The culture knows Scripture – at least a few verses that they are passionate about. “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1), “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and “Let him who is without sin . . . cast the first stone” (John 8:7). I found them a new one that I think they will really like: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Heb 12:14). What’s interesting about these cultural favorites is that they are only partial verses or plucked out of their context so that their meaning is skewed. It is a favorite ploy of the devil, who knows more Scripture than most people in the pews. When he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted from Psalm 91:11-12, but he stopped just shy of his own demise in verse 13. (You should go look that up. In fact, I encourage you to look up all of these verses and read their surrounding context.)
Hebrews 12:14 has a second part that colors the whole verse differently. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” Oh. When you add verse 15, it becomes clearer: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Now, before I started digging deeper into this verse, I thought it meant something like “let no ill feelings take root” but I was wrong (that’s not easy to say!). First, the word “bitter” metaphorically means “extreme wickedness” and literally means “poison”. Poison kills.
This reaches directly back to Deuteronomy as Moses was reiterating the covenant they had made with the Lord God. He said, “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those [pagan] nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison” (Deut 30:18).
I’ll be honest, I’ve wrestled with this all week. It’s not an easy passage. But I believe it means to live in peace with your neighbors, especially your unsaved neighbors, don’t condemn them or harasses them over their lifestyle. Don’t cause them to turn to wickedness because of your self-righteousness. But you – and remember, the writer is speaking to the community, not to individuals – live a holy life, set apart unto God. Because Jesus showed us that a truly holy life is attractive and winsome to a lost world. And so must we be.