Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Root of Bitterness

I have heard many excellent messages on the subject of bitterness. It is an issue that many of us struggle with simply because we live in a fallen world and have to face the terrible effects of sin in our own lives and in the lives of others. We are all prone to harbor bitterness against parents, church leaders, friends, and even God. So, sermons on bitterness are often very helpful and certainly needful.

Unfortunately, many good points are made from the wrong text, especially when dealing with this subject. The reason for this is that one of the most popular texts that preachers use regarding bitterness doesn’t really deal with the concept of bitterness at all. You can take the verse, out of its context, and come up with teaching and applications that are probably helpful and appear to be Biblical, but are not taught at all in that text. And that’s a problem. It’s a common problem, and truth be told, I’ve probably used this verse the wrong way, too.

The problem text is

Hebrews 12:15 (ESV)
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;

There are two keys to properly understanding this verse. The first is the context in which this verse appears and the second is the OT reference to which the author of Hebrews alludes.

Hebrews, in general, is a call to faithful endurance. We are to look to Jesus, who as the author and finisher of our faith, is our example and the sustainer for this endurance. Hebrews 12, which begins with this reiteration of the book’s theme, contains the last of the five major warning sections in verses 12-29. These warnings serve to warn the reader what will happens if he fails to endure. In my understanding, they operate as one of the means that God uses in the lives of his children to encourage them to persevere in the faith (cf., Acts 27:22, 31 for an example of how promises and warnings can work together and consistently). Regardless, though, of how you view the warning passages in Hebrews, we can at least observe what is going on in verses 14-17. We are told to strive for peace with everyone and holiness without which no one will see the Lord, and then we are told to see to three things:

1. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God
2. See to it that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble
3. See to it that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau

With that context in mind, specifically the warnings regarding the possibility of not seeing the Lord (12:14) and failing to obtain the grace of God (12:15), let’s now look at this term, “root of bitterness.” The author of Hebrews gets this terminology from Deut 29:18, which says,

“Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit;”

The King James translates this last phrase, “a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” Wormwood is associated with bitterness all throughout the Bible (“bitter as wormwood,” Prov 5:4; Lam 3:15; Rev 8:11). Two things should be immediately clear from this passage: (1) Turning away from God is the essence of developing a root of bitterness; and (2) the “root of bitterness” is a person, someone among them who turns away from the Lord, not a feeling or an attitude. The context in Deut 29 is the same as Hebrews 12, a warning about turning away from the Lord (cf., 12:25, “do not refuse him who is speaking”). Notice how the passage in Deut continues:

Deut 29:19-21 (ESV)
“….one who, when he [referring back to the “root of bitterness”] hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, 'I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.' This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. 21 And the LORD will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.”

Thus it will be bitter for the person who turns from the Lord and walks in the stubbornness of his heart, as if you can, for example, happily ignore God’s warning to pursue peace and holiness. The bitterness of God’s judgment is perfectly illustrated by the person of Esau, whom the writer of Hebrews references in the next two verses:

Heb 12:16-17 (ESV)
that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

Notice that the consequences for Esau (“no chance to repent”) are the same as for the “root of bitterness” in Deut 29:20 (“The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.). Esau is an example of a “root of bitterness,” someone who rejects God, his covenant/birthright, and ends up with no way to inherit the blessings of salvation that he could have had. Esau failed to obtain what the grace of God would have given him, and author of Hebrews implores us not to do the same thing. If we do, it will be bitter for us, just as it was for Esau and just as it was for those in Duet 29.

That, in a short blog post, is the message of these verses in Hebrew 12:14-17.

The most powerful preaching and teaching will use God’s word according to its true and right meaning, not inadvertently ripping it from its meaning and context. This analysis may mean a fairly significant paradigm shift for some in how they think about, approach, and apply this passage – it did for me! And, of course, we still need preaching on personal bitterness, just not from this passage.