The gospel of Jesus Christ is not simply that he saves sinners. He also secures his sheep so that not one of them lost. We see things lost all around us – venerable institutions turned evil, marriages ruptured, children born into homes without the stability of both parents, and nations turned upside down by revolutions. In such times, it is important to see the keeping glory of Jesus Christ, for he reigns at his Father’s right hand to make sure that we are preserved for our heavenly inheritance. We must pass through many tribulations to arrive at God’s kingdom, but arrive we shall, for the almighty Son of man is interceding for us, ruling over all things with an eye to his church’s wellbeing and holiness in this world. We are bound to him, and as he is now exalted, extolled, and very high, we are raised with him and seated with him. But we must learn to live as his raised and reigning people. We must learn what it means to be his precious treasure, his bride clothed in white robes, his kingdom of priests. An important part of this is that we take seriously his command to watch out for another.
A Congregational Responsibility (v. 15)
Peace and Holiness Require Vigilance
When our lives are turned upside down by troubles, pursuing peace and holiness seem like secondary concerns. We might even be tempted to justify our anger toward the world and even toward those we love or other Christians. Is anything more common than to become bitter and look around for culprits when life does not go as we planned? Holiness says, “God has chosen me in Christ unto holiness, and his plan is what matters; I am happiest when I am doing his will.” But the flesh fights back. If common troubles and burdens make us lose perspective, suffering for Christ will surely tempt us to become angry and doubtful. And thus, it is easy to see that we need help to pursue peace and holiness. If we could do it all ourselves, then the Lord would not have placed us in his body and distributed his gifts throughout. He would not have bound us together by “one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.” On one occasion at least, he felt his need of our help, when in Gethsemane he asked his disciples to pray with him (Matt. 26:38,40). Now, if he felt his need of the support of the body, should we not draw close to each other at every opportunity? We must never reject his love offered through the body or refuse to do our part in encouraging and supporting our common pursuit of peace and holiness.
The opening word of verse 15, episkopeo (evpiskope,w)is the same word as in 1 Peter 5:2 – look out for, watch vigilantly, inspect. In 1 Peter, it is used for the elders’ oversight, but here we learn that there is also a congregational responsibility of oversight for itself. As well as obeying our elders (Heb. 13:17), we are to submit to one another in the fear of God (Eph. 5:17). If the members of Christ’s body are pursuing peace and holiness together, watching against lapses in faith and love, confronting sin, and speaking the truth in love, then the whole body grows and is built up in faith and usefulness. This is what the apostle envisions here. The Hebrew believers may have been tempted to retreat within small or even individual enclaves – has he not already warned them not to forsake their assemblies of worship and teaching (10:24-25)? It is tempting to do so in evil times, but we must not neglect God’s goodness in offering his word to us and the fellowship of the saints. Whatever the times, he is worthy of our most fervent and fearless worship! At all times, we are to think and act for love fervently with a pure heart (1 Pet. 1:22), prefer others to ourselves (Rom. 12:10), and consider ourselves so bound together in Christ our Head that we do not cease praying for one another and doing all we can to encourage and promote peace and holiness in his body.
Watching Out in Practice
This letter contains many glorious truths about our Savior’s better priesthood and new covenant. We should not rush over the concluding duties, for they are applications of the truth about him. Watching over one another is loving him. He considers our mutual care as personal ministry to him (Matt. 25:40). It is odd to some to think like this, for either Jesus is personally unreal or little concerned with the concerns of the little people. Actually, he mostly cares about his little people, his sheep, whom the world despises. This is one reason he tells us not to exercise ourselves in higher things and esoteric truths, for these inevitably distract us from truths of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3) and usually cause division in the body. Certainly the command to watch over one another can be abused. It is not authorization for being a busybody, for the congregation to become censorious or judgmental, or to see “them” under every rock. It is instead a call for us to watch over one another in areas of gospel peace and holiness, so that we may grow in understanding and love, as well as bear much fruit together for the glory of God and growth of the church.
Many of us have had unpleasant experiences with others who wanted to get a little too close or were a little too free with their advice. This passage is no justification for being a busybody, but we must remember than when loving believers watch over us, Jesus Christ is watching over us. He will lose none of his sheep. On the one hand, we must learn to be a little more inviting of help and encouragement from others. If you think you are sufficient to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, or that your family is its own secure fort, you will be sorely disappointed in the end, for Jesus Christ exercises his vigilance through each of us, as weak as we are, watching over one another. And when you want to give encouragement and help, or if you are of a nature that loves to rush in and help others, remember that you will only help others if you are a wise friend and ambassador of peace. Offering a pile of your own advice will not fight off the devil. You must be walking with our Savior so that you partake of his “Spirit of counsel, wisdom, and might.” Only then can you do another brother or sister any lasting good.
He does not take time to develop a new church program, as we might be tempted to do. It is enough for him to tell us to watch out for one another in these two areas. Our ability to do so requires that we love and are truly interested in one another’s wellbeing. If we are to give help and encouragement, we must know each other and the kinds of temptation and weakness that are common to us all. And then, there is also the need for a spirit of gentleness to prevail throughout the body (Gal. 6:1), otherwise “watching out” can easily become cold criticism and easy solutions rather than “weeping with those that weep.” And remember that the goal of this oversight is not that everyone shares the same convictions about everything but that all are seeking the grace of God in Christ. This is what the loss of peace and holiness in the body actually mean – that we are falling short of God’s kindness to us in Christ. Did he not pursue peace with us, even when we did not want it? Did he now lay upon his Son the “chastisement of our peace?” We should therefore be very concerned about making peace, confessing our faults to one another, covering offenses with love, and being very quick to forgive. And since Jesus Christ died and rose again to save us from our sins and make us holy, any diminished zeal for living consecrated to God must be confronted and corrected with mutual admonition and encouragement. Nothing going on in the world or in our lives is an excuse to turn our backs upon the Savior who gave his back to take our stripes. We need constant reminders like this from those who share a “like precious faith.”
The Danger of Falling Short of God’s Grace
To fall short of God’s grace, frankly, means to fail to reach the goal of heaven, to stop short of reaching our inheritance. It is quite a serious warning. It is couched in tender terms, for it is not a goal we reach due to any goodness in us but God’s goodness to us; it is not our merit but our Savior’s. But, it does require effort and faith and persistence on our part to reach God’s kindly goal for us – to be with him forever in his kingdom. Because he loves us and has set us apart for himself, he warns. These Hebrews were using their troubles as an excuse to draw back from Christ and from his church. This is a very dangerous response. It is much safer simply to die for Christ, should he call us to seal his truth with our blood, than to look for ways to save our skins and our place in this world. And our looking out for another has this goal in mind – that no sheep is lost, fails to reach the goal of Christ and heaven, or is so swamped by trouble and fear that he drifts away from Christ and loses his inheritance. Satan’s malice and our weakness cannot overturn God’s eternal purpose; our Lord will not lose one of his sheep (John 6:39; 17:12; 18:9). And to think that we have a part and even a partnership with him in this – to watch out for one another so that we reach heaven together. Yet, we are in danger of being lost if we are not living at peace with another, for then wounds and hurts fester, bitterness takes root, and rupture occurs – but should Christ’s body be split apart because we are too arrogant to seek the things that make for peace, or too indifferent, or too absorbed by our own affairs and troubles? Would we by coldness, or insistence upon having our way, or refusal to forgive, or putting an obstacle before a weaker brother, leave such a bad taste in the mouth of another professing believer that he is tempted in a moment of serious trial to renounce Christ altogether?
The same warning applies to holiness. It is difficult to live separated to God, to remember that we are his, and that our attitudes and words, as well as our outward actions, allegiances, and labors, are to be set apart for his glory. This is the practical significance of being bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20). We no longer belong to ourselves. We live, as Paul wrote, yet it is not us, but Christ that lives in us (Gal. 2:20). Since he has redeemed us by his precious blood, we may not think or talk or live as we want. We may not have the friends we want. “We want” is not the vocabulary of the holy saint – “your will, not mine, O Lord,” is our new identity and our beating heart. Like our Lord Jesus, our meat, our food, our heart’s desire is to do God’s will (John 4:34). We need help. Not one of us has all wisdom to live this way in our particular times. Not one of us has all gifts and strength. And all of us fall. We have areas of unholiness, where we live for ourselves, and often do not see it, especially when it comes to heart attitudes that come across in our words and bear fruit in our actions. It is exactly here, however, at the root of things, that we need oversight and encouragement, before the evil roots bear bitter fruits. Do other believers know you well enough to help you unto holiness? Is there a desire that should more strongly dominate us than to be like Christ, to be found in him, to walk worthy of him, to bear fruit in union with him? There is not. No child of God loves anything more, hungers for anything more than righteousness, and we are encouraged to hunger together, to lead one another by the hand to Jesus Christ as our sufficient food, and to guard over one another so that he may lose none of us to Satan or the world.
Particular Temptations in Evil Times (vv. 15-16)
A Bitter Root that Troubles
Not everyone in the church will respond to evil times by drawing close to the body and helping one another hold fast to God’s grace. There is a great danger of separating, dividing bitterness. He calls this individual a root of bitterness or a wicked root. Trials and especially persecution reveal our weakness and need of our Father’s upholding power (James 1:3). If they drive us into the arms of our Father’s promises and into one another’s arms, all is well. True faith is purified through affliction; false faith draws back and is consumed (John 2:21-23). We are to watch out for this evil root, the man or woman who responds to God’s fires with discontent, complaining, anger, and bitterness. If this root grows and is not confronted, it will cause trouble for the congregation. Discontent has a way of spreading, as we see in the complaining Israelites and especially during Korah’s rebellion. Godliness takes much longer to germinate and bear fruit; sin grows and multiplies rapidly. Believers are to be on guard against the spread of evil in its midst. Watch out for the young – not that they are more prone to sin, but they have before them a fight with the devil and need encouragement (1 John 2:14). This watching against a bitter root is a general commission from our Lord to uphold one another during difficult times, not to be sullen or to allow dark thoughts and brooding to cast a shadow over the soul. If we allow this, the wonders of God’s mercy will be eclipsed by the fear of man, or anger, or bitterness at one’s personal circumstances. This we must firmly resist, for God is Lord of our circumstances. He brings difficulties to bring us to himself, give us opportunity to bear one another’s burdens, and show his power in our weakness.
Immorality and Profaneness that Defile
He mentions fornicators and profaneness as particular sins against which we must exercise constant vigilance. In the church of our Lord Jesus Christ? You remember that some in Corinth believed that what you did with your body did not matter. They were like today’s “you cannot see my heart” crowd, who often use this as an excuse for all kinds of sins. But our Lord warned even the twelve against these types of sins, which should humble our heart and put us on the watch. “And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares” (Luke 21:34)? The apostles needed to be warned against drinking too much and hangovers? The Corinthians need to be told to leave the local whorehouses and idols’ temples? This is rather astounding to those who do not sound out carefully the deceitfulness and depravity of their own hearts. “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
By mentioning fornication, he reminds us that we must keep thoughts and body pure, for we belong to Jesus Christ and must live as his pure virgins by the Holy Spirit’s purifying presence. In evil times especially, the love of many turns to ice, and then iniquities of this sort abound, even as we see in the church today. It is a warm and lively love and faith that quench lust’s fires; impure loves can only be overcome by a higher and purer love. The body itself must be attuned to temptations to this area, preserve the marriage bed through faithful love, encourage modesty in dress and demeanor, and discourage the modern practice of frivolous dating. As a general rule, a young man should not give himself to any romantic thoughts toward a girl until he can act upon them by pursuing marriage, or at least a purposeful friendship in which marriage is possible. Otherwise, impure burnings and defrauding are typically the result, as well as secrecy and guilt that can haunt the couple for many years, even if they marry. And young women should keep themselves for Christ alone until a suitor comes forward who can lead them to their eternal Husband.
The warning to watch out for another against profaneness leads to a few warnings to take from the bad example of Esau. We should first, however, understand what is meant by profaneness. It is usually thought of as profane speech, but it is a more pointed danger than this. To be a profane man is to treat holy things contemptible, to despise them, set light by them, or to have their outward privileges without thanking God for them and devoting oneself to improving them. To be profane would be to listen to a sermon and spend all your time during and after criticizing the preacher, without once being humbled before God’s word or thanking him for drawing near in his word. To be a profane person – or heading in that direction – would be to sit in the worshipping assembling of God’s saints and never once have any desire to join your voice with the congregation in praise to God. In short, a profane life is one that treats God’s grace, salvation, and promises with contempt by not believing them, devoting yourself to them, and praising him for his love. It is the very opposite of holiness.
Three Warnings from a Profane Man (v. 17)
Always Choose God’s Blessing Over Sensuality
Because impure and profane men trouble and defile the holy precincts of Christ’s church – and tremble that he is not warning us against these things from the world but from within his body – he adds further strength to his exhortation from Esau. Esau was a covenant child and member of the church of Jesus Christ. He lacked nothing in externals that would have prevented him from being considered a true child of God and heir of his promises. But, Esau was a profane man in that he so easily gave up his birthright and with it the right of covenant succession for a bowl of red porridge. We can say that Esau chose soup over Christ, satisfaction of his appetites over the promises of God and eternal life. And then, he went on his merry way without ever a thought of repentance. Only when he was later cheated out of his blessing did his former errors come back to him with convicting power. And thus, we are encouraged by Esau’s bad example never to choose to gratify our appetites and passions before God’s promises and blessings. These Hebrew believers, as shocking as it is, were contemplating the Esau option – let go of Christ and God’s promises to save their skins. This is to be truly profane – when being exposed to God’s grace in Christ, we are not humbled and amazed by his love, but instead move forward in our sins without a care or twinge of guilt. It is equally profane if in a time of trial, we turn from Christ to gratify our passions or save our lives.
Repent before the Gospel Door Closes
Esau did try to repent, many years later. It is gut-wrenching to listen to him howl when he realized that Jacob had also stolen his blessing. The loss of the birthright and covenant family leadership did not move him very much; he was a profane man, however genial he may otherwise have been, and cared nothing for God’s promises. But he wanted his father’s blessing, that final benediction of his life. But having lost the promise, he could not possibly obtain peace, and his soul was crushed. The door of repentance was closed to Esau. He wanted the blessing; he wanted to undo what had happened, but no place for repentance was left open to him.
We often think of repentance as a personal act of our will, like making a sudden resolution to leave off fast food. I wonder if there are any here this morning who are not believers but who think you can choose Christ and find heaven in the moment of death – like pulling out a rabbit’s foot or other talisman at the last minute. But repentance is a gift of God (Acts 11:18). It is not in our control, as it was not in Esau’s. How many are there this morning, who might want to repent, might want to get right with God, and even ask themselves, “Why do I stay away from Christ?” But you find that you cannot change that easily! The door of repentance swings upon the hinges of God’s sovereign mercy, and should you trample gospel privileges, harden your heart against them, and choose the world over them, the door will slam in your face. Today is the day of salvation. The gospel hourglass may be turning one last time in your life, at this moment, as you hear this sermon, as something talks with you. O, I shall repent later. I shall become an honest Christian later. Do not bet upon it. Delay is Satan’s clever scheme to keep you from doing now what he hopes you will never do.
Weep Over Sin, Not Consequences
And you may cry and cry. Esau did. He lifted up his voice and wept, and should we have heard him, our hearts would have broken with grief. Poor man! Look at his scoundrel brother who tricked him out of his birthright and his blessing. But God loved Jacob. Esau acted as he did and received what he received as a just reward for his profaneness. If you despise God’s gospel grace, and especially now that Jesus Christ has come to save us from our sins and give us new life, do not think that a few tears later can wipe away your profane presumption. This kind of warning makes sense only because we are dealing with the holy God. It makes sense only because the blood of Jesus Christ is so precious, his Spirit so holy and good, and his salvation so great. You may not, the apostle says, turn from Christ. You must die, if necessary, for him. Do not let go of him. Do not think that God will give you an opportunity to return later. The door may shut upon you and with it any hopes of forgiveness. What a horror! To hear of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ and even to confess it, but to shut out finally because you do not put on Christ, hold fast to the wedding garment of his righteousness, and hold fast to him until the end.
And we are encouraged to watch out for another so that this will never happen to anyone in our congregation. Perhaps there is a young man whom you have seen here many times, never spoken to him, but you sense something is wrong with him, or that he perhaps is struggling or does not know the Lord. Do not be like the Levite or the priest, who hurried away when they saw the sick and bruised man by the side of the road. Go to him. Go now. It is God’s command of love to you. Or if you see a father struggling with his responsibilities, or a wife with hers, or you know of someone who is living a double life of sin, God calls you to go to them, to hold up the feeble hands and give encouragement. Do we have the Comforter, or not? Or in cases of sin, humbly warn them and lovingly plead with them to come back to Christ. Do not think that someone else will do it or should do it. You do it. It is God’s opportunity to you to warn a sinner from the error of his way. If you recover him, the angels will rejoice and a burning brand will be plucked from the pit of hell. And if you think you are an Esau, you cannot know this for sure. You can only know if you refuse to repent and to be broken not over the consequences of your actions but over the filth of your heart before a holy God. Come confessing this, come condemning your filth before God and asking Jesus Christ to clothe you with his righteousness, and you will find a place for repentance.