Have you ever thought you understood a verse, only to find out that there was much more to it than you originally thought?
For the longest time, I understood Hebrews 12:15 to mean that we shouldn’t allow our anger to fester, as it can cause us to become bitter. And bitterness will affect not only ourselves, but others. If you’re not familiar with the verse, it reads: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”
While one application of the verse is that bitterness, festering anger or unforgiveness, affects not only us but others, the writer’s primary intention is much deeper. If we look into the phrase “bitter root” used in the verse, we see that it alludes to Deuteronomy 29:18, 19:
Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces bitter poison. When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.
Basically, a “bitter root” refers here to an idolater, or someone who puts his trust in something other than God. Moses had brought the covenant before the people once again to warn them not to fall into idolatry. He cautioned that such a person would not be safe going his own way, but his rebellion would have implications not only for the “watered land but for the dry” (v. 19). In other words, a “bitter root” would infect not only himself but cause others to fall away as well.
The writer of Hebrews alludes to the “bitter root” used in Deuteronomy 29:18, 19 to warn the Jewish Christians that would have been his audience not to fall away like that of the Israelites who fell away from God’s covenant in the Old Testament. And the exhortation is for us, too.
Not Falling Away in Our Faith
In order to fully understand what Hebrews 12:15 is saying, we need to understand not only what “bitter root” in this context is talking about, but also, what is required of us in our faith walk so we don’t “fall short of the grace of God.”
First, let’s examine what it means to run an effective faith race.
In reading a verse such as this, we might be seized with panic and begin a frenzy of religious activity in an effort not to be the “bitter root” described in this verse, but that is not what the writer is urging.
The author of Hebrews is not telling us that we need to add more on our plates or engage in as much random religious work as possible. What the writer is telling us is that we must be diligent in doing the tasks that God gives us, less we fail the grace of God. If we notice the wording at the beginning of Hebrews 12:1, 2, it tells us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Notice, verse 1 tells us that “we run the race marked out for us.” This implies that our Creator has a specific design for our race — and He alone orchestrated our purpose and the tasks that we daily complete when walking in His Spirit. We’ll get back to explaining that verse in a moment, but I want to return back to our discussion of God’s grace and our faith race.
To do that, we need to look at what it means to “fall short of God’s grace.”
A song which has grabbed my attention lately is “The Motions,” by Matthew West. The lyrics say: “I don’t wanna spend my whole life asking, ‘What if I had given everything, instead of going through the motions?’ ” West describes in this song the temptation that comes to all of us as Christians — we can easily slip into “going through the motions” in our Christian lives. We can attend church, even serve in church, and attempt to live moral lives, and yet, still fall short of God’s grace.
If we look at this meaning of “failing the grace of God,” it means to come up short, fall behind. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, it means “to be left behind in the race and so fail to reach the goal, to fall short of the end” or “to fail to become a partaker” or “to fall back.” We can do work that is good and yet isn’t what God would have us do and fall behind in listening to the Spirit of God and doing what He would have us do. It doesn’t mean that we lose our salvation (because salvation is not something we can earn), but it does mean that we can fall short of attaining the promises God has for us, the blessings the grace of God offers.
The writer tells us later in the next verse (Hebrews 12:16) that Esau fell short of his blessings because He sold his birthright. He had been promised, as the firstborn, a double inheritance and inheritance of his father’s role in the family, among other privileges. And yet, when he came in from the field hungry and Jacob offered him a bowl of stew in exchange for the fulfillment of blessings that were rightfully his, he traded his rightful blessings for what was convenient and fulfilling in the moment.
Friends, this is such a difficult concept to embrace, but we, too, can trade away the blessings of God in our lives when we ignore His will for us and instead do what is more comfortable and easy. Though going our own path with our choices won’t cause us to lose our salvation, when we don’t listen to the Spirit of God we will become an empty vine that bears no fruit (Hosea 10:1) and become like the wicked servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents who buried his talents rather than invest them (Matthew 25:14-30).
While the idea of “falling short of the grace of God” is a hard idea to reflect on, the most terrible thing for any of us would be to get to our deathbed and look back and reflect on the fact that we never made the choices necessary to live the life we were called to live. The good news is that we can turn around right now what wrongs we have done by repenting.
We can choose to listen to the Spirit of God and do what He asks. And when His will leads us to uncomfortable places that we would rather not go, we can remind ourselves that God’s blessings don’t come cheap. While we don’t have to work to earn our salvation, we do have to fight for that which has been promised to us in the way of God’s blessings. And yet, God doesn’t leave us to fight on our own. We fight by relying on Jesus’ power and strength and leaning into Him in our journey.
Running the Race of Faith
What is interesting is that in Hebrews 12:2 it says that “for the joy set before him” Jesus endured the cross. I had always read that to mean that for the joy of what lay after the cross, Jesus was willing to go through what He did. Although that is certainly one way we can read it, another interpretation I found in studying the passage is that rather than choose His position as the Son of God and all the benefits it afforded Him, He chose the cross. The word “for” in the Greek can mean “in stead of” or “in place of.” Therefore, “in stead of” heaven and the privileges and benefits He had there, He came here to suffer a humiliating death so that we might be saved.
In either translation, we get this idea that Jesus chose what He did because of the better thing it would bring Him in the end. He valued the will of the Father more than His personal goals and comforts and gave up His privileges and rights for the cross. Similarly, when we survey what lies ahead for us, as Jesus may be leading us in a way that looks scary or is nudging us to step out in a way that requires us to change or stretches us in uncomfortable ways, we are encouraged here that we can embrace the humiliation that may come for doing God’s will because of what we get in exchange.
In addition, we should note Jesus’ view of shame, as described in Hebrews 12:2. He looked at the cross that would be shameful — the mockery, the cruel death, the pain — and, He did so, “scorning the shame,” or as some translations read, “despising the shame.” How does one scorn or despise the shame? He viewed the humiliation that would come from the cross as the less significant thing, as the pain it would bring meant less to Him than doing the Father’s will.
We will often be in the place of literally weighing out what God wants us to do and the cost, and we can do what God wants because of the better it will mean in the end. While Esau took the easy way over the hard and lost his birthright, Jesus did the opposite and accomplished the Father’s will and is sitting at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33; Hebrews 10:12).
When we are afraid, and we are facing circumstances that could get very dim if we boldly declare our faith and act in obedience to God, the writer of Hebrews here assures us that the sacrifice will be worth it. And Jesus stands as the ultimate example of One who went before and accomplished the Father’s will.
We don’t have to be the bitter root that falls away — but rather, the flourishing vine and faithful steward rooted in God that finishes our race.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week where we talk about how Jesus isn’t just a perfect example. He’s a perfect example who helps us in our journey. Though walking with Jesus will lead us to hard and uncomfortable places, we won’t walk the journey alone — and He will give us the power necessary to do His will.
Ever struggled to know in what way God would like to use you in serving others? Check out “Christian Service: What Does God Want Me to Do?”
Not really sure how to hear from God or how to walk in His will? Check out the following resources: “3 Lessons the Wise Men Can Teach Us About Knowing God’s Will for Our Lives” and “What the Wise Men Teach Us About Following God.”
Podcast Notes and Corrections:
The following explanation of Hebrews 1, 2 used in the podcast is loosely adapted from John Gill’s Expositions: “If we look at the word “for” in the passage, it can sometimes mean “in stead of” or “in place of” — and we can say in stead of God staying in heaven, he came into the world, in stead of his privileges and glory as God He became a servant and suffered shame.