The Christian life is not a series of a few special performances; it is steady persistence for a lifetime. Many of us can produce a burst of enthusiasm now and then. That’s not particularly difficult. The real challenge is to stay the course over the long haul—not a flash in the pan but steady, stable, and persevering in the essentials of maturing faith.
The second half of Hebrews 12 presents us with a to-do list of sorts for the Christian life. It’s not a quick-fix, three-easy-steps-to-success kind of list, but it does offer us six important ways to walk in enduring Christian maturity.
1. Keep Strong and Straight
Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Heb. 12:12–13)
Despondency is one of the great avenues of attack from the Evil One. Our discouragement is his delight, and he can use it to great effect, even for those involved in ministry. To serve Christ is not to walk around in blissful unawareness of life’s realities. The Christian life involves serious struggle.
Therefore, this call to step forward—in “the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11), as it were—must not only ring in our ears but reverberate in our hearts. Those who seek to follow Christ must be prepared to declare, I absolutely refuse to gratify the devil by staying downhearted. He would love nothing more than to see our arms enfeebled, our knees buckling, and our paths veering off the course of obedience.
Despondency is one of the great avenues of attack from the Evil One.
2. Pursue Harmony and Holiness
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)
“Strive” is an appropriate translation for the imperative here. It communicates concentrated, vigorous effort. The author is saying, I want you to pursue this with the passion of a hound pursuing a fox. And the fox we are to pursue is the twofold goal of harmony and holiness.
Maintaining peace requires serious striving. Christ purchased peace, and “he himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). Discord is inevitable in our fractured age, even in the church—but this is no reason to give up! We strive to grow in harmony and to shed the burdens and sins that hold us back from it. Jesus Himself told us, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). We won’t have perfect harmony before Christ returns, but in reliance on the Holy Spirit, we can be a small taste of heavenly community.
And how do we foster such harmony? Well, holiness provides the steady framework, the fertile soil, for the harmony that we enjoy. As we grow in holiness together from the shared wellspring of the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts, we will also grow in harmony with one another and with God. Neither harmony nor holiness is an optional extra. They come from the work of Christ’s Spirit in us and thus are evidence that we really belong to Him.
3. Grow in Grace, Not Bitterness
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Heb. 12:15)
How can we miss the grace of God? We may be surprised how easy it is to do so! When the Scriptures are taught, when the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism are practiced, when the church fellowships together, it is still possible for us to sit around with our fingers in our ears.
The phrase “root of bitterness” in this verse draws its language from Deuteronomy 29, in which Moses warns Israel about their hearts: “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (v. 18). This is someone “who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’” (v. 19, emphasis added). James echoes this warning with the command to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22, emphasis added).
When we hear without really listening, then we end up having all the trappings of Christianity while worldliness is still rooted in our hearts. Envy, bitterness, anger, rage, and despondency begin to make our souls impervious to what God really wants for us. We must pull these destructive weeds up by the root and instead let the grace of God fill our hearts so that we can be hearers and doers of His Word.
4. Reject Immorality and Godlessness
See to it … that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Heb. 12:15–17)
The original hearers of Hebrews lived in an overwhelmingly pagan society—perhaps not unlike ours, in which promiscuity outpaces modesty nearly everywhere we look. In such a sexually charged setting, it is imperative that God’s people demonstrate how we are both set apart to God and set apart from sin. As the apostle Paul commends, we must “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18).
How does Esau fit in? His story serves as a parable of an outsized physical appetite. In the heat of the moment, he exchanged his heritage and home for something cheap. Like him, you can build your life for decades and throw it away in five minutes in a fit of unchecked lust—or rage, pride, or greed, for that matter. We must not sell out to sin. The tradeoff is never worth it, no matter what temptation promises in the moment.
We must not sell out to sin. The tradeoff is never worth it, no matter what temptation promises in the moment.
5. Listen to God
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Heb. 12:25–26)
Time and again, God sent prophets to warn His people—and all too often, the people refused to listen. Their willful ignorance eventually resulted in exile. If God did that to people who refused His earthly prophets, then we surely should think twice before we refuse the word of His very Son from heaven.
We certainly need to point to specific steps of obedience for clarity’s sake, but generally speaking, we always return to this foundation of the faith: hearing what God says and putting it into practice. It’s profoundly simple, and simply profound: don’t refuse Him who speaks.
6. Worship God with Awe
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:28–29)
The final essential of Hebrews 12 is to worship God acceptably and properly, “with reverence and awe.” We ought to set aside superficial and trivial controversies about worship style to experience and declare the glory of God with His people. And beyond our corporate gatherings, our very lives should be a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Our God, a great and “consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24), is worthy to have our entire lives devoted to Him.
To give our whole selves to God and practice these six essentials isn’t a responsibility to be carried out grudgingly. It is our privilege and pleasure to live as God intends us to. He has written the story of His glory across time and space, and—wonder upon wonder!—all who confess Christ as Lord find themselves a part of His master plan. When we live and act in accord with what He sets forth and pursue obedience over a lifetime, He will use us to keep writing His story and to draw others into His kingdom.
Are these essentials our duty? Sure they are. But they are also our delight as we live to display Christ’s greatness.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Essentials of Christian Maturity” by Alistair Begg.