This morning I finished reading the responses to Grant R. Osborne’s chapter in “Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews,” called “The Classical Arminian View.” I covered Fanning’s response to Osborne’s analysis. However, in this post, I will cover the Moderate Calvinist response, written by Randall C. Gleason.
Gleason has a troubling response to Osborne’s analysis. He attempts to make all of Hebrews look as though the letter was anticipating the fall of the Jerusalem temple (“Four Views, page 166). While I’m rather speechless on his comments regarding the temple (“speechless,” meaning “too confused”), I was more troubled by his view of Esau (Hebrews 12):
“…the fact that ‘by faith Isaac blessed Jacob AND Esau, even regarding things to come’ (Heb. 11:20 NASB) suggests that Esau, in spite of his irreverent behavior, was not cut off from ‘the age to come’ (Heb. 6:5; cf. 13:14). Hence, though Esau forfeited the temporal blessings of his birthright, he did not lose his status as a genuine son” (Gleason, Moderate Reformed Response, from “Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews.” Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007, page 169).
If you look back at Hebrews 12 itself, Gleason has missed the entire point of the Esau reference. First, his response had NOTHING to do with Hebrews 12 itself. He did not attack Osborne’s remarks regarding Hebrews 12 with proof from within the chapter itself. Secondly, he just went “way off the mark” in his attempt to cover for what seems to be quality work by Grant Osborne.
I’ll reprint the Esau reference here so everyone can read it:
16 And see that there isn't any immoral or irreverent (Q) person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for one meal. (R) 17 For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected because he didn't find any opportunity for repentance, though he sought it with tears. (S) (Hebrews 12:16-17, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Gleason writes that “Esau…in spite of his irreverent behavior, was not cut off from ‘the age to come’ (Heb.6:5; cf. 13:14)”, but the problem with this is that the Genesis account doesn’t BLESS Esau! He is not blessed in the sense that he is given privileges. Let’s read the biblical account in Genesis 27:26-40—
30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob and Jacob had left the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau arrived from the hunt. 31 He had also made some delicious food and brought it to his father. Then he said to his father, "Let my father get up and eat some of his son's game, so that you may bless me." 32 But his father Isaac said to him, "Who are you?" He answered, "I am Esau your firstborn son." 33 Isaac began to tremble uncontrollably. "Who was it then," he said, "who hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it all before you came in, and I blessed him. Indeed, he will be blessed!" 34 When Esau heard his father's words, he cried out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me—me too, my father!" (F) 35 But he replied, "Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing." 36 So he said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob? (G) [b] For he has cheated me twice now. He took my birthright, and look, now he has taken my blessing." Then he asked, "Haven't you saved a blessing for me?" 37 But Isaac answered Esau: "Look, I have made him a master over you, have given him all of his relatives as his servants, and have sustained him with grain and new wine. What then can I do for you, my son?" 38 Esau said to his father, "Do you only have one blessing, my father? Bless me—me too, my father!" And Esau wept loudly. [c] 39 Then his father Isaac answered him: Look, your dwelling place will be away from the richness of the land, away from the dew of the sky above. 40 You will live by your sword, and you will serve your brother. But when you rebel, [d] you will break his yoke from your neck. (HCSB)
After Isaac blesses Jacob, Esau comes in from the field, not realizing what has happened. The moment that Esau identifies himself, Isaac becomes nervous and realizes that he has blessed the wrong brother—it was Jacob and not Esau!!!
At that moment, Esau replies, “Haven’t you saved a blessing for me?” (v.36); but Isaac replies, “Look, I have made him a MASTER over you, have given him ALL OF HIS RELATIVES AS SERVANTS, and have SUSTAINED HIM WITH GRAIN AND NEW WINE. WHAT THEN CAN I DO FOR YOU, my son?” (v.37). In Isaac’s mind, there ARE NO MORE BLESSINGS to be had!! Jacob has taken all of them…and none are left for Esau. We can see this clearly in Jacob’s statement to Esau:
“Look, your dwelling place will be AWAY FROM the richness of the land, AWAY FROM the dew of the sky above. YOU WILL LIVE BY YOUR SWORD, and you will SERVE your brother. But when you rebel, you WILL BREAK HIS YOKE from your neck” (v.40).
The “rich land” and “dew of the sky” that were handed to Jacob have been DENIED to Esau. All of the material blessings Esau will live “away from,” which implies that his situation will be grossly different from Jacob’s. In addition, Esau’s future generations will fall prey to death (“the sword”). The only good thing in Isaac’s response is that eventually, Esau will be freed from his brother’s hold. But even being free, he will still live “away from” Jacob’s prosperity.
This was not the idea of blessing that Esau had in mind.
Now, Gleason would like for us to not pay attention to these sorts of things and focus on Esau’s prosperity (despite the fact that he didn’t receive much of a blessing from his father). However, to focus on those ideas which are outside of the writer’s intended reference is to attempt to dodge the issue at hand. The question is, “How does Esau’s situation relate to the current Hebrew readers in the Epistle to the Hebrews?” And this question can be answered when we continued to read the writer’s response after he mentions Esau:
18 For you have not come to what could be touched, to a blazing fire, to darkness, gloom, and storm, 19 to the blast of a trumpet, and the sound of words. (Those who heard it begged that not another word be spoken to them, 20 for they could not bear what was commanded: And if even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned! (T) (U) 21 And the appearance was so terrifying that Moses said, I am terrified and trembling. (V) (W) ) 22 Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God (the heavenly Jerusalem), to myriads of angels in festive gathering, (X) 23 to the assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written [g] in heaven, to God who is the judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, (Y) 24 to Jesus (mediator (Z) of a new covenant (AA) ), and to the sprinkled blood, which says better things than the [blood] of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24, HCSB)
In verse 18, the writer once again shows the difference between Judaism and the Old Covenant vs. Christianity and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant was made at Mount Sinai, and was physical—“you have not come to what could be TOUCHED,” which involved “fire, darkness, gloom, and storm…the blast of a trumpet, and the sound of words…” All these things were visible to the eyes and hands.
But the destination of the Hebrew readers involved something far greater:
“Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God (the heavenly Jerusalem), to myriads of angels in festive gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven…” (Heb. 12:22-23a)
Do you see what I see in verses 22-23? I see a reference to Esau: “you have come to Mount Zion…to the assembly of the FIRSTBORN whose names have been written in heaven…”
There it is—the reference that we have all been looking for!! Why has Esau been used as the example in Hebrews 12? Because we believers, like Esau, are the “firstborn” who will “inherit the blessing,” that blessing being “heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22). Therefore, like Esau, if we “despise” our birthright as he did his (Gen. 25:27-34), then we will not receive the blessing even if we return and seek it with all our hearts. Like Esau, there will be no blessing for us—only sadness and sorrow. Whereas Esau was promised to live by the sword (physical death), we will experience a SPIRITUAL death, eternal separation from God.
The text of Hebrews 12 itself involves physical examples of the Old Testament; but its purpose is to point to the SPIRITUAL (for instance, “heavenly Jerusalem” in contrast to “earthly Jerusalem”). As a result, Gleason’s analysis regarding Esau is flawed. Yes, it’s true that Esau remained a son—but he became a firstborn son WITHOUT AN INHERITANCE…and that made no sense in light of the time in which he lived (where all firstborns received their father’s inheritance).
For all those of the Hebrew congregation that would refuse the discipline of the Lord, the writer stated this:
“And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
‘My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly, or faint when you are reproved by Him; for the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and punishes every son whom He receives.’
Endure it as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there whom a father does not discipline? BUT IF YOU ARE WITHOUT DISCIPLINE—WHICH ALL RECEIVE—then you are ILLEGITIMATE CHILDREN and NOT SONS” (Heb. 12:5-8).
For those who refuse the Lord’s discipline, they become illegitimate. And we know from everyday life about what happens in cases where an “illegitimate” child is conceived. In biblical days, an illegitimate child was still the child of a father—but the illegitimate child did not receive the father’s inheritance, even if he was the OLDEST. This is why the Lord promises to bless “Isaac” with the blessings of Abraham, but would not let “Ishmael” be the promised seed. Although Abraham greatly desired Ishmael to carry the covenant promises, the Lord stressed that “In Isaac your seed will be called” (Gen. 21:12). Ishmael was the product of an illegitimate conception between Abraham and Sarah’s servant, Hagar. It was not in the bonds of marriage, so Ishmael was deemed an “illegitimate” child. While he was still a child of his father Abraham’s, and was not disowned, he didn’t inherit his father’s possessions. God blessed Ishmael and made of him a great nation, but God’s promises to Abraham were fulfilled through Isaac because Isaac was the promised seed and the legitimate heir created in wedlock (Gen. 17:17-21).
As I said earlier, Gleason’s reasoning would work perfectly if one isolated that passage from its context. With the writer of Hebrews discussing the “heavenly Jerusalem” in the same chapter, following the discussion of Esau losing his birthright and the warning against those who “fall short of the grace of God” and “defile many,” we see that the Esau text over a simple “earthly inheritance” serves as a caution of losing the greater “spiritual inheritance” we have in Christ. If all of the Old Testament is Christocentric and points to Christ, then the writer of Hebrews has warrant for using Esau as an example of what happens to those who come to “despise” their inheritance in Christ—and seek it later, with no possibility of recovery.