 12:28, 29)
"Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire." A brief analysis of these verses reveals the following weighty points. First, the inestimable blessing which believers have been made the recipients of: a kingdom which is eternal. Second, the obligation devolving upon them: to serve God with true veneration and pious devotedness. Third, the warning by which this is pointed: because there can be no escape from the Divine wrath which overtakes apostates. In his helpful commentary J. Brown pointed out that "to receive an immoveable kingdom is but another mode of expressing what is meant by ‘ye are come to mount Sion’ (verse 22). It is another descriptive figurative mode of expressing that the privileges and honors under the new covenant men obtain by the faith of the truth as it is in Jesus." In support of this: "they that trust in the Lord shall be as mount Zion: they shall never be moved" (Ps. 125:1).
Now there is a twofold "kingdom" which believers have "received:" a kingdom of grace, which is set up in the heart of the saint, where Christ reigns as supreme Sovereign, and a kingdom of glory, prepared for us in Heaven, where we shall reign as kings with Christ forever. John Owen insisted that the former only is here intended, Ezekiel Hopkins threw the emphasis almost entirely upon the latter; personally we believe that both are included, and shall expound it accordingly, condensing the main points from each of these writers.
Christians are already possessors of the kingdom of grace, for Christ has established His dominion over them. Though He sits personally upon the Throne of heaven, yet He rules in believers by His spirit (who has received commission from Him), and also by His Word energized in them by the Spirit. The interest of believers in this kingdom is called their "receiving" it, because they have it by gift or grant from their Father: Luke 12:32. First, they receive its doctrine, truth, and law: they own its reality and submit to its authority: Romans 6:17. Second, they receive it in the light, grace, and spiritual benefits of it: they enjoy its privileges of righteousness, peace, and joy: Romans 14:17. Third, they receive it in its dignities and securities: they are kings and priests unto God (Rev. 1:6), and so safe are they as to be "kept by the power of God through faith" (1 Pet. 1:5). Fourth, they receive it by a supernatural initiation into its spiritual mysteries (1 Cor. 4:20), the glory of which is immediate access to God and heart enjoyment of Him.
The privileges which Christians receive by their believing the Gospel are inconceivably grand. They are in the kingdom, the kingdom of God and Christ, a spiritual and heavenly kingdom; enriched with inexhaustible treasures of spiritual and celestial blessings. Christians are not to be measured by their outward appearance or worldly circumstances, but rather by the interest they have in that kingdom which it was their Father’s good pleasure to give them. It is therefore their privilege and duty to conduct themselves and behave as those who have received such wondrous privileges and high dignities from God Himself: far should they be from envying poor millionaires and the godless potentates of this earth. Our portion is infinitely superior to the baubles of time and sense. Though the world knows us not, unto God we are "the excellent of the earth" (Ps. 16:3), the crown-jewels of His Son, those whom angels serve or minister unto. O for grace to conduct ourselves as the sons and daughters of the Almighty.
In what sense or senses has the believer "received" the kingdom of glory? First, by the immutable Word of Promise. To the believer the promise of God is as good security as the actual possession. The poor worldling cannot understand this, and he regards the confidence of the Christian as naught but fanaticism. But the simple trusting soul already possesses the kingdom of glory because God has infallibly assured him "in black and white" of the possession of it. It is the immutable Word of Promise which gives him the right and title to the inheritance, and therefore as it now belongs to him by right and title, he may well call it his. When God has promised anything, it is all the same to a believer whether He saith it is done or it shall be done.
Second, the believer has "received" the kingdom of glory by grace giving him the earnest and firstfruits of it. The comforts and graces of the Spirit are referred to again and again under these figures: appropriately so, for an "earnest" is a part (an instalment) of what is agreed upon, and the "firstfruits" are a sample and pledge of the coming harvest. Now grace and glory are one and the same in essence, differing only in degree: grace is Heaven brought down into the soul, glory is the soul conducted to Heaven. Grace is glory commenced, glory is grace consummated. Probably one of the meanings of "Light is sown for the righteous" (Ps. 97:11) is, the "light" of everlasting life and bliss is now in the graces of regenerated souls as in their seed, and they shall certainly bud and blossom forth into perfect fruitage.
Third, the believer has "received" the kingdom of glory by the realisation of Jaith. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). Here is a spiritual grace which brings distant things near and gives to the future a present reality. Faith brings into the soul what lies altogether outside the reach of our natural senses. It is a supernatural faculty which is quite beyond the ken of the natural man. Faith beholds what the eye cannot see, it grasps that made without hands; it supplies demonstration or proof of that which the infidel scoffs at.
Fourth, the believer has "received" the kingdom of glory by the embraces of hope. In Scripture, the grace of "hope" is something far better than a vague longing for something we do not yet possess: it is a sure expectation, a definite assurance of what God has promised. Hope supplies a present anticipation of the future realization. Faith believes, hope enjoys those things which God has prepared for them that love Him. Therefore hope is called the "anchor of the soul... which entereth into that within the veil" (Heb. 6:19), for it lays hold on that glory which is there laid up for us. Hope is the taster of our comforts, and excites the same delight and complacency as the fruition itself will impart—the same in kind, though not in degree.
The particular property of this kingdom which is here emphasized by the Holy Spirit (in accordance with the thought of the context) is, that it "cannot be moved"; therein does it differ from all other kingdoms—here, as everywhere, does our blessed Redeemer have the" pre-eminence." Owen pointed out that. "No dominion ever so dreamed of eternity, as did the Roman Empire; but it hath not only been shaken, but broken to pieces and scattered like chaff before the wind: see Daniel 2:44; 7:14, 27"—so terribly so, that today, the closest students of history are unable to agree as to its actual boundaries. But nothing like that shall ever happen to the Savior’s dominion: therefore do we read of "the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:11). No internal decays can ruin it; no external opposition shall overthrow it. Yet the language of our verse goes even further than that: God Himself will not remove it.
"That which is here peculiarly intended is, that it is not obnoxious unto such a shaking and removal as the church-state was under the old covenant; that is, God Himself would never make any alteration in it, nor ever introduce another church-state or worship. God hath put the last hand, the hand of His only Son, unto all revelations and institutions. No addition shall be made unto what He hath done, nor alteration in it: no other way of calling, sanctifying, ruling, and saving of the church, shall ever be appointed or admitted; for it is here called an immovable kingdom, in opposition unto that church state of the Jews which God Himself first shook, and then took away—for it was ordained only for a season" (John Owen). Here again we perceive the superiority of Christianity over Judaism: the one was mutable, the other immutable; the one was evanescent, the other eternal; the one was founded by Moses, the other is established by Him who is "the same yesterday, and today, and forever."
The fact that Christ’s kingdom is an "everlasting" one (2 Pet. 1:11), that it shall "never be moved" (Heb. 12:28), and that "of His kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:33), has occasioned difficulty to some, in the light of "then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father" (1 Cor. 15:24). But the difficulty is at once removed if we bear in mind the distinctions pointed out in our last article. The sovereign dominion which Christ has over all creatures as a Divine person, is something of which He can never divest Himself. Likewise, that dominion over His own people which belongs to Him as the incarnate Son, is also eternal: He will remain forever the Head and Husband of the Church; nor can He relinquish the Mediatorial office. But that dominion to which He was exalted after His resurrection, and which extends over all principalities and powers (John 17:2, Matthew 28:18), will be relinquished when its design is accomplished: this is clearly seen in the remaining words of 1 Corinthians 15:24, "When He shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet." Thus, the "kingdom" which Christ delivers up to the Father is that rule of His over His enemies.
The immovability and eternality of Christ’s kingdom holds good of it equally whether we consider it in its present grace aspect or its future glory aspect, for we have received "a kingdom which cannot be moved." The kingdom of grace is so Divinely fixed in the heart of believers that all the efforts of sin and all the attacks of Satan are unable to overthrow it: "the foundation of God standeth sure" (2 Tim. 2:19); "being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will finish it" (Phil. 1:6). It is absolutely impossible that one of Christ’s sheep should perish: in the day to come He will exclaim, "Behold I and the children which God hath given Me" (Heb. 2:13). If this be true of the kingdom of grace, then much more so of the kingdom of glory, when sin shall be no more and Satan shall never again tempt the redeemed.
Now from the glorious nature of this "kingdom" the apostle proceeds to draw an inference or point a practical conclusion: "Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably." As J. Brown pointed out, to "receive a kingdom" is to be invested with royalty, to be made kings and priests unto God (Rev. 1:6). Since, then, royalty is the most exalted form of human life, the most dignified honor known upon earth, how it behooves us to seek from God that aid which shall enable us to "walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called." Once again we are reminded of the inseparable connection between privilege and duty, and the greater the privilege the stronger the obligation to express our gratitude in a suitable and becoming manner: not merely in emotional ecstasies or fulsome words, but by obedience and worship, that we may "serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear."
The commentators differ considerably as to what is denoted by "let us have grace," yet it seems to us, its meaning is quite simple and obvious. Its signification may be ascertained by three considerations involved in what immediately follows. First, this "grace" is essential unto the serving of God "acceptably" and, as we shall see, this "service" has a principal reference to our worshipping of Him. Second, this "grace" is the root from which proceeds "reverence and godly fear," so that it must point to something more than simple gratitude for what God has already done for us—which is how many of the writers limit it. Third, this "grace" is imperative if we are not to be consumed by Divine wrath—the "consuming fire" of verse 29. We therefore understand this expression to mean, let us persevere in the faith and duties of the Gospel, whereby we are alone enabled to offer acceptable worship to God; let us endeavor after an increase of Divine aid and succor; let us strive after a continual exercise of the grace He has given us; let us seek to bring our hearts more and more under its sanctifying power.
We believe the key to our present passage is found in Exodus 19:10, 11, 15. Under the old covenant the way and means in which Israel was to make a solemn approach unto God in worship was specifically defined: they were to reverently prepare themselves by purification from uncleanness and separation from fleshly indulgences. That was an outward adumbration of the spiritual purity which God now requires from us both internally and externally. Because God has revealed Himself in Christ in a far more glorious manner to us than He manifested Himself before Israel at Sinai, we ought to earnestly endeavor after a more eminent preparation of heart and sanctification of our whole persons in all our approaches to the Most High. There must be in us the spiritual counterpart of what was shadowed out in them ceremonially. The fear of God was wrought in Israel by the terrors of His law: though our fear be of another kind, it ought to be none the less real and effectual in us to its proper ends.
The great end in view is, that "we may serve God acceptably." In this particular epistle the Greek word used here signifies that service unto God which consists in His worship, in prayer and praise, and the observance of all the institutions of Divine worship. For example, "in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience" (Heb. 9:9); and again, "We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle" (Heb. 13:10); while in 10:2 the word is actually rendered "worshippers." Nor is this meaning of the Greek word peculiar to the Hebrews epistle: "She was a widow of about four score and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day" (Luke 2:37); "who change the truth of God into a lie, and worship and serve the creature more than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25). The specific reference, then, is had unto the worship of God according to the Gospel, as superseding the institutions under the old economy. Needless to say, such worship cannot proceed from any who are not walking in Gospel obedience.
Now it is in order to our being so fitted for the Divine service that we may worship God "acceptably," that the exhortation comes, "let us have grace." There is a double reference: that our persons may be acceptable, and that our worship may be pleasing in His sight. An intimation is hereby given that there may be a performance of the duties of Divine worship when neither the persons who perform them, nor the duties themselves, are accepted by Him. So it was with Cain and his sacrifice, as it is with all hypocrites always. The principal things required unto this acceptance are, first, that the persons of the worshippers be accepted in the Beloved. Second, that the actual performance of worship must, in all the duties of it, be in strict accord with what God (and none other) has appointed. Third, that our spiritual graces be in actual exercise, for it is in and by this, in the discharge of all our religious duties, that we give glory unto God. How can our worship be pleasing unto Him if we be in a backslidden state?
That which is here specifically singled out as necessary unto our worship being acceptable is, that we serve God "with reverence and godly fear." As John Owen wisely pointed out, these "may be learned best from what they are opposed unto. For they are prescribed as contrary unto some such defects and faults of Divine worship, as from which we ought to be deterred, by the consideration of the holiness and severity of God as is manifest from the next verse, ‘for our God is a consuming fire.’" The sins from which we ought to be deterred by a consideration of these Divine perfections are, First, the want of a due sense of the awe-inspiring majesty of Him with whom we have to do. God provided against this evil under the old economy by the terror wrought in the people at the giving of the Law, by the many restrictions interposed against their approaches to Him (none being allowed to enter the holy of holies), and by all the outward ceremonies appointed; and though all these are now removed, yet a deep spiritual sense of God’s holiness and greatness should be retained in the mind of all who draw nigh to Him in worship.
Second, the lack of a due sense of our own vileness, and our infinite distance from God both in nature and state, which is always required to be in us. The Lord will never accept the worship of a Pharisee: while we are puffed up with a sense of our own importance and filled with self-righteousness or self-complacency, He will not accept our approaches unto Him. And nothing is more calculated to hide pride from us and fill our hearts with a sense of our utter insignificance as a sight and realization of the ineffable purity and high sovereignty of God. When Isaiah beheld Him "high and lifted up," he exclaimed "Woe is me! for I am undone" (Isa. 6:5); when Job beheld the Almighty, he cried, "Behold, I am vile" (Job 40:4).
Third, carnal boldness in a formal performance of sacred duties, while neglecting an earnest endeavor to exercise grace in them, which is something which God abhors. O the daring impiety of worldly professors taking upon their polluted lips the ineffable name of God, and offering unto Him "the sacrifice of fools" (Ecclesiastes 5:1). What a marvel it is that He does not strike dead those blatant and presumptuous souls who vainly attempt to deceive Him with their lip service while their hearts are far from Him. It is to prevent these, and other like evils, that we are here exhorted to worship God "with reverence and godly fear," that is, with a holy abasement of soul, having our minds awed by a sense of the infinite majesty of God, our hearts humbled by a consciousness of our vileness and our creaturely nothingness.
No exhortation in this epistle is more needed by our perverse generation than this one. How this imperative requirement "with reverence and godly fear" rebukes the cheap, flippant, irreverent "worship" (?) of the day. O what unholy lightness and ungodly familiarity now marks the religion of Christendom: many address the great Deity as though they were His equals, and conduct themselves with far less decorum than they would show in the presence of an earthly monarch. The omission of bowing the head in silent prayer when we take our place in the congregation, the vulgar glancing around, the unseemingly whispering and chattering, the readiness to smile or laugh at any remarks of the preacher’s which may be wrested, are all so many instances of this glaring and growing evil. "God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all about Him" (Ps. 89:7).
The Greek word for "reverence" is rendered "shamefacedness" in 1 Timothy 2:9. This, in extraordinary instances, is called a "blushing," a "being ashamed," a "confusion of face" (Ezra 9:6; Daniel 9:7); yet, the essence of it, ought always to accompany us in the whole worship of God. "Godly fear" is a holy awe of the soul when engaged in sacred duties, and this from a consideration of the great danger there is of our sinful miscarriages in the worship of God, and of His severity against such heinous offenses. God will not be mocked. A serious soul is hereby moved unto watchfulness and diligence not to provoke so great, so holy, so jealous a God, by a neglect of that reverence and godly fear which He requires in His service, and which is due unto Him on account of His glorious perfections. If the seraphim veil their faces before Him (Isa. 6:2). how much more should we do so!
"For our God is a consuming fire" (verse 29). This is the reason given why we must serve God with reverence and fear. The words are taken from Deuteronomy 4:24, where they are used to deter Israel from idolatry, for that is a sin God will not tolerate. The same description of God is here applied by the apostle unto those lacking grace to worship Him with the humility and awe which He demands. If we are graceless in our persons, and devoid of reverence in our worship, God will deal with us accordingly. As a fire consumes combustible matter cast into it, so God will destroy sinners. The title "our God" denotes a covenant relationship, yet though Christians are firmly assured of their interest in the everlasting covenant, God requires them to have holy apprehensions of His majesty and terror: see 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11.
The twin graces of love and fear, fear and love, should be jointly active in the believer, and it is in preserving a balance between them that his spiritual health largely consists. So it is here: observe the remarkable conjunction: "our God," in covenant relationship, our Father; and yet "a consuming fire," to be trembled at! The first is to prevent despair from considering God’s ineffable purity and inflexible justice; the latter is to check a presumptous irreverence unto which a one-sided occupation with His grace and love might embolden us. Thus, the principal exhortation "let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably" is urged by two widely different motives: because we have "received a kingdom" and because God is a "consuming fire." Carnal reason would ask, If we have received a kingdom which cannot be moved, why should we fear? But if God be such "a consuming fire" how can we ever expect such a kingdom, since we are but a stubble? But the Spirit-taught have no difficulty in perceiving why the apostle joined together these two things.
The Christian’s interest in His favor, is no warrant for casting off a solemn fear of God: though He has laid down His enmity against him, He has not cast off His majesty and sovereignty over him. "Even those who stand highest in the love and favor of God, and have the fullest assurance thereof and of their interest in Him as their God, ought, nothwithstanding, to fear Him as a sin-avenging God and a consuming fire" (Ezek. Hopkins, 1680). Though God has taken His redeemed into intimate nearness to Himself, yet He requires that they always retain a due apprehension of the majesty of His person, the holiness of His nature, the severity of His justice, and the ardent jealousy of His worship. If we truly dread falling under the guilt of this awful sin of irreverence, our minds will be influenced unto godly fear. The grace of fear is in nowise inconsistent with or an impediment to a spirit of adoption, holy boldness, or godly rejoicing: see Psalm 2:11, Matthew 28:8, Philippians 2:12.
"Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably," for without it there will be neither "reverence" nor "godly fear." Without Divine aid and unction we cannot serve God at all, for He accounts not that worship which is offered by graceless persons. Without grace in actual operation we cannot serve God acceptably, for it is in the exercise of faith and fear, love and awe, that the very life and soul of spiritual worship consists. O how earnestly do we need to seek an increase of Divine "grace" (2 Cor. 9:8; 12:9), and keep it operative in all duties of the worship of God: that in view of His awful wrath, we may have a dread of displeasing Him; in view of His majesty our hearts may be humbled; and in view of His love, we may seek to honor, please and adore Him. "Sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread" (Isa. 8:13 and cf. Matthew 10:28).