Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 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; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal (Hebrews 12:14-16).
Strive for peace with whom? Well everyone. It says so right there. If you prefer another translation over the ESV like the NASB then it is “all men” while the KJV renders it as “all”. Simple right. Not really because of the phrase that follows: “and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” We certainly should strive for peace wherever possible, but never when it requires us to sacrifice the holiness that is our calling in Christ Jesus.
When we run into these “everyone” type clauses in Scripture, one helpful method I learned somewhere was to try to better define the “everyone” and re-read the passage with the fuller definition. For example, let’s replace “everyone” with “everyone in the entire world” in those verses quoted above. We want to use this method of expanding the definition in the full context in cases like this where the same group is being talked about. If we stopped at the end of the first clause of verse 14, it would not help us. So, let’s give it a try:
Strive for peace with everyone in the entire world, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one in the entire world fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up in the entire world and causes trouble, and by it many in the entire world become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy in the entire world like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
We can see that verses 15 and 16 are continuing the same thought because the author is still covering the topics of peace and holiness. Does it make sense for us to be commanded to see to it that no one in the entire world fails to obtain the grace of God? Or to see that no one in the entire world is sexually immoral? Of course not. So the “everyone” in this context cannot be referring to every man, woman and child in the entire world. So who is it then? Let’s try our little exercise again using “in the Christian church”:
Strive for peace with everyone in the Christian church, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one in the Christian church fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up in the Christian church and causes trouble, and by it many in the Christian church become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy in the Christian church like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
That makes perfect sense. Of course we want to strive for peace with every true believer. Of course we do not want bitterness between believers in the church. Of course we do not want to have peace with the sexually immoral who may be residing in our churches. And the author was writing this to a group of Christians.
A lot of times these days we Christians are made to feel guilty if we do not embrace sin or if we condemn false teachers. Somewhere this idea began floating around that we sheep must make peace with the wolves who are trying to devour us! But, we can look to the example of Jesus who did NOT pursue peace with everyone in the entire world:
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:13-17).
The wolves had invaded the temple. Jesus, the shepherd, did not invite these wolves over for a nice warm cup of coffee and some pastries to discuss peace terms with them. And neither should we! He drove them out because they were putting a barrier between the people and God. These were enemies of Jesus and the Father. Jesus could not have peace with them because it would have required sacrificing his holiness and turning his back on the unholy activities that were polluting God’s house. Jesus would have had to sacrifice his love for the Father, his love for those who were trying to come to worship, and even his love for these sellers and money-changers that perhaps had never even stopped to think of the wrong they were doing.
Do not let the world condemn you for not seeking peace with them. Remember that we are at war. It is a spiritual war, but a war none the less. And there are people and powers that want nothing more for God’s children and God’s church to lay down our weapons and accept their peace terms. Peace terms that require us to turn our backs on God and the only gospel that saves. Rather than always pursuing peace, sometimes we must pick up the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God and fight because the gates of hell shall not prevail against us!