To Prevent Shallow Selfishness
That there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. (12:16–17)
Perhaps the saddest and most godless person in Scripture outside of Judas is Esau. On the surface, their acts against God do not seem as wicked as those of many brutal and heartless pagans. But the Bible strongly condemns them. They had great light. They had every possible opportunity, as much as any person in their times, of knowing and following God. They knew His word, had heard His promises, had seen His miracles, and had had fellowship with His people; yet with determined willfulness they turned their backs on God and the things of God.
Esau not only was immoral, but was godless. He had no ethics or faith, no scruples or reverence. He had no regard for the good, the truthful, the divine. He was totally worldly, totally secular, totally profane. Christians are to be vigilant that no persons such as Esau contaminate Christ’s Body. See to it … that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau.
Jacob, Esau’s brother, was not a model of ethics or integrity, but he genuinely valued the things of God. The birthright was precious to him, though he tried to procure it by devious means. He basically trusted God and relied on God; his brother disregarded God and trusted only in himself.
When Esau finally woke up to some extent and realized what he had forsaken, he made a half-hearted attempt to retrieve it. Just because he sought for it with tears does not indicate sincerity or true remorse. He found no place for repentance. He bitterly regretted, but he did not repent. He selfishly wanted God’s blessings, but he did not want God. He had fully apostatized, and was forever outside the pale of God’s grace. He went on “sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth,” and there no longer remained any sacrifice to cover his sins (Heb. 10:26).
We must be vigilant so that no one turns from the truth, becomes bitter, or follows the course of selfish Esau, who wanted God’s blessing desperately—but not on God’s terms (cf. Mark 10:17–22).
A Call to Holiness
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)
Of all the young men and women who tragically died in the assault on Columbine High School in April 1999, none has touched the lives of more people than Cassie Bernall. Cassie has been rightly described as a martyr; that is, as one who died for her Christian faith. She perished in her high school library when one of the two young murderers put his automatic rifle to her head and asked, “Do you believe in God?” Some think Cassie might have been praying, thereby drawing their attention and prompting the question. But the issue was not one of mere theological speculation. When they asked, “Do you believe in God?” they were challenging her willingness to die for Christ. With the rifle muzzle pressed against her forehead, the young woman pondered her response.
Cassie answered loudly and clearly, for another teenager, crouched under a desk twenty-five feet away, heard her distinct reply. He later recalled: “One of them asked her if she believed in God. She paused, like she didn’t know what she was going to answer, and then she said yes. She must have been scared, but her voice didn’t sound shaky. It was strong.” She said yes, and with that the young killer pulled the trigger, and Cassie Bernall entered an eternal reward with the God she acknowledged in the face of death.
Cassie Bernall is famous for dying for Christ, but what is perhaps less well known is that in the months prior to her death she had been living for Christ. Two years earlier, in fact, Cassie had been much like the two angry youths who later shot her: caught up in the teen underworld of Gothic darkness with its trappings of disturbed music, wild rage, and flirtation with suicide. She had committed her soul to Satan in a dark ritual; she and a friend were plotting the murder of a teacher they despised and wrote letters seriously discussing the idea of killing her parents. When they found these letters, her parents dramatically intervened, among other ways by sending her to a nearby church’s youth group. Cassie stuck out among the Christian kids, both by her dress and her demeanor, and attended unwillingly. But after finally making a Christian friend, Cassie was dramatically converted to Christ at a youth retreat. God brought the gospel of his love and forgiveness and power for life into her heart. Cassie returned home and exclaimed, “Mom, I’ve changed.”
After two years of living for Christ, this young woman was willing to die for Christ. Her mother writes, “The real issue raised by Cassie’s death is not what she said to her killers, but what it was that enabled her to face them as she did.… Cassie didn’t just die on April 20, but died daily over the previous two years.” By faith she had been giving her life over to Christ, and that is how this young Christian was able to face death on his behalf.
A Holy Calling
This is the way the writer of Hebrews was thinking in this passage. If there was one concern on his mind, it was that his Christian readers stand firm when the day of testing came, perhaps as suddenly as it came to Cassie Bernall. The whole letter makes clear that he expected suffering and persecution in their immediate future. This was part of his message when he exhorted them to look to Jesus “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (12:2). In Hebrews 12:4 the author pointed out that they “have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood,” which clearly implied that they might soon face that same kind of trial.
Hebrews 12 begins with the race that Christians are to run, shedding every hindrance and fleeing sin so as to endure to the end with our eyes fixed on Christ (vv. 1–3). Verses 4–13 then speak of God’s discipline as he trains his children for a harvest of righteousness.
Verse 14 continues this discourse, giving the specific guidance Christians need. This straightforward instruction is what a young believer like Cassie Bernall especially requires in order to know how to live as a Christian. But it is also something more seasoned believers need to recall. It consists of an exhortation to pursue two specific aims: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness.” The first of these has to do with our relationship with other people, and the second with our relationship with God.
Christians are commanded to live peacefully with the people around them, to be peacemakers in the world. This is what our Lord Jesus emphasized when he taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). This is something Paul stressed in his Letter to the Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).
This is what all of us must pursue in Christ’s name: “Strive for peace with everyone.” This is a sustained and determined pursuit; as one hunts prey, so Christians are to seek after peace. We should think of this peace in broad terms, as the effect of the gospel upon society as it is transmitted through our lives. Psalm 34:14 puts it this way: “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
The Chinese evangelist Watchman Nee tells a story that illustrates our calling to peace. A Christian who had a rice field on a hill had to hand-work a pump to bring water up from the irrigation stream that ran at the base of the hill. Beneath him was a neighbor who made a hole in the dividing wall so that when the Christian tried to pump water into his field it drained down into the neighbor’s. The Christian became understandably frustrated at this repeated theft. Consulting his Christian friends he asked, “What shall I do? I have tried to be patient and not retaliate. Isn’t it right for me to confront him?” The Christians prayed, and then one of them noted that as Christians they surely had a duty to seek more than justice for themselves, but to live in such a way as to be a blessing to others.
Armed with this advice, the Christian pursued a different strategy. The next day he went out and first pumped water into his neighbor’s fields and then went on to do the additional labor for watering his own fields. Before long, this procedure brought the neighbor out to ask why the Christian would act in this way, and as a result of the relationship that ensued the neighbor became a Christian himself.
That is the kind of attitude our passage exhorts, that which puts peace with our neighbors and being a blessing to others ahead of our own rights and prerogatives. The apostle Peter argued this way: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.… When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21, 23).
The Christian life is not only focused on our relations with other people, but it also has a vertical dimension: our relationship with God. Therefore, the writer adds, “Strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (v. 14). The Greek word translated “holiness” is elsewhere rendered “sanctification,” that process by which Christians are freed from the power of sin and transformed into godliness. Sanctification is God’s work in us, but one in which we are active by faith. Holiness means “set apart”: set apart from the sinful world and to God for his pleasure and service.
This is not an option for the believer, but as Paul puts it, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19). Christian salvation is not caused by our holiness, but it necessitates our holiness, for this is God’s very purpose in saving us, that we might “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Holiness is necessary for us to be saved. It is not necessary as a condition of our acceptance with God, since we are justified by faith in Christ alone, apart from works. But it is necessary as a consequence of our acceptance with God, so much so that the apostle James mocks the idea of being saved by a faith that fails to produce good works. “Faith by itself,” he writes, “if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
Holiness has been a major emphasis of the writer of Hebrews. Christ was perfected as our Savior so that he might perfect us to enter the fullness of the salvation God has provided. Hebrews 10:14 says, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Christ’s sacrificial death has imputed to us his own perfect righteousness, and also entered us onto the path of increasing holiness; these two always go together. James M. Boice writes: “Real Christianity leads [a believer] to Jesus Christ. And that means that the Holy Spirit comes to live within the Christian, giving the person a new nature, creating love for God and a desire to obey him, and providing the ability to do what God requires. In other words, the gospel leads to an internal transformation.”
It is the advance of this progressive work that Christians are zealously to seek in this life. Therefore, although we are to be a blessing to the world, a source of peace to those around us so far as we are able, it is never by compromising with the world, or by becoming worldly. Indeed, Christians are the most good to the world when we are least like the world: when we are godly, when we have light to bring into the dark realm of sin. Our striving after peace and holiness go together.
Of course, this is a struggle for sinners like us, which is why the text exhorts us to “make every effort” (v. 14 niv). Paul speaks in similar terms: “Not that I have already … been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12–14). This is how a Christian pursues holiness, longing more to reflect God’s character and to see the death of sin in our hearts by the power of his grace.
For a teenager like Cassie Bernall, that meant learning to think differently from other kids at school: not to think in terms of popularity or image or to put herself first. Instead, she was called to live out her love for God and his love for people, to think about how God would have her act in various situations, and to be willing to go out of her way for the sake of someone else. It is not much different for any of us; young and old, we are all called to “strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness.”
Three Dangers to Christians
The writer of Hebrews goes on to list three threats to Christians, both individually and corporately. The first is found in verse 15: “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” This is the writer’s overarching concern, that someone might fall behind or drop out of the race.
The writer has expressed this concern about apostasy a number of times in Hebrews, that there would be people among his readers who under trial would deny Christ and fall away. In chapter 2 he wrote of believers “drifting away” from faith on the current of worldly unbelief. Chapter 3 warned of sin’s deceitfulness, which hardens the heart so that people “fall away from the living God” (v. 12). In chapter 6 he wrote of people who had gone far enough into Christianity to have been enlightened by it, to have “tasted the heavenly gift,” and even to have experienced the power of God’s Spirit among the people of God. It is possible to fit even that description and yet have only a superficial commitment to Christ so that you fail to persevere. Chapter 10 then exhorted, “You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised” (v. 36). Now, in this fifth exhortation against apostasy, the writer of Hebrews returns to the same theme, describing it as missing or falling back from the grace of God.
This reminds us that while the Bible teaches that all true Christians are secure in God’s saving work—we are “kept by God’s power” (1 Peter 1:5)—the Bible also teaches that the reality of our faith is proved by our perseverance to the end. A true Christian will persevere, however he may stumble, just as Paul assures us in Philippians 1:6 that God will complete a work that is truly begun by him. Psalm 37 speaks of God’s care for his true child: “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand” (Ps. 37:23–24).
If you are weak, this should comfort you; as Jesus said of his true sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). But if your Christian life is superficial, perhaps you should be concerned, for this makes clear that there are many who make a profession of faith in Christ yet fall back from God’s grace, especially when the going gets tough.
Verse 15 includes an antidote for this first danger, namely, the pastoral care of Christians for each other: “See to it,” the author writes, “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” He means that the Hebrew Christians are to actively beware of this danger, no doubt especially as they are facing tribulation. One of the early Greek commentators, Theophylact, puts it in terms of a band of travelers engaged in a journey and notes that they must periodically make sure that everyone is still there. “Has anyone fallen out?” he asks. “Has anyone been left behind while the others have pressed on?”
The Greek word for “see to it” is episkopeō, from which comes episkopos, one of the main New Testament words for an elder or minister. The writer is not restricting this duty to officers in the church, but surely this is one of a minister’s principal duties: to check up on the flock, to make sure all are coming along, and especially to take note of any who have disappeared. In our passage, this obligation, which especially applies to ministers and elders, is given generally to all Christians. We are to seek out those who seem to have fallen back or turned away, to inquire about their struggle, to exhort and encourage them in the truth of the gospel, and in that way we are used by God for the perseverance of those who are his own.
Verse 15 notes a second danger. See to it, he adds, “that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18, where Moses said, “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.” The danger is that a group might arise in the church to promote unbiblical teaching and practices.
Such a root is not merely bitter in that it tastes bad, but it is deadly poison that brings spiritual death. It causes trouble and defiles—that is, it excludes people from God’s presence, so that the concern, again, is about apostasy, this time because of heresy in the church. This is why today we need oversight when it comes to teaching and practice, lest bitter roots grow in our midst and cause the fall of some in our ranks. Paul began his letter of instruction to Timothy with just this concern, to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,” and to beware of those who “promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith” (1 Tim. 1:3–4).
Verse 16 brings a third warning, against sensual and godless patterns that cause people to turn away from the eternal to the worldly: “See to it … that no one is sexually immoral or unholy.” These two terms describe a profane attitude about life, namely, that which is sensual and earth-bound, that which pursues carnal cravings of all sorts, sexual and otherwise, rather than spiritual blessing. This attitude is all around us today; indeed, our nation’s economy is practically built upon these twin pillars of worldliness: the sensual and the godless.
One prime example of this mindset, as well as a good warning against it, comes from the life of Esau, the elder son of the patriarch Isaac and the brother of Jacob. Esau was sensually oriented, which is why he took pagan wives and thus grieved his godly parents. But the grossest example of his sensuality came with his willingness to trade his birthright—the covenant of salvation with the Lord—for a bowl of stew. This is what Hebrews 12:16 highlights, that he “sold his birthright for a single meal,” a dreadful act of folly recorded in Genesis 25:29–34. Genesis says that “Esau despised his birthright”—that is, his covenant relationship with God. Surely that is the height of disdain for the things of God, and yet it is a choice that is repeated by the hour in our own time. Our job as Christians, says the writer of Hebrews, is to make sure that this kind of secular attitude finds no place in the church, and that every believer is warned against it.
Hebrews 12:17 tells us why Esau’s sensual frame of mind is so greatly to be avoided: “Afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” This refers to Esau’s predicament when, years later, the covenant blessing he had despised was actually given to Jacob instead of him. Genesis 27 records that Esau regretted having given away something so valuable. He wasn’t sorry for his sin or depraved attitude, but only for its consequence. But he was unable to undo what he had done, and in the same way people with a sensual and godless attitude today are unable to undo their many foolish choices, however many tears they shed. How many people even blame God for not helping them, when they have first rejected him in favor of the world, a world that turns out not to live up to its glittering promises. See to it, we are commanded, that this attitude and its terrible toll of tears do not find a place in the Christian community.
These are real dangers facing us today, as always. First is the general concern that some will fall away; second is the threat of heresy within the church; and third is the danger of sensual godlessness, a threat we must take very seriously, especially with our young people and others who are prone to being easily influenced by worldly values.
“Without Holiness No One Will See the Lord”
There is one statement that dominates this passage. The writer says we are to strive for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). This is a verse that has caused many Christians to lose sleep, because they infer from it that salvation results from our moral attainment. If you are thinking that, let me remind you that no one is saved because of his or her own perfect holiness. We are not saved by our works, which are uniformly tainted by sin and thus are unacceptable to God, but rather by the perfect work of Jesus Christ. This is the great message of the Book of Hebrews, that Christ has made perfect what must be presented to God. He achieved the righteousness God demands and offers it to God on behalf of all who come through faith in him. Hebrews 7:26–27 says of Christ, “It was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.… He [sacrificed] once for all when he offered up himself.” What is more, Jesus was raised from the dead to show that God accepted his atonement for sin, and he now lives and reigns in heaven to ensure our perseverance. Hebrews 7:24–25 says, “But he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
Therefore, the point of Hebrews 12:14 is not that you must be saved by your own holiness, a teaching that can only drive you to despair. But the point of this statement is nonetheless quite direct and serious. It is about the necessity of sanctification for everyone who calls himself a Christian and seeks to be saved. What it says is true: “Without holiness—without sanctification—no one will see the Lord.” Jesus made this point in positive terms in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
In heaven Christians will see God; that is, we will have blessed communion with him by virtue of our perfect participation in his holy character. The apostle John writes of this in his first epistle and even intimates that it is seeing Christ in death that will finally eradicate any vestige of sin from us. “Beloved,” he writes, “we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts this in especially lovely terms, asking, “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” and answering, “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory” (Q/A 37). Having begun our holiness in this life, we will enjoy its perfection in the life to come, and we will gaze upon God in the beauty of holiness.
This being true, there are three ways in which Hebrews 12:14 exhorts us to a present pursuit of that holiness which alone enables us to see the Lord. First, we are exhorted to holiness because holiness is our preparation for heaven. The only ones who will be perfected in holiness then are those who are being perfected in holiness now, however slowly and with however much difficulty. J. C. Ryle argues this persuasively:
We must be holy, because without holiness on earth we shall never be prepared to enjoy heaven. Heaven is a holy place.… Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?
How better, then, to prepare for the eternal blessings of holiness forever in heaven than to seek holiness in our lives now.
Second, we must persevere in our faith if we want to be saved, and perseverance is not possible without holiness. This is why Hebrews 12:1 begins this section of teaching by telling us to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (niv). If we do not strive against sin, we will be overcome and will not finish the race. In chapter 2 we are told that sin is a current that drags us out to sea; chapter 3 says our hearts are hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Unless we do what this passage commands, therefore, making every effort not only to live in peace but also to be holy, we will not see the Lord because we will not persevere in the faith. As in the case of Esau, a secular and sensual mindset is one that goes on to despise the Lord and his blessings. People shun holiness because they love the world, and this love will keep them from heaven.
Third, and finally, we must press on in holiness because our present actions have eternal implications. This, too, is the lesson of Esau; his careless actions led to ultimate alienation from eternal riches in God. On the one hand, there is no sin that cannot be repented of, no attitude that cannot be nailed to the cross through faith in Christ. Cassie Bernall once offered her soul to Satan in earnest, yet finished her life professing faith in God to a gun-wielding killer. The point is not that sin cannot be repented of and forgiven, because it can be. The point is that we must pursue holiness because what we think and say and do now matters eternally. Paul writes, “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). It is often put this way: “Sow a thought and reap an action; sow an action and reap a habit; sow a habit and reap a lifestyle; sow a lifestyle and reap a character; sow a character and reap a destiny.” That is the epitaph on many a ruined soul, and we must make every effort—all in the power of God’s grace received through faith in Christ—to advance in holiness, without which we shall never see the Lord.
This is something Cassie Bernall obviously came to realize. There is an epitaph on her life, and it is the title of the book her mother wrote to tell her story: She Said Yes. In that book her youth pastor wrote, “The world looks at Cassie’s ‘yes’ of April 20, but we need to look at the daily ‘yes’ she said day after day, month after month.” Cassie would surely have agreed, because shortly before her death she underlined a sentence in a book she was reading: “All of us should live life so as to be able to face eternity at any time.”
That is a message for each of us, not only because like her we may face death at any moment, but because this is what lies ahead for all who are in Christ. The life in store for us is a holy life. Therefore, let us make every effort to be holy, for it is with holiness that someday we will see our precious Lord, and it is with holiness that others can see him now in us.
16. Lest there be any fornicator or profane person, &c. As he had before exhorted them to holiness, so now, that he might reclaim them from defilements opposed to it, he mentions a particular kind of defilement, and says, “Lest there be any fornicator.” But he immediately comes to what is general, and adds, “or a profane person;” for it is the term that is strictly contrary to holiness. The Lord calls us for this end, that he may make us holy unto obedience: this is done when we renounce the world; but any one who so delights in his own filth that he continually rolls in it, profanes himself. We may at the same time regard the profane as meaning generally all those who do not value God’s grace so much as to seek it and despise the world. But as men become profane in various ways, the more earnest we ought to strive lest an opening be left for Satan to defile us with his corruptions. And as there is no true religion without holiness, we ought to make progress continually in the fear of God, in the mortifying of the flesh, and in the whole practice of piety; for as we are profane until we separate from the world, so if we roll again in its filth we renounce holiness.
As Esau, &c. This example may be viewed as an exposition of the word profane; for when Esau set more value on one meal than on his birthright, he lost his blessing. Profane then are all they in whom the love of the world so reigns and prevails that they forget heaven: as is the case with those who are led away by ambition, or become fond of money or of wealth, or give themselves up to gluttony, or become entangled in any other pleasures; they allow in their thoughts and cares no place, or it may be the last place, to the spiritual kingdom of Christ.
Most appropriate then is this example; for when the Lord designs to set forth the power of that love which he has for his people, he calls all those whom he has called to the hope of eternal life his first-born. Invaluable indeed is this honour with which he favours us; and all the wealth, all the conveniences, the honours and the pleasures of the world, and everything commonly deemed necessary for happiness, when compared with this honour, are of no more value than a morsel of meat. That we indeed set a high value on things which are nearly worth nothing, arises from this,—that depraved lust dazzles our eyes and thus blinds us. If therefore we would hold a place in God’s sanctuary, we must learn to despise morsels of meat of this kind, by which Satan is wont to catch the reprobate.
16 The third “lest anyone” clause combines two different vices, namely, sexual immorality (lit., “a fornicator”) and godlessness (the word is the opposite of “holy” and is used of desecrated places and profane people). Since Esau, who is cited as an example, is not known in the OT (as he is in some later Jewish tradition) for sexual misbehavior (unless marrying two Hittite wives counts as such [Ge 26:34–35]), it is possible our author is here using pornos (“fornicator,” GK 4521) as a metaphor for idolatry, as the prophets often do; this would also fit the preceding allusion to Deuteronomy 29:18. Lane actually translates pornos here as “apostate.” But its literal sense would also be appropriate to a group the author will feel it necessary to warn against such sins again in 13:4.
Esau’s “godlessness” is shown by his disregard for his God-given position as Isaac’s heir and thus the heir of God’s covenantal promises (Ge 25:29–34; note the concluding clause “So Esau despised his birthright”). More broadly, his willingness to give up his whole inheritance in return for a single meal illustrates the shortsightedness of those readers who might be tempted to give up their heavenly calling for the sake of temporary relief.
12:16–17 / The reference in the preceding exhortation to the danger of “missing the grace of God” is now reinforced by the example of the unfortunate Esau. The community is to attempt to prevent anyone from becoming like him. Esau is described as godless (lit., “irreligious”) because he traded his inheritance rights (lit., “birthright”) as the oldest son for a meal of bread and pottage (Gen. 25:33f.). In this regard Esau is the antithesis of the paragons of faith in chapter 11. He trades off what is unseen and what lies in the future for immediate gratification in the present (cf. 11:25f.). He thus forfeited the inheritance that was his right as the first-born. Later Esau bitterly regretted his decision because when he wanted to inherit this (lit., “the”) blessing, he was rejected. For there was no going back on his decision; he could bring about no change of mind (lit., “he found no way of repentance”). Repentance was not a possibility although he sought it with tears (Gen. 27:30–40). This warning concerning Esau’s sad plight is reminiscent of the author’s warning to the readers in 6:4ff. (cf. 10:26f.) about the impossibility of repentance for those who abandon the faith. Esau found no way back from his decision; the readers must learn from this how serious apostasy is, and not count upon an easy return to Christianity in more convenient times.
12:16–17. These verses show the bad effect of the bitter behavior we are warned to avoid. Esau is an example of a person who acted in an immoral, godless manner. Esau showed contempt for his religious heritage by selling his “inheritance rights” (see Gen. 25:33–34). The bartering of his privileges as the eldest son for a single meal was a senseless act, showing that Esau lacked any sense of spiritual values. He exemplifies anyone who values immediate gratification beyond spiritual heritage.
In Genesis 27:6–29 Jacob used trickery to win the patriarchal blessing from Isaac. When Esau later sought the blessing, Isaac knew that he could not reverse his actions. Esau wept when he recognized that he had squandered his birthright, but his tears were futile (Gen. 27:34). He became a memorable example of someone who failed to appropriate God’s grace by wasting his opportunity.
The New Testament emphasizes that spiritual repentance is possible for those who desire it. Esau’s tears appeared when he recognized that he had no chance to remedy his foolish actions. We are to realize that denying Christ is a serious act. We should never count on an easy route of return at a time of our own choosing. Just as Esau’s tears did not earn a return to God for him, a deliberate turning away from Christ will lead to ruin and sorrow.
16. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.
Third, the author tells the readers to avoid immorality. He uses the example of Esau and calls him a godless person. Esau was trained in the godly home of Isaac and Rebekah, but he deliberately chose to live a life that grieved his parents. He married two Canaanite women who were a source of grief to his parents (Gen. 26:35). Scripture does not condemn Esau for marrying these women and does not call him a fornicator. Instead the Bible reports that when Esau noticed his father’s grief, he married a daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham (Gen. 28:9).
How do we interpret the term immoral? Some commentators understand it literally and argue that Esau’s married life was tantamount to fornication. But Scripture fails to provide the evidence. Others understand the word immoral spiritually and say that Esau committed spiritual adultery. But Scripture teaches that spiritual adultery is committed by the nation Israel, not by individuals. And still others hold that Jewish tradition and legend affirm that Esau was a fornicator. However, we do well to rely on the information in Scripture, even though tradition has a value all its own.
The New International Version solves the problem by separating the two adjectives immoral and godless. The first adjective applies to the readers, for in the next chapter the writer repeats his admonition. Says he, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). The author describes Esau not as an immoral but as a godless person. The second adjective, then, applies to Esau who had no regard for God’s blessing and promise which he, as the first-born, would receive. He despised his birthright and displayed utter indifference to the spiritual promises God had given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. He refused to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers, and thus his name is omitted from the list of the heroes of faith. His brother Jacob, however, is mentioned because he blessed Joseph’s sons and transmitted God’s promises to them.
What does the writer of Hebrews teach? Simply this: abstain from immorality and avoid godlessness.
17. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.
In the conclusion of the passage the author reminds the readers of what they should learn from history.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1983). Hebrews (pp. 407–408). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Phillips, R. D. (2006). Hebrews. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 553–563). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (pp. 326–327). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 France, R. T. (2006). Hebrews. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Revised Edition) (Vol. 13, p. 174). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hagner, D. A. (2011). Hebrews (p. 222). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Lea, T. D. (1999). Hebrews, James (Vol. 10, p. 221). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of Hebrews (Vol. 15, pp. 386–387). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.