I learned something new this morning. Not new in the sense that I’d never thought about the idea before. No, new in the sense that what I had always believed about a verse in the Bible was wrong and now I believe I see it in a correct light. (I almost said I have a new perspective but I’m afraid of the “terminology nazis.”)
Here’s the verse Hebrews 12:15. I’ll quote it in the KJV because I have a feeling that translation is what prompted the misunderstanding: “lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” You’ll notice that the word “you” is in italics. That’s because it’s not in the original but has been added by the translators. Usually this is done to help in understanding and, understood rightly, it would do so here. But I think the problem arose with much impetus from a well-known Bible teacher in the 70’s and 80’s who took this phrase from v. 15 and made it a primary teaching that Christians should not develop a root of bitterness in themselves.
Let me say it clearly. This is what I now see correctly: Hebrews 12:15 is not addressing the issue of bitterness in a person’s heart. But let me be quick to add that the Bible does address this issue. It does warn us not to be bitter (Ephesians 4:31). The teaching is clear. If there is any bitterness in our hearts must be put away. So the idea of Christians resisting bitterness is not what I am resisting from this verse today.
Based on my reading from Deuteronomy 29:18-19 I now see the basis for that verse, the whole verse in Hebrews 12:15. The clear teaching in Deuteronomy is for the people, as a whole, to beware of anyone (or even a whole tribe) who pridefully thinks because he is a part of the covenant people he can live any way he wishes. The equivalent today would be someone saying I’m saved and “once saved always saved” so it doesn’t matter how I live. For OT Israel this person or persons will be dangerous like a horrible infection that can spread throughout the people.
When one reads all of Hebrews 12:15 one sees that’s exactly what it is warning the church against. It is in essence quoting the Deuteronomy passage. Let me quote the whole verse: “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.” This is a warning to the church to watch out for those who “profess” salvation but show by their lives that they do not really “possess” it for they “fail to obtain the grace of God.” Now they think they can live like the devil and still be assured of “fire insurance.” The writer of Hebrews says as Moses suggested that “by it many become defiled.” In other words, the root of bitterness is not something within an individual Christian. Rather, it is a root in the midst of the whole church, a cancer that might spread to others.
What do we do about it. We lovingly admonish those among us to let their lives demonstrate their having been born again. Let the root of Christ-likeness show forth from the way we live. We must be willing to call one another to holy living.