An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Before taking up our present verse let us offer some further remarks upon the last portions of 5:21, which, through lack of space, we had to omit from the preceding article. The central thing which we sought to make clear in the previous paper was, that, while the believer received at his regeneration a new nature or principle of grace (often termed by the older writers "the habit of grace"), yet it is not sufficient of itself to empower us unto the actual execution of good works. At the beginning God did place in Adam everything necessary to equip him for the performing of all obedience; but not so with the Christian. God has not communicated to us such supplies of grace that we are self-sufficient. No indeed: rather has He placed in Christ all "fullness" of grace for us to draw on (John 1:16), thereby making the members dependent on their Head. And, as we shall now see, it is from Christ that fresh supplies of grace are communicated to us.
"Working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight through Jesus Christ" (verse 21). The "through Jesus Christ" has a double reference: to God’s working in us, and to the acceptance of our works. First, in the light of verses 20, 21 as a whole, it is clear that what is there insisted upon is, that there are no communications of grace unto us from the God of peace except in and by Jesus Christ—by His mediation and intercession. This is a most important point to be clear upon if the Redeemer is to have that place in our thoughts and hearts which is His due: all the gracious operations of the Spirit within the redeemed, from their generation to their glorification, are conducted according to the mediation of the Savior and are in response to His intercession for us. Therein we may perceive the admirable wisdom of God, which has so contrived things that each Divine Person is exalted in the esteem of His people: the Father as the fountain of all grace, the One in whom it originates; the Son, in His mediatorial office, as the channel through which all grace flows to us; the Spirit as the actual communicator and bestower of it.
Second, in our judgment, these words "through Jesus Christ" have also a more immediate connection with the clause "that which is well-pleasing in His sight," the reference being to those "good works" unto which the God of peace perfects or fits us. The best of our duties, wrought in us as they are by Divine grace, are not acceptable to God simply as they are ours, but only on account of the merits of Christ. The reason for this is, that Divine grace issues through an imperfect medium: sin is mixed with our best performances. The light may be bright and steady, yet it is dimmed by an unclean glass through which it may shine. We owe, then, to the Mediator not only the pardon of our sins and the sanctification of our persons, but the acceptance of our imperfect worship and service: "To offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2:5) states that aspect of truth we are here emphasizing.
"To whom be glory for ever. Amen." Here the apostle, as was his custom, adds praise to petition. This is recorded for our instruction. The same principle is inculcated in that pattern prayer which the Lord Jesus has given to His disciples, for after its seven petitions He teaches us to conclude with, "for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen" (Matthew 6:13). here is some uncertainty as to whether the ascription of praise in our text be unto the God of peace, to whom the whole prayer is addressed, or whether it be unto Jesus Christ, the nearest antecedent. Personally, we believe that both are included and intended. Both are equally worthy, and both should receive equal recognition from us. In Philippians 4:20 praise is offered distinctively unto the Father; in Revelation 1:5, 6 to the Mediator; while in Revelation 5:13 it is offered unto both.
"And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation: for I have written a letter unto you in few words" (verse 22). We will first give a brief exposition of this verse, and then make some remarks upon its central theme. The opening word is misleading in our Version, for it is contrastive and not connective, being rightly rendered "But" in the R.V. In the preceding verse, the apostle had spoken of God working in His people that which is well-pleasing in His sight: here he addresses their responsibility, and urges unto diligence on their part. Herein we may perceive again how perfectly Paul ever preserved the balance of truth: unto the Divine operations must be added our endeavors. Though it is God who worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure, nevertheless, we are exhorted to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling: Philippians 2:12, 13.
The "word of exhortation" refers, in our judgment, to the entire contents of this epistle. The Greek word for "exhortation" is quite a comprehensive one, including within its meaning and scope direction, admonition, incitation, and comfort. It is usually translated "consolation" or "exhortation," one as often as the other. Manifestly it was very appropriate for the apostle to thus summarize the whole of his epistle, for, from beginning to end, its contents are a most powerful and impressive incitation unto perseverance in the faith and profession of the Gospel, in the face of strong temptations to apostasy. "The word of exhortation is the truth and doctrine of the Gospel applied unto the edification of believers, whether by way of exhortation or consolation, the one of them including the other" (John Owen—and so all the best of the commentators). But let us observe the tactfulness and gentleness with which the apostle urged the Hebrews to attend unto the exhortations that had been addressed to them.
First, he said, "But I beseech you." This was "an affectionate request that they would take kindly what on his part was meant kindly" (J. Brown). Paul did not set himself on some lofty pedestal and command them—as he might well have done by virtue of his apostolic authority—but placing himself on their level, he tenderly urged them. "This word of exhortation as it comes out of the bright atmosphere of truth, so it comes out of the genial atmosphere of affection" (A. Saphir). Second, he added, "I beseech you, brethren," "denoting (1) his near relation unto them in nature and grace, (2) his love unto them, (3) his common interest with them in the case to hand—all suited to give an access unto his present exhortation" (John Owen); to which we may add, (4) it evidenced his commendable humility and lowliness of heart.
Third, he added "But I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation." This of course implied there were things in this epistle which were opposed to their corruptions and prejudices. This also revealed once more the deep solicitude which the apostle had for the Hebrews. He had written to them some pointed warnings and some severe admonitions, and he was deeply concerned that they should not miss the benefit thereof, either through their negligence or because of their natural antipathy. "Probably he records (uses) the word of exhortation for this reason: though men are by nature anxious to learn, they yet prefer to hear something new, rather than to be reminded of things known and often heard before. Besides, as they indulge themselves in sloth, they can ill bear to be stirred and reproved" (John Calvin).
Here we may perceive again what a blessed example the apostle has left all ministers of the Word. The preacher must be careful to stir up his hearers to seek their own good: "Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the Word at My mouth, and give them warning from Me. When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die: and thou givest him not warning, nor speaketh to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thine hand" (Ezek. 3:17, 18). In nothing are our hearers (even the saints) more backward than to appreciate and respond to the word of exhortation. Yet exhortation was the apostle’s keynote all through this Epistle. God has given His Word to us for practical ends, and the faith of God’s elect is "the acknowledging of the truth which is alter godliness" (Titus 1:1). The Holy Scriptures have been placed in our hands that we may be furnished unto all good works, instructed in every duty, fortified against every temptation. No doctrine is rightly understood unless it affects our walk. But in pressing unto a compliance with the Divine precepts let us seek grace that we may do it with the fidelity, wisdom, humility, and tenderness that the apostle evidenced and exemplified.
"For I have written a letter unto you in a few words." Strange to say, some have been puzzled by this clause, because most of Paul’s epistles are much shorter than this one, and hence they have invented the wild theory that verse 22 alludes only to this final chapter, which Sir Robert Anderson strangely designated "a kind of covering letter." But the apostle was not here referring absolutely to the length of his epistle, but to the proportion between its length and the momentousness and sublimity of the theme of which it treats. In comparison with the importance and comprehensiveness of the many subjects which he had touched upon, brevity had indeed marked his treatment throughout. Nothing more than a short compendium had been given of the new covenant, the office and work of Christ, the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, the life of faith, and the varied duties of the Christian.
The principal subject referred to in our present verse is the Divine exhortations, which is one of the greatest practical importance and value, yet alas, it is sadly neglected and generally ignored today. In Calvin’s time men preferred "to hear something new, rather than to be reminded of things known and often heard before," but the present generation is woefully ignorant of those paths of righteousness which God has marked out in His Word, and so far from often heating of many of those duties that God requires us to perform, most pulpits are largely silent thereon, substituting themes and topics which are more agreeable to the flesh, studiously avoiding that which searches the conscience and calls for reformation. Now an "exhortation" is an urging to the performance of duty, an incitation unto obedience to the Divine precepts. In developing this theme, we feel that we cannot do better than follow the order set forth in Psalm 119.
We are there shown, first, the blessedness of those who respond to God’s claims upon them: "Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the Law of the Lord. Blessed are they that keep His testimonies, that seek Him with the whole heart" (verses 1, 2). The Psalmist began here because it is essential that we should have a right understanding of what true blessedness consists. All men desire to be happy: "There be many that say, Who will show us any good?" (Ps. 4:6). This is the cry of the world, "Good, good:" it is the yearning of nature for contentment and satisfaction.
Alas, sin has so blinded our understandings that by nature we neither know where real blessedness is to be found nor how it is obtained. So thoroughly has Satan deceived men, they know not that happiness is the fruit of holiness, a conscience testifying to God’s approbation. Consequently, all, until Divine grace intervenes, seek happiness in riches, honors and pleasures, and thus they flee from it while they are seeking it—they intend joy, but choose misery. "Thou has put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased" (Ps. 4:7)—yes, "their corn and their wine:" not only possessed by them, but chosen by them as their portion and felicity. But David found that by treading the highway of holiness, God had put a gladness in his heart to which the pleasures of the worldling could not for a moment compare.
The main difference in thought between the first two verses of Psalm 119, wherein the secret of true happiness is revealed, is this: in the former the outward conduct of the man of God is described; in the latter, the inward principle which actuates him is seen, namely, whole-hearted seeking unto the Lord. As it is out of the heart there proceeds all the evils enumerated by Christ in Matthew 15:19, so it is out of the heart there issues all the graces described in Galatians 5:22, 23. It is for this reason we are bidden, "Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23). This is very solemn and searching, for while "man looketh on the outward appearance, the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). Therefore there must be the exercise of faith and of love before our outward conduct can be pleasing unto God.
After affirming and describing the blessedness of those who walk in the Law of the Lord (verses 1-3), the Psalmist next reminds us that God has "commanded us to keep His precepts diligently" (verse 4). First, he sets before us a most attractive inducement to heed the Divine commands, and then we are reminded of God’s righteous claims upon us. We are His creatures, His subjects, and as our Maker and Ruler He has absolute authority over us. God’s will has been clearly revealed in His Word, and we are obligated to give our best attention and respect thereunto. God will not be put off with anything: He requires to be served with the utmost care and exactness. Thus, it is not left to our caprice as to whether or not we will walk in God’s Law—an absolute necessity is imposed.
"O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes" (verse 5). Awed by a sense of the authority of God, conscious of the propriety of His commanding His creatures, and of the justice of His claims, the Psalmist now felt his own weakness and utter insufficiency, his deep need of Divine grace, to enable him to fulfill his duty. This is one of the marks of a regenerate soul: first he is enlightened, and then he is convicted. Knowledge of the path of duty is communicated to him, and then consciousness is awakened of his inability to walk therein. Holiness begins with holy desires and aspirations: O that I were walking in the Law of the Lord, and keeping His precepts diligently. He realized that in the past, he had followed his own ways and paid little or no attention unto God’s authority. But now he longs for this to be radically altered.
This panting after a conformity to the Divine will is the breathing of the new nature, which is received at regeneration. A change of heart is ever evidenced by new desires and new delights. "For they that are after the flesh, do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit, the things of the Spirit" (Rom. 8:5). When the love of God is shed abroad in the heart, our love goes out to God, and as His love is a regard for our good, so our love for Him is a regard for His glory. Love to God is testified by a longing to be subject to Him: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not grievous" (1 John 5:3). The more clearly the believer discerns the wisdom, goodness, purity, and holiness of the Divine precepts, the more earnestly does he long to obey them: "O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes"—this is the longing of the heart for directing grace.
Passing over the intervening verses, we observe, next, the Psalmist’s prayer for enabling grace: "Blessed art Thou O Lord: teach me Thy statutes" (verse 12). One of the duties of God’s people in connection with the Divine precepts is to turn them into prayer. This is in accord with the new covenant, where precepts and promises go hand in hand. What God requires from us, we may ask of Him. "Why doth God require what we cannot perform by our own strength? He doth it (1) to keep up His fight; (2) to convince us of our impotency, and that upon a trial: without His grace we cannot do His work; (3) that the creature may express his readiness to obey; (4) to bring us to lie at His feet for grace" (T. Manton).
Prayer is the expression of our desires, and if we truly long to obey God, then we shall earnestly supplicate Him for enabling grace. The first thing sought is that God would teach us His statutes, which has reference to both the outward means and the inward grace. The letter of the Word and the preaching thereof must not be despised, for it is an ordinance which is appointed by God; yet it is only as the Divine blessing attends the same that we are truly profited. When the Lord Jesus taught His disciples we are told, that He first opened to them the Scriptures, and then He opened their understandings (Luke 24:32, 35). The inward teaching of the Spirit consists in enlightening the understanding, inflaming the affections, and moving the will, for Divine teaching is ever accompanied by drawing (John 6:44, 45).
The great need for such inward teaching by the Spirit is our obstinacy and prejudice. To live for eternity instead of for time, to walk by faith and not by sight, to deny self and take up the cross dally, seems utter foolishness to the natural man. To yield ourselves wholly to God, is to row against the raging stream of our lusts. The old nature has a long start on the new, so that we are confirmed in evil habits, and therefore to act contrary to our natural bent and bias is likened unto cutting off right hands and plucking out right eyes. Moreover, every step we take, yea, attempt to take, along the highway of holiness, is hotly opposed by Satan. Thus, the need is real, urgent, imperative, that we should be Divinely empowered to discharge our duties. None but God Himself can work in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
Next we find the Psalmist declaring, "I will meditate in Thy precepts, and have respect unto Thy ways" (verse 15). Prayer is vain unless it be accompanied by faithful endeavor on our part. Here is David’s hearty resolution and purpose to discharge his responsibility. He knew that he would never have that respect for God’s ways of holiness which is their due, unless he made His precepts the subject of his constant thoughts. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." If our minds were constantly engaged with sacred things, the savor thereof would be apparent in our conversation. But the fear of God and a delight for His Word must first be established in our hearts, for our thoughts follow our affections—that which the heart has no relish for, the mind finds irksome to dwell upon. Difficulties in holy duties lie not in the duties themselves, but in the backwardness of our affections.
"I will meditate in Thy precepts and have respect unto Thy ways" (verse 15). The order is deeply suggestive: meditation precedes obedient conduct. Meditation is to be far more than a pious reverie: it is an appointed means to God-pleasing conduct: "Thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest abserve to do according to all that is written" (Josh. 1:8). Meditation is not for the purpose of storing the mind with curious notions and subtle ideas, but is to be turned to practical use. Observe well, dear readers, it is not "I will meditate in Thy promises" (though that too has its proper place), but "in Thy precepts." And why is it so essential that we should meditate therein? That they may be fixed more permanently in the memory, that they may make a deeper impression on the heart, and that we should the better discern their manifold application unto the varied duties of our lives.
"I will meditate in Thy precepts." This was no passing fancy with David, like the forming of a New Year’s resolution that is never carried into execution. He repeats his determination "I will meditate in Thy statutes" (verse 48), and again he declares, "I will meditate in Thy precepts" (verse 78). It is often said that, in this strenuous and bustling age, meditation is a lost art. True, and is not this one of the chief reasons why obedience to God’s commands is a lost practice? God complained of old, "My people do not consider" (Isa. 1:3): what goes in at one ear, goes out at the other. "When anyone heareth the Word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the Wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart" (Matthew 13:19): and how can the Word be understood unless it be prayerfully pondered, turned over and over in the mind. "Let these sayings sink down into your ears" (Luke 9:44)—by means of serious reflection and steady contemplation thereof.
"Make me to go in the path of Thy commandments, for therein do I delight" (verse 35). Here we find David praying for compelling grace. Though he was a regenerate man and delighted in the Divine precepts, he was painfully conscious of the fact that there was still much in him which pulled the other way. The flesh lusted against the spirit, so that he could not do the things which he would. True, Divine grace has placed within the born-again soul an inclination and tendency toward that which is good, yet fresh supplies of grace are needed daily before he has strength to perform that which is good. And for this grace God would be sought unto. Why so? That we may learn that power belongeth unto Him alone, and that we may be kept lowly in our own esteem. Were God to send sufficient rain in a day to suffice for a year, no notice would be taken of His acts of providence; and were He to grant us sufficient grace at the new birth to suffice the rest of our lives, we would quickly become prayerless.
It is a very humbling thing to be brought to realize that we must be "made to go" in the path of God’s commandments, yet sooner or later each believer experiences the truth of it. Godly desires and holy resolutions are not sufficient to produce actual obedience: God has to work in us to do, as well as to "will" of His good pleasure. Peter’s resolution was strong when he declared that he would not deny Christ, though all others should do so; yet in the hour of testing he discovered that he was as weak as water. We are told of Hezekiah that "God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart" (2 Chron. 32:31); and at times He does this with all His people, that they may discover that without Him they can do nothing. When this discovery is made, the soul feels the suitability of this prayer, "Make me to go in the path of Thy commandments."
"Incline my heart unto Thy testimonies, and not to covetousness" (verse 36). In these words there is a confession implied, as well as a supplication expressed. There is an acknowledgment that the natural bent of the heart is away from God unto worldly things. That for which he prayed was that the bias of his heart should be turned unto God and His precepts. For the heart to be "inclined" unto God’s Word means, for the affections to be so inflamed unto holiness that the will is carried after them. Just as the power of sin lies in the love it has for the objects attracting us, so our aptness for godly duties lies in the love we have for them. When God says "I will cause you to walk in My statutes" (Ezek. 36:27), it means that He will so enlighten the understanding and kindle the affections that the will is inclined thereto.
But let it be said again that, diligent effort on our part must be added to praying, for God will not heed the petitions of the slothful and careless. Hence we must carefully note that not only did David beg God to "Incline my heart unto Thy testimonies," but he also declared "I have inclined mine heart to perform Thy statutes always" (verse 112). It is our bounden duty to incline our hearts unto God’s Law, yet it is only by God’s enablement we can do so. Nevertheless, God deals not with us as stocks and stones, but as rational agents. He sets before us motives and inducements which it is our responsibility to respond unto. He appoints means, which it is our duty to use. He bestows blessings, which it is our obligation to improve—trading with the pound He has given us. And this David had done. True, it was all of grace, as he had been the first to acknowledge: nevertheless the fact remained he had cooperated with grace: working out what God had worked in; and all is vain till that be done.
Our space is exhausted. Does some captious critic ask, What has all the above to do with Hebrews 12:22? We answer, much every way. How are we to "suffer the Word of Exhortation"? Psalm 119 supplies a detailed answer! By frequently reminding ourselves that compliance therewith is the way of true blessedness; by constantly calling to mind the Divine authority with which it is invested; by owning and bewailing our perverse disinclination thereto; by earnest prayer for enabling grace; by meditation daily thereon; by begging God to make us go in the path of His commandments; by diligent improvement of the grace given.