5. A Warning About God’s Choice (Heb 12:14-29)
In this study we have stated that the Old Covenant was God-given, and ideal for its intended purpose, but it was never designed to be a comprehensive answer to man’s need. A fine china cup is not flawed because it breaks when I use it to hammer nails; the cup was never intended for that. And the Mosaic Covenant was not meant to be an end in itself. Rather, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24).
The fifth fatal flaw in Judaism (as a way for personal salvation) should be patently clear when we notice that Jacob is listed in the great faith chapter (11:21) but Esau doesn’t make it until chapter 12. These passages are commentary on the enigmatic words of Malachi, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (1:2-3). As seen in Romans 9:10-13, these two men provide archetypes of those who hunger for God and of those whose god is their belly, who mind earthly things.
Though deeply flawed, Jacob pursued peace and holiness (v 1), and at Penuel he saw the face of God. Esau “sought…diligently” for earthly gain and could not find it. It is crucial to understand the repentance Esau wanted. It was not his own repentance; it was the repentance of his father! As one commentator wrote: “…the object which Esau aimed at in his so-called repentance, namely, the change of his father’s determination to give the chief blessing to Jacob. Had he sought real repentance with tears he would have found it (Mt 7:7). But he did not find it because this was not what he sought. What proves his tears were not those of one seeking true repentance is, immediately after he was foiled in his desire, he resolved to murder Jacob!” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary on the Whole Bible).
God chooses the disqualified
Romans 9 lays out the fundamental lesson regarding the basis of God’s choice. As Andrew Telford explains it in his very helpful book, Subjects of Sovereignty: “God, in blessing mankind…sets to one side all firsts and chooses all seconds that the plan might be based solely on grace.” It is crucial to grasp this principle.
In the powerful contrast given between the unnamed fearful Mount Sinai and the glorious and welcoming Mount Zion, we see an echo of the truths regarding God’s choice as explained in the epistle to the Galatians. Paul there contrasts “Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is” (4:25) with “the Jerusalem above” (v 26), called in our passage “Mount Zion and…the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22). So what is the basis of God’s choice in Galatians 4?
It is not unknowable. It is not capricious. Paul explains it clearly: the first son born could not be the firstborn, for then the choice would be based on the claim of law, and God’s blessing would only be available to those who qualified by right. By passing over Cain to choose Abel, over Ishmael to choose Isaac, over Esau to choose Jacob, over Reuben to choose Judah, etc., God (whose choice was made before the boys’ birth and therefore not determined by their behavior, Rom 9:11) thus made the blessings of heaven accessible to all by grace.
Jacob learned this the hard way, but in his old age expressed his confidence in God’s plan by crossing his arms to convey God’s blessing of grace on his younger grandson, “And thus he set Ephraim before Manasseh” (Gen 48:20). This does not mean that the ones born first cannot receive the blessings of God, but it does mean that they receive them through grace, just like everyone else.
The one born first is never the firstborn
Who stands on Mount Zion, along with “an innumerable company of angels” (v 22)? It is “the Church of the Firstborn.” Adam was first, but the Second Man is the Firstborn; Israel was first, but the Church is the Church of the Firstborn. “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven” (1 Cor 15:45-47).
Like the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit (kleronomeo) eternal life?” (Lk 18:18), so Esau “wanted to inherit (kleronomeo) the blessing” (Heb 12:17) as a right. He believed his blessing had been stolen by Jacob but God says it had been sold (v 16). Likewise the Jews of Jesus’ time rejected His offer of grace and demanded their rights by law. And what happened?
“What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law” (Rom 9:30-32). Their pursuit, their seeking, like Esau’s, was fruitless because it was faithless.
To abandon Christianity and return to Judaism meant a rejection of the possibility that they could be “just men made perfect” (Heb 12:23) who were justified, not by the Mosaic Law, but by the Mediatorship of Jesus and the sprinkling of His blood. Abel, the firstborn of God’s choosing, though not the one born first, was also the object of the murderous hatred of an older brother who was furious at the bypassing of blessing. Abel’s blood could only cry out for justice (Gen 4:10), but the blood of Jesus speaks peace to our souls (Heb 13:20-21).
Why our standing is unshakeable
The author leaves us with one last thought. When God “spoke on earth” at Sinai, “about three thousand men of the people fell that day” (Ex 32:28). How different the scene at Pentecost, when He spoke from heaven “and that day about three thousand souls” were saved (Acts 2:41). The quotation given in Hebrews 12:26 is a blending of three verses from Haggai (2:6; 2:21; and 2:22). No wonder Peter quoted David on that occasion: “I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken” (Acts 2:25).
The statement, “Yet once more,” completes the thought begun in 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” “Now this, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain” (v 27). “For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). The people of faith in Hebrews 11 are samples of a new world that is being constructed of living spiritual stones. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (v 28).
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand. (Edward Mote)