J. A. Trench.
Article 30 of 55 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 2.
Question. — In the Revised Version, Hebrews 12:3 is translated, "For consider him that endureth such contradiction of sinners against themselves." To me this seems neither sense nor grammar; should be glad if you could give some light on it. Mc. E.
In considering such a verse it is well to review the connection in which it occurs. The division of the chapter at verse 1 seems, as often, to obscure this for the ordinary reader, and here with more than ordinary loss. A "great cloud of witnesses" had been adduced from Old and even New Testament times to illustrate the principle of the Christian's practical life, stated in Hebrews 10:38 (from the prophet Habakkuk, that "the just shall live by faith." But there was One, pre-eminent above all, who was yet to be presented to us "Jesus, the author" (in the sense of "leader") "and finisher" (or "completer") "of faith." In a great variety of testing circumstances the saints of Hebrews 11 had proved and expressed the power of faith, in what is recorded of them. But the Lord Jesus had gone through the whole career of faith; in His path as man He had begun, gone through, and completed it with the outlook of His soul upon God ever perfect. There was no trial His people were called to that He had not experienced, and beyond them all He had endured the cross, despising the shame: this was the last crucial test He had met in the path of the accomplishment of God's will, and for the joy set before Him He had endured it, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
For it is thus that, in the epistle where the Cross, in the atoning aspect of the work wrought therein, has such a central place,* now, as it draws to a close in practical exhortation, the crucifixion is presented. In every way He has been the Leader in the path His saints have to tread: "When he put forth his own he goeth before them." The main characteristics are marked in the epistle: dependence (Heb. 1:13), obedience (Heb. 5:8-9), faith as here — Himself the perfect example in all. It is the path in which He lives to maintain us in infinite grace by the exercise of His Priesthood. The cross, or perhaps more strictly "crucifixion," which He endured (ver. 2), is not here what He suffered from God for sin, in which we had no part, "despising the shame" could not be said in such case — but what He had to encounter at the close of His life from man's hand, the sinners of verse 3, the contradiction and opposition of every principle of man and his world against Him, in which His perfection only shone out the brighter: who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
* Heb. 1:3; Heb. 2:9-10, 17; Heb. 7:27; Heb. 9:11-15, 25, 28; Heb. 10:1-18; Heb. 13:11-12.
But looking back at verse 1 for a moment, we must not think of the cloud of witnesses, as if they were overlookers of the scene of our conflict like spectators in the amphitheatre. Our English word "witness" indeed conveys this sense, but has another, namely, one who bears witness. The Greek word has the latter meaning only: they are witnesses by the testimony they bore, or that was borne to them in Scripture. And now they are summoned, as it were, each in the special circumstances in which by faith they triumphed, to encourage us in the race.
For we are exhorted to lay aside every weight and sin which doth so easily beset, and to run with endurance the race set before us. A weight is not then something necessarily sinful, being distinguished from it. It would be anything that impedes in running on to the goal, only discovered perhaps in the energy that presses on. With uncompromising decision it is to be put off, as also sin — all sin; for it is not here that individually we may have some special form of besetment, however true that is. But we are warned against sin generally, as lying all around so as easily to entangle the feet, which is the force of this expression. We have to lay it aside, for the epistle contemplates nothing short of the true liberty of grace for the Christian, and indicates at once whence power is found to carry out what would be impossible in any natural way; "looking unto Jesus" — free for this simple blessed exercise of faith in occupation with Him instead of with ourselves; and this not that there might be an occasional spurt now and again, but to run with endurance the race that is set before us, on and on through the day and every day whatever the opposing circumstances.
The word for "looking" is found only here in the Greek Scriptures, having the force of turning the eyes away from other things and fixing them on one. Much blessed encouragement for faith may be found in the testimonies of Hebrews 11, but none of the witnesses could be an object for the eye of faith to rest on. There is but One who could take that place, and He must have it exclusively; "Jesus, the leader and completer of faith" — "Jesus the same yesterday, today, and for ever." And it is His, not only in the divine glory of His person (compare Heb. 1:12 and Heb. 13:8), but as having become Man and run the race before we were called into it — our Forerunner indeed — and having reached the glorious goal at the right hand of God. Nothing could bring Him more wonderfully before our hearts in His tested path as man than the thought that He was sustained in it by the joy set before Him. In John 14:28 He gave us an intimation of what that joy was: it was when His work was done He was going to the Father, which would not exclude that He would have His own with Himself there. Only that it must be something personal to Himself first, and He would have those who love Him enter into this, His joy.
It is in such association of thought that the Spirit of God would keep before the saints addressed what Christ had endured (ver. 3), in view of what they had gone through (Heb. 10:32-34) and might still have to face.
Using a word only found here in New Testament Greek, and difficult to represent in English, he would have them and us "Consider well ['ponder' in the early sense of it — weigh in seeking to estimate] him that endured so great contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds." But here the unhappy Revised Version confronts your correspondent with a rendering that, if it could be sustained, would seem not a little to affect the power of the passage for our hearts. The Revisers read "against themselves." In this they differ from the American revisers (see list of their differences at the end of R.V.) who accord with our version, though admitting in the margin that "many ancient authorities read, themselves." The fact is that our version is well attested and supported by the editors Lachman, Tischendorf and Tregelles. The passage in Numbers 16:38: "The censers of these sinners against themselves," may have accounted for the variation. But as the late Mr. Kelly says of our text in his commentary on the epistle, "they were sinners against themselves undoubtedly, as read the Sinaitic and the Clermont MSS., etc., but the far more solemn fact is that they were 'the sinners against himself,' who endured all to win them to God."