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The Wolves of Wormwood
“Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many. And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for a single meal. For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, even though he sought it with tears, because he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance.”
Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Heb 12:15–17
Over the next three Monday Articles, we’ll be looking at verses 15-17 of Chapter 12. If you missed last Monday’s article, this is to give me some time to get a hold of the Jude series I have ongoing. These articles have all been adapted from work I did early in 2020. Enjoy!
Where Are the Wolves?
It looks a tad like I've asked Tolkein to name this bible study, but I promise it’s not just medieval clickbait, rather it’s because I want it to stick in your brain. I’m currently sitting in McDonalds and if I look at the names of the menu items I can see just at a glance:
BiG FlaVouR WrApS
Grand BIG MAC Bacon
There’s a reason we give punchy, memorable names to things we want people to give attention to. These could be called:
Wraps with Some Salad and Chicken
Bigger Beef Burger with Bacon
Chicken Burger with a tiny bit of Spice
Though that would be accurate, you wouldn’t remember them.
In the book of Deuteronomy Moses stands and speaks to the people of Israel, 40 years have passed and the people of the Lord are almost at the point of passing into the promised land.
“Indeed, you know how we lived in the land of Egypt and passed through the nations where you traveled. You saw their abhorrent images and idols made of wood, stone, silver, and gold, which were among them. Be sure there is no man, woman, clan, or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations. Be sure there is no root among you bearing poisonous and bitter fruit. When someone hears the words of this oath, he may consider himself exempt, thinking, ‘I will have peace even though I follow my own stubborn heart.’ This will lead to the destruction of the well-watered land as well as the dry land.
Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Dt 29:16–19
Moses first reminds them though of what has come before and the victories of the Lord in their time in the wilderness. He speaks of God’s provision and the time in Egypt because those numbered in the crowds would have been from the generations since the Exodus, as the Lord had promised. In addition though, Moses reminds God’s people to turn from Idolatry, first the idolatry of false gods, but then in what he calls ‘Roots of Bitterness’, the idol of self-sufficiency. They hear the true words of the Lord, but still, they say to themselves ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’
Roots of Bitterness, Poisonous Fruit, Wolves, Wormwood, False gods, False Teachers.
The Bible reminds us many times and in many ways to be looking out for those who fit these descriptions or encourage others to follow those who do. It does so viscerally and memorably so they remain front of mind for us. What good is it for us though to be looking out for them if we don’t know what we’re looking for?
The subject of false teaching (which we will cover in greater detail in the coming weeks), false prophets and false teachers comes up a lot in the Bible. If you read the letters of John you can’t help but come away convicted, but he’s far from the only source we can go to on this subject. Paul, Peter, and later Athanasius and Augustine all have important things to say on this, and that’s just taking the early church into account. More than this, Jesus himself spoke out against the false teachers during his time. The emphasis here in Hebrews 12:15-17 shifts slightly however from those who are currently teaching falsely to two parties we rarely think about.
Would-Be False Teachers
Would-Be ‘at Risk’ Sheep
When new people come to our church for the first time, we often assume that there are three paths they’ll take:
The Path Out - They don’t hear the call of God, they reject the teaching, and they leave.
The Path Forward - They hear the gospel, respond and are baptised, then take Path #3.
The Path In - Already a Christian, they become a member/part of the church and get involved.
We don’t often prepare for further options like:
They enter, don’t agree, and stay to try and cause disunity.
They come and are baptised before conversion.
Being a natural leaders, they are elevated to leadership too early
I’m not trying to point fingers here, as hopefully, these people are the minority of cases. These verses bring these options up though, just as we see in the genealogies in the bible, God does care for individuals and especially those in danger. The parable of the lost sheep is a well-worn tale, but the truth still stands, God will go out of his way to save that one sheep and we should be ready to respond when God calls us to aid in that endeavour.
See To It
“Make sure that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no root of bitterness springs up, causing trouble and defiling many.”
Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Heb 12:15
What do we do to make sure this doesn’t happen? The context of this chapter so far has been about running with endurance. We are to follow first and foremost the example set by Jesus and then secondarily those he’s put around us and throughout history. This takes discipline, not the kind which we can muster up ourselves, but that which comes from above (Heb 12:7). We’ve been told to lift dropping hands, to strengthen weak knees, and strive for peace with everyone, even when that’s incredibly difficult to do, in cultures, places and political situations in which it is unsafe or counter-cultural to believe what we believe. The section directly following this passage we’re looking at is titled ‘A Kingdom that cannot be Shaken’. That doesn’t suggest that everything around that Kingdom is standing still, or even that the Kingdom itself isn’t being affronted, rather it means that against all odds, it simply cannot be shaken. Why? By the grace of God!
What if the grace that we displayed in our lives during any present crisis was so palpable and obvious that unbelievers around us couldn’t deny our faith, what if when that crisis was over our response throughout to God’s steadfast love meant that we shone as a beacon of hope to the whole world!
We cannot do any of this by our own strength!
Verse 15 could say “See to it that none fall short of:
The standard of Jesus
A sinless life
Or any number of other impossible standards. Those among us though are meant to guard us against falling short of the grace of God! What happens if we don’t? A root of bitterness grows as we attempts to live a perfect life by way of trying, trying, and trying again. When that happens wolves are bound to snatch up those who have become weak, either bending them to their way of thinking, or devouring them completely. It is only by Gods grace that we have any hope of fighting the bitterness which is natural to us, and becoming an enemy of God.
When I first wrote this article I had just been hit with the virus, it was 12 days into the first lockdown in the UK and I’d lost my autonomy, my ability to provide food or comfort to my wife, I lost my ability to focus, and I found that each day as the day progressed I just lost my ability to think straight. One night I just panicked and the next day I didn’t really even know why.
I couldn’t think, and that was the worst thing. I didn’t have the virus as bad as some, my lungs and my breathing were bad, but I could handle that so long as I could stay calm and not talk too much. If I even texted someone for too long or I tried to focus on anything though, I would simply drift into fatigue.
What I found though was that in that time when my ability to praise God in the way that I usually do was gone, instead of feeling his presence leave, I felt God’s grace in a beautiful and distinct way. Not only that, but out of the blue he provided for me thousands upon thousands of pounds of books and commentaries just as a gift, and he provided Anna with people she could learn to cook with, something which she’d never done before. While my ability to control my mind was absent, I was granted a peace of mind which transcended my state because I knew that whatever the outcome was of my experience with the virus, that he was steadfast and his grace for me was sufficient. It didn’t have anything to do with me, my ability, my strength. I had none. It was and it is all about his grace.
Grace and Peace,
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