THE PURSUIT OF PEACE AND PURITY

"Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled…" (Heb 12:14-15).

The book of Hebrews was written at a time when the Church was under intense persecution under the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero had wanted to rebuild Rome, and apparently, in A.D. 64, he paid an arsonist to start a fire, which eventually burned a third of Rome. But when the people began to suspect Nero, he promptly shifted the blame to the Christian community. The Christians were hated by the Jews who were looking for a political Messiah and were jealous of the ministry of the Lord. They were also hated by the Romans because they refused to worship the emperor and they conducted their worship behind close doors. Rumours had it that they were cannibalistic because they were eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood. Christianity was immediately pronounced religio illicita—an illegal religion and many Christians. Some we made to don animal skins and torn apart by wild dogs. Other were covered with tar, impaled on stakes and set aflame to illumine Nero’s garden as engaged in some spectator sports.

Understandably many Jewish Christians were discouraged. They understood that they were the true successors of Old Testament Judaism. But now Judaism was religio licita—a legal religion, whereas Christianity had become religio illicita. Many were tempted to return to Judaism. It was for this reason that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. The author explains to his readers that the New Covenant was far superior to the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant saw Christ in shadows and types. The New Covenant saw Christ coming in the flesh, living and dying and then being exalted to the right hand of the throne of God. And so he warns them that if anyone reverts to Judaism, he would be reverting to a pagan religion—for if anyone denies Christ, the Old Testament sacrifices and ceremonies immediately becomes meaningless for him, and the sacrifices of such a person would be no different from the sacrifices of idolatrous pagans who sacrifice to their hungry and impotent gods. This warning against apostasy is the theme of the whole book. It is summarised in the last 2 verses of Hebrews 10: "Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul."

It is important for us to bear this background in mind when ever we study the book of Hebrews for it would help us to understand many of the otherwise apparently obscure verses such as Hebrew 12:14-15.

In Hebrews 12, the apostle was encouraging his readers to persevere in their faith despite the trials and chastisement that would come upon them. It is one of the most sublime treatise on chastisement and suffering in the Word of God. The apostle concludes with the exhortation: "Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed" (Heb 12:12-13). We may very loosely paraphrase this graphic statement thus: "Be resolute and determined in the faith. Do not halt between two opinions lest those who are weaker in the faith be stumbled, rather strengthen them." With this in mind, it is clear that when the apostle say: "Follow peace with allmen," he does not mean to call us to dwell in peace with all men as in Romans 12:18. Rather, the "all men" (‘men’ being interpretatively inserted by the KJV translators) speaks of all who are lame or weak in their faith. This idea is expressed in Romans 14:19—"Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another" (Rom 14:19). In Romans 14, Paul is discussing the issue of matters of indifference. There were some in the church who were still not rid of Jewish festivals and dietary restrictions. But as those were days of transition, from the Old to the New Covenant administration, Paul urged those who were stronger in the faith and have left those Jewish shadows not to condemn those who were weaker. Instead, they should learn to accommodate them even to the extend of not eating meat if meat would stumble their weaker brethren (Rom 14:21).

By calling his readers to "follow peace with all," the apostle is, therefore, urging them not to give occasion to stumble the weaker brethren. We do not know exactly what occasions of stumbling the apostle had in mind. Perhaps he had in mind that they might stumble the weaker brethren with the result of unwholesome quarrels in the church by their dogmatic insistence on certain principles or practices. For example, in the matters of the Jewish dietary laws any dogmatic insistence whether to observe or not to observe is likely to cause divisions in the church. The apostle is therefore emphatic: "follow peace with all." In the Greek, the word translated follow is not the same word that would mean "follow along" (akoloutheô, ¢kolouqšw) as in say, Matt 4:20. Rather, the word here and in Rom 14:9 is the word diôkô (dièkw), which means "pursue earnestly" or "make every effort." We are to continually (Greek present tense) make every effort to pursue peace in the church in the face of those who may, by our actions, be caused to "fail of the grace of God" (v. 15). This does not mean, of course, that a genuine believer can ever fall from grace. But a professing believer who is yet to be converted, and is seeking the truth can certainly be stumbled and caused to "fail of the grace of God."

How does this translate to application in the modern church? I believe it can be applied in a situation in which the members of a reforming church, such as PCC, in which there are members who are either weaker in their convictions on certain issues or have yet to be convinced about certain doctrinal verity in the Confession of faith of the church. In PCC, for example, some of us are strongly convinced about exclusive psalmody, while others have no qualms about singing uninspired hymns; some of us are fully convinced that infant baptism is divinely commanded, while a few have some reservation about the doctrine; some of us believe that Premillennialism is heretical, while some others are still searching or unconcerned about eschatology; again, some of us are convinced that the King James Version is the only faithful English translation, while others may prefer the New King James in private devotion. What do we do in such a situation? One sure way of stumbling one another and breaking up the church is to quarrel with each other over these issues. Another way is to look down on those who have weaker conviction or talk disparagingly about them to others. Yet another way is to do anything often enough which may be misconstrued as being insensitive to the feelings of those who differ from us such as speaking often about our convictions in the company of those of weaker conviction. Brethren, be aware of how our actions can affect others around us. Let us be very caring and sensitive. Despite our differences, let us be gentle to one another, and in so doing demonstrate love one to another. Let us make every effort to pursue peace and unity of love in the church. Let us learn to be peacemakers, for the Lord said: "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt 5:9).

We must, however, not end here. The apostle says: "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." We are not only to pursue peace, but we are also to pursue holiness. Holiness refers to sanctification and purity. The Lord said "Be ye holy as I am holy" (Lev 20:7; 1 Pet 1:15-16). But how can we be holy? Since the context is about the Christian walk or race, we may aptly think of pursuing holiness by walking in the "way of holiness"(Isa 35:8), which is otherwise known as the "old paths" (Jer 6:16); "the path of the just" (Prov 4:18); and the strait gate and narrow way (Matt 7:14). In other words, the pursuit of holiness requires us to live by the precepts of God without compromise. In the context of the Hebrew Christian, the pursuit of holiness meant that they should persevere on in their faith without wavering or compromise despite the persecution that they might encounter.

Pursue peace and pursue holiness at the same time, not neglecting the other. This balance is extremely difficult, but it is an important balance. It is significant that the 7th beatitude of the Lord is on pursuit of peace, while the 6th is on the pursuit of purity: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matt 5:8). Could it be that the author of Hebrews had in mind this couplet of beatitudes when he exhorts his readers to "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord"?

While some of us may be guilty of neglecting peace in our ardent pursuit of holiness, others may be guilty of compromising holiness for the maintenance of peace. How do we achieve the biblical balance? Let me suggest a few guidelines:

First of all, let us resolve in our minds to seek always to please God above man (Gal 1:10). The pursuit of peace does not mean compromise on Scriptural truth. There is no peace without truth. The Lord condemned the false prophets and priests who tried to cover up or ignore the severity of sin by making light of them: "They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace" (Jer 6:14). Think of using tiger balm to treat snake bite and you will appreciate what the Lord is saying through Jeremiah.

Secondly, bear in mind that we are all sinners saved by grace who have yet to shed our corruptible nature. We are all pursuing sanctification though some are further ahead of others. Let us therefore be very patient with one another realising that in certain areas, there may just be a possibility that we are wrong in our conviction. There are areas of doctrines in which a total, uncompromising commitment is required because Christianity would be no more Christianity if we capitulate on these points. Such is the case with the doctrine of the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith, but there are certainly areas such as eschatology in which we must allow for the possibility that we are wrong. Remember how Luther charged Zwingli for being of a different spirit because he did not hold to consubstantiation. We believe both Luther and Zwingli were wrong in their views of the Lord’s Supper, but Zwingli at least was not guilty of condemning his brother-in-Christ falsely because he had a different conviction.

Thirdly, The Apostle Paul urges us: "in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil 1:3). This does not mean that we must give up our doctrinal convictions by thinking that it is always wrong, but that we must give regards to another persons conviction and to consider their fidelity to Christ according to their knowledge and faith in the Lord. Rather that condemning or judging our brethren for their failures, let us learn to be very strict with ourselves, but charitable with all others. Remember how patient the Lord was with his imperfect and often immature disciples? Should we not emulate the Lord’s humility and patience if we think we know the mind of Christ?

Fourthly, and conversely, let us be mindful that it is usually safer to err on the stricter side. Thus, if we do not have the same strict conviction or scruples as our brethren, we may yet profitably subject ourselves to the same restrictions for the sake of unity with our stricter brethren. One man sing only psalms while another sing uninspired hymns too. The former should not look askance on the latter, and the latter should not ridicule the former’s stance even if he may for some reason believe that his brother in the Lord is being unnecessarily strict.

May the Lord grant us the grace and wisdom to pursue after peace and holiness in our church that we may all mature in faith and love and grow as a body of Christ. Let us do so lest the weak be stumbled by our compromises or a root of bitterness begins to spring up (Heb 12:15) dues to the insensitive or off-balanced remarks and deeds of members in the congregation.