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Hebrews 12:16–17

“That no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 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.”

The Old Testament provides many positive models of faith that show us what authentic trust in the one true God looks like and what it produces in the lives of those who hope in Him (Heb. 11). But the Old Testament also gives us negative models, people who show us what lack of faith in the Lord looks like and what it produces in those who do not believe. The author of Hebrews looks to these negative models as well. In 3:7–4:13, he called our attention to the negative example of the wilderness generation of Israel. Today we read about another model of impiety: Esau.

Hebrews 12:16–17 lifts up Esau as a prime illustration of the kind of person who fails to obtain the grace of God (see v. 15). First, the author defines Esau as “sexually immoral” and “unholy.” This definition of Esau’s character comes from texts such as Genesis 26:34–35.There we read that Esau intermarried with the pagan Canaanites, violating the divine marital norms for the patriarchs. It is also worth noting that later Jewish tradition came to view Esau as grossly immoral; many Jewish writings from about the same time as the book of Hebrews testify to Esau’s ungodliness. In any case, God’s Word regards sexual sins as particularly heinous, and persistent engagement in sexual sin evidences a heart that is hardened against the Lord (Lev. 18; Rom. 1:26–27). Of course, the Lord will forgive all those who truly repent of sexual sin (1 John 1:8–9), but we dare not trifle with it. Sexual immorality has caused many professing believers to fall away from the Christian faith over the centuries.

The author of Hebrews also reminds us that Esau sold his birthright and irrevocably lost the patriarchal blessing given to Abraham (Heb. 12:17). He is referencing the well-known stories from Genesis 25:29–34 and 27:1–45. We should not think here that Esau’s forgiveness and restoration to blessing were an absolute impossibility. Instead, Esau’s actions show that he did not understand the gravity of his actions and thus never came to true repentance. He gave away God’s sacred promise to Abraham’s descendants for only a bowl of stew. As John Owen writes, “Esau gave little thought that when he sold his inheritance he had completely forfeited God’s eternal blessing.” Moreover, he was sorry that he lost privilege, not that he lost the God who gave that privilege. If he truly loved and wanted the Lord, he would have been content with God’s choice of Jacob over him and would not have sought to kill his brother (27:38, 41).

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

God will forgive any sin we commit provided that we genuinely trust in Him through Christ, repenting truly of our sin. Genuine repentance is sorrow not for the consequences of our sin but for offending our holy God. When we recognize our sin, we must turn to the Lord, admitting that we deserve His punishment. Our longing must be to have God Himself and not merely the blessings that He provides.


For Further Study
  • Psalm 51
  • Luke 19:1–10
  • Acts 2:37–41
  • 2 Corinthians 7

The Quiet Work of the Gospel

The Terror of Sinai

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From the August 2020 Issue
Aug 2020 Issue