The entire epistle to the Hebrews seeks to encourage tired and suffering believers to keep looking to Christ in order not to lose heart and give up the good fight. God’s good providence has ordained that we all must pass through many tests — some of them very painful. Hebrews says that only if we will keep the end in view, shall we make it successfully, no matter how excruciatingly the vice of temporal difficulty presses us in its iron grip.
That was the problem of the Hebrew converts to whom this epistle was primarily addressed. This letter was written before the downfall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Some of the church-people were severely tempted to give up the faith, since Judaism still had the power to persecute them in various ways. It must have seemed an easy thing to slip back into the impressive religious rituals of the still-standing temple, and in so doing to avoid harsh attitudes against them for following Jesus. Moreover, it must have been tempting to rejoin a religious system that, at that time, tended to stress external participation and conformity, instead of treading the hard way of the cross that requires crucifixion of the inward, proud self-life. Was it really worth all this cost? That question probably comes to all of us, especially when we are going through particularly hard times in our lives.
How can we frail folk, believers though we really are, make it to a successful goal when everything around us seems to be going wrong (or, at least, we feel that it is)? How do we keep going when so many voices are crying into our ears, “Give up, this battle is too strong for you. Why make it hard on yourself? How can you be sure that it is all true anyway?”
Hebrews has the answer — the divine remedy for weary, hurting pilgrims. Hebrews 12:2 instructed us about “looking unto Jesus.” Here, in Hebrews 12:26–28, we are handed the same mighty weapon (from a slightly different viewpoint): Keep in the very front of your mind the end of your history and of the world’s history. You, and everything else, are going somewhere. Look by faith to where you are going, and you will be given the divine strength to get there against all apparent odds.
The author of this letter takes us back to Haggai 2:6–7, which predicts tremendous shaking of the nations to make room for something better and permanent. The early Christians were living in a time when everything was shaking around them. I suspect that the Puritan commentator John Owen was right to refer to this shaking primarily as the shaking down of the Judaic church/state as a result of the completed work of Christ in the first century (John Owen, Hebrews, vol. 7, 363–368).
It may not have been long after the ink was dry on this epistle, that Rome destroyed Jerusalem, so that an ancient system that had opposed the incarnate Christ was brought down to make way for His lasting kingdom of grace. This principle of “shaking down those things that can be shaken in order to make room for that which cannot be shaken” did not cease to operate in the year A.D. 70. Was it not at work when Rome itself came down in the fifth century? Was it not at work when the political power of Roman Catholicism was, to a considerable degree, broken through the revival that constituted the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century? When Rome was shaken down, the Christian church had room to spread the Gospel to all of Europe, thus establishing something that “cannot be shaken.” When Roman Catholicism had much of its political power shaken down, the Reformation, with its teaching of salvation by the grace of God through faith alone, had room to spread throughout much of northwestern Europe; thence it spread into the new world of America, and later on into every continent of the world (to varying degrees).
The point is this: to have stood with the Gospel of Christ in hard times (whether under late, unbelieving Judaism, the persecuting Roman Empire, or the Spanish Inquisition much later) insured ultimate victory over the most impressive political, military, and cultural powers. Such powers (and there are legions of them with different faces in every generation) are granted temporary ability to hound the people of God — sometimes all the way to death. But their time and power are divinely limited.
As part of the mysterious process of shaping His people into the image of Christ, God lets evil powers test and hurt them to a divinely limited degree (see Rom. 8:28–39). Then the evil powers will be broken to make room for the very church they hated and persecuted, so that the saving Gospel may spread yet more widely, thus building up that kingdom, which can never be shaken, over the rubble of sinful, temporal powers that must be shaken down in due season.
Hebrews 12 shows us that it could be different. Those who look in obedient faith to the Mediator of the new covenant in hard times and good, and those who take their cross to self in order to follow Him and bless others, are the forerunners of a brighter, holier, and happier day. For the sake of Christ, they have given up what they cannot keep in order to gain what they cannot lose (to paraphrase Philip Henry). May God grant us the grace to be in their number!