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Warned Against the Profane Apostate

Warned Against the Profane Apostate

Responding Appropriately to Chastisement (Hebrews 12:1217) 

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Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright: for ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. (Heb. 12:1617) 



In this section of Hebrews 12:1217, we have seen the effects of chastisement. God’s goal with chastisement is outlined in the first section of the chapter. God’s goal is, first, that we might be partakers of his holiness (v. 10); and, second, that chastisement might yield in us “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (v. 11). 

But not all of God’s children respond to chastisement properly. Parents know that from their own children—sometimes they submit to chastisement, but often they complain, whine, and are even defiant when their parents discipline them. Sometimes Christians become discouraged through chastisement—then they must lift up the hands, which hang down; and the weakened knees. Sometimes Christians are bitter through chastisement—then they must watch diligently against the root of bitterness. We have looked at these warnings in previous blog posts. 

This text describes the worst case—apostasy. Sometimes people turn from the faith altogether because of the hardships of the Christian life. Such people are like Esau—and the root of their apostasy is profanity. 

Esau: A Profane Member of the Visible Church 

Esau was “a profane person” (v. 16). Profanity was his chief sin, the sin that determined the whole course of his life. To be profane is to place little to no value on spiritual things. Profanity is the neglect of, and the absence of, holiness. If a holy person is devoted to God in love and seeks to please him in all things, a profane person prefers earthly things, and seeks himself. Another word, therefore, for profane is carnal or worldly. A profane person loves the things of the world and seeks to gratify and indulge his flesh. 

One aspect of Esau’s profanity—but not the main aspect—was his fornication. “Lest there be any fornicator…as Esau” (v. 16). Fornication is sexual sin, especially outside of the bond of marriage. Esau was a fornicator in the physical sense, for he married multiple heathen wives. But Esau was a fornicator especially in a spiritual sense: he was unfaithful to God’s covenant. He lusted after others gods, specifically, the god of pleasure: he pursued the world and the things it offered.

Esau’s position made his sin of profanity more serious than most. First, Esau was the son of believing parents and the eldest grandson of believing grandparents: in modern terms, he was born in the church. Esau was not a heathen; he was not a Canaanite, although he married Canaanites. Esau’s father was Isaac; his grandparents were Abraham and Sarah. Esau was, therefore, circumcised the eighth day, and he was instructed in a covenant home. Undoubtedly, Isaac and Rebekah told him about Jehovah God; they explained to him God’s covenant promise; they instructed him in the ways of God; and certainly, while Esau was a child, he worshipped with his family at the altar. 

Second, more seriously yet, Esau was the firstborn. Because he was the firstborn, Esau had the “birthright” (v. 16). In the Old Testament, birthright was a very important privilege. The possessor of the birthright was the heir of the covenant of grace; therefore, he should expect to inherit, and to enjoy, the blessing of God. In the family of Abraham, the firstborn was the one through whom the covenant line would continue until the coming of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. As the heir of the covenant of grace, the firstborn enjoyed everlasting life in the new creation; he would be God’s friend-servant in the midst of the world. The birthright blessing also included inheritance of the land of Canaan, lordship over one’s brethren, and a double portion of the father’s inheritance. However, God was sovereign in the bestowal of the birthright, so that not every firstborn receives the blessing. In this case it was God’s purpose that Jacob, not Esau, should receive the blessing. That does not lessen Esau’s responsibility, however. 

As “a profane person,” Esau did not value the birthright; instead, he despised it. Esau viewed the birthright blessing as worthless and meaningless. Esau did not love God, and he did not believe in the promised Messiah. Esau cared nothing of the covenant of grace with Jehovah; friendship with God was not in the least attractive to him; and he did not desire salvation from sin or eternal life in heaven. Esau cared only about the world—he loved life; he loved food; he loved hunting; he loved pleasure, but he did not see any further than the world. In order to gain the world, he was prepared to lose his soul, and even to give up his birthright. Esau’s god was not Jehovah. Esau’s god was his belly (Phil. 3:1819). 

Esau was not the only son of Isaac, however, for he had a brother, Jacob. Although Jacob was not the firstborn, he desperately desired the birthright blessing. In the providence of God, Jacob was born second: he was a twin, but he was born moments after Esau. Therefore, the birthright blessing was not his. Nevertheless, Jacob wanted the birthright: he desired it; he longed for it; he knew that he needed it; and he schemed to obtain it. His schemes were sinful, but his desire for the birthright was a godly, holy desire. Jacob loved God; Jacob believed in the promise of the coming Messiah; Jacob delighted in the covenant with Jehovah; Jacob longed for fellowship with God; Jacob wanted salvation from sin and eternal life in heaven. 

Esau is not merely an interesting, historical figure, but he is a warning to us: “Lest there be any fornicator or profane person, as Esau” (v. 16). There are profane people like Esau in every age of the church. Such people are born with great religious privileges. They are born to Christian parents and brought up in godly homes. From their earliest days, their parents teach them to pray, to sing praises to God, and to read the Bible; and their parents lovingly discipline them. Many of them are baptized as infants; some of them make confession of faith; some of them even partake of the Lord’s Supper; some of them even become officebearers. 

But such people are profane, worldly, carnal, and ultimately godless. Like Esau they do not love God, and they have no faith in Jesus Christ—they merely appear for a time to be Christians; they appear to belong to Christ. For a time, it is impossible to distinguish them from the true children of God in the church; but when they grow up, they display their true allegiance. They stop learning their catechism; they stop coming to catechism or participating in catechism; their church attendance becomes infrequent; they show little to no interest in prayer, the Bible, or family devotions. Their real interest is the world—its entertainment, its money, and its sins. They love ungodly friends; they are involved in ungodly relationships; and they leave the church. And when they are admonished and rebuked, they do not repent, but continue in their sins, and perish. 

This warning in verse 16 is the last of the warnings in this section—“Lest there be any fornicator or profane person, as Esau.” To see the connection, we need to look at the context. Between verses 1214 the writer to the Hebrews gives several exhortations. 

First, in verse 12, we read, “Lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees. Second, in verse 13, we read, “And make straight paths for your feet.” (That is a call to the discouraged to take heart and to continue to run the race of faith). Third, in verse 14, we read, “Follow peace with all men and holiness.” (That is a call concerning the manner in which we are to run—holily and peaceably). 

Connected to the three exhortations—lift up, make, and follow—is another exhortation—“Looking diligently.” We run not only holily, and peaceably, but also circumspectly. And connected to that final exhortation are three phrases beginning with “lest” —lest, first, “any man fail of the grace of God;” lest, second, “any root of bitterness springing up trouble you and thereby many be defiled; and lest, third, “there be any fornicator or profane person, as Esau” (vv. 1516). 

Here, then, is the connection: a person under God’s chastising hand is liable to become (1) discouraged, which could lead to (2) bitterness, which could lead to (3) carnality and profanity, which in the worst case leads to (4) apostasy. That is easy to understand: the hardships, discouragements, afflictions, trials, and persecutions of the Christian life contribute to the apostasy of many, unless, unlike Esau, we value more highly the blessings of God’s covenant than the things of this present life. Esau was willing to exchange the birthright blessing for this world. In so doing, he lost his soul—the warning is to us, “Do not be like Esau!” 

Esau’s Profane Exchange of the Birthright 

Esau exchanged his birthright for something carnal—“for one morsel of meat.” We read about Esau’s exchange in Genesis 25. In that chapter, both Esau and Jacob are grown men; one is “a cunning hunter, a man of the field;” while the other is “a plain man, dwelling in tents” (v. 27). Jacob viewed himself as a pilgrim and stranger, dwelling in tents with Abraham and Isaac: his eyes were on a “city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Esau viewed himself as a man of the world—a hunter, a man of the field. There is nothing wrong in that, of course; but Esau did not think beyond that. Esau was a man only of the world, only of this world. He did not look for a city, which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 

That becomes clearer in Genesis 25 when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. In Genesis 25, Esau returns from an unsuccessful hunting trip; verse 29 says: “And Esau came from the field, and he was faint.” The word “faint” indicates tiredness, hunger, and thirst: probably, Esau had been out for the whole day, but he had caught nothing. When Esau sees Jacob cooking pottage, a kind of stew or soup, he calls to Jacob, “Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage, for I am faint” (v. 30). The red pottage in question is lentil soup or stew: the text in Hebrews 12:16 calls it, “one morsel of meat” or “one meal.” The idea for the exchange was not initially Esau’s—it was Jacob’s. Esau had not been thinking about the birthright blessing (it did not often cross Esau’s mind), but Jacob had been thinking about it. Undoubtedly, Jacob often thought about it; to Jacob the birthright blessing was the most precious thing in the whole world. 

Perhaps Jacob had been thinking about it that day while he prepared lentil soup: the birthright blessing, the birthright blessing, if only it were mine! But Jacob knew that Esau was the possessor of the birthright, at least for now; nevertheless, Jacob was always scheming for a way to obtain it. Now when his brother was tired (exhausted), hungry, and thirsty, he saw his advantage, and he seized it. In verse 25, Jacob says, “Sell me this day thy birthright” (v. 31). Did Jacob actually expect Esau to sell him the birthright—and for such a small price, one morsel of red lentil pottage? It was certainly worth a try. Esau’s response is immediate: he does not retort, “No: God forbid that I should sell the birthright to you.” He does not even say, “A bowl of lentil soup is not a high enough offer—what else will you give me in exchange for it?” Instead, he remarks, “Behold I am at the point to die, and what profit shall this birthright do to me?” (v. 32). 

But Jacob is not satisfied—what if Esau changes his mind? Therefore, he requires an oath: “Swear unto me this day, and he sware unto him, and he sold his birthright unto Jacob” (v. 33). Verse 34 evaluates the actions of Esau—“Thus Esau despised his birthright.” 

Why did Esau despise his birthright—he saw no value in it! He confesses his estimation of it: “What profit shall this birthright do to me?” As far as Esau was concerned, the birthright was worthless: it does not put food in the belly, it does not protect from death; therefore, it is better to have food today than the birthright tomorrow. Esau lied, of course—he was hungry, but he was not starving to death. He was exhausted, but he was not about to die. And even if he was on the point of death, the birthright is the most important thing; without it Esau perished. Esau did not see the value in the birthright because Esau lived for the instant gratification of his bodily appetites, not for the glory of God. And while Jacob was far from innocent, he had his priorities straight. Jacob loved the birthright; he longed for the birthright; but Esau despised the birthright. 

The New Testament evaluation of Esau is to underline the small reward he received for his carnality—he lost the birthright for what? “For one morsel of meat!” If we are to heed the warning, we must see the vanity of this present world. Apostates from Christianity despise their birthright because the world seems greater to them than the blessings of covenant fellowship with God. We must view the world, and all the world’s riches, as “one morsel of meat.” The offers we receive in exchange for the riches of God’s covenant fellowship are usually greater than one morsel of meat—sometimes Satan offers us a better job with greater salary and thus an increase in our standard of living, but the job offer takes us away from the church. Sometimes Satan offers the lonely Christian a romantic relationship, even marriage, with an unbeliever, who then draws him or her away from the church. Sometimes Satan offers us more friends, popularity among our peers, and respectability in the world, if we deny Christ. 

At other times, Satan plays hardball—he threatens us with persecution and even with death if we persist in confessing Christ. He offers the “one morsel of meat” to preserve our life if we sell our birthright. These temptations come to all of us, but especially to the young people in the church—to those baptized, catechized, and even relatively young confessing members. Satan says to us, “Your parents are Christians, but why should you be as boring as they are?” “Your church does not want you to enjoy life.” Or Satan says to us, “You will have time for this church stuff when you are older—none of your peers pray: why should you? None of your peers reads the Bible; why should you? None of your peers attends church on Sundays; why should you? Your friends are making good money by working on Sundays; why shouldn’t you? What good is it to be a member of the church?” (Of course, Christian young people ought not say, “My peers don’t pray, read the Bible, or go to church.” I hope no Christian young person finds this to be the case! I hope their peers are believers and godly examples!). All of those temptations are of the same kind as the one to which Esau succumbed—“Sell me your birthright for one morsel of meat!” Jesus warned, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). 

The antidote to apostasy is a proper evaluation of the riches of the covenant. Esau sold his birthright because he undervalued the birthright. He thought it was less valuable than one bowl of lentil soup. Imagine if Jacob had said something else, “Give me all your property in exchange for this mess of pottage!” or “Give me a thousand pieces of silver in exchange for this mess of pottage!” Esau would have refused the bargain because Esau understood that Jacob’s soup was not worth that much. But when Jacob asked for the birthright, Esau readily agreed. 

The birthright represented the promise of a Messiah in which Esau did not believe; the birthright represented fellowship with a God whom Esau did not love; the birthright represented eternal life that Esau viewed as “pie in the sky;” and the birthright represented a portion in the land of Canaan in which his father was a stranger. Esau could see Jacob’s pottage—he could not see the blessings of the birthright. Had Esau been able to appreciate the blessings of salvation, he would not have exchanged them for anything at all, much less for “one morsel of meat.” 

Do we understand the riches of salvation in Jesus Christ: do our baptized, catechized, even confessing, children understand the riches of that salvation? We must teach them about the depth of their depravity and sin—they must know that the penalty for sin is eternal death. When they understand that, they must also appreciate the greatness of salvation in Christ. They must know about the great cost of salvation: we must teach them about the atoning blood of Jesus, about his sufferings and death, and about the righteousness, life, and peace that he has purchased by his death. 

They must know about the love, grace, and mercy of God: we must teach them about the unsearchable riches of Christ, about the forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, everlasting life and glory, and the hope of the new creation. And when by faith they truly grasp it, they will never be willing to give up their birthright—no incentive and no threat will persuade them to part with it. 

Profane Esau’s Irretrievable Loss 

Later, Esau “would have inherited the blessing” (or he willed to inherit it) (v. 17). We need to be clear—Esau did not desire the blessings of salvation in Christ. Remember that there were two aspects of the birthright blessing, and that one was a representation of the other. First, there was the physical or earthly aspect of the blessing; it consisted of “dew from heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine” (Gen. 27:28). Esau wanted to inherit that aspect of the blessing. Connected to that was dominion in the earth and especially dominion over his brother: “Let people serve thee and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be everyone that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee” (v. 29). Esau would gladly have inherited that aspect of the blessing. To lord it over Jacob would have suited him well. 

But there was a second aspect to the blessing, really the most important. It was eternal life in the heavenly Canaan; it was fellowship with God through the Messiah, Jesus Christ; and it was forgiveness of sins through the Savior’s blood. Esau had no interest in that aspect of the blessing. Esau learned to his cost, however, that the two aspects of the blessing were connected; by despising fellowship with God in Christ, he forfeited everything. For one who despises fellowship with God in Christ, there is no dew from heaven; and there are no corn and wine; and there is no dominion. Isaac makes this clear in Genesis 27:37 and 3940, “Behold I have made him thy lord and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him, and what shall I do now unto thee, my son?” and “Behold thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above. And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.” 

Notice that Isaac says in verse 37 that he has no blessing for Esau because he has already given everything to Jacob; and in verse 39 Isaac does not reverse that ruling. The English of verse 39 does not capture the meaning: what Isaac says is this, “Behold thy dwelling shall be AWAY FROM or DEPRIVED OF the fatness of earth and AWAY FROM or DEPRIVED OF the dew of heaven from above.” Even Esau’s earthly prospects will be bleak—under the curse of God! 

We can contrast Esau’s attitude to the attitude of Jacob: Esau desperately wanted the earthly advantages of the covenant without the covenant itself. Jacob desperately desired the spiritual blessings of God’s covenant. We can certainly criticize Jacob’s methods; God chastised Jacob for his sins. Despite his sinful duplicity, Jacob shows that he will go to any length and run any risk to obtain the blessings of God’s covenant; he eventually learns that this is unnecessary because God blesses him (not through but) despite his duplicitous schemes. 

There are people in the church like Esau: for them, membership in the church and a profession of faith in Christ merely serve their earthly advantage. They are not in the church because they love God, believe in Christ, or love the truth. They remain in the church out of carnal, worldly, profane motives. Some of them are born into the church: it suits them for a while to be members; they have friends there; they enjoy the social aspect of church life; they even find a spouse and marry in the church. Nevertheless, their heart is in the world. As soon as church membership and confession of the truth become disadvantageous or even a liability, they show their disdain for the truth of Jesus Christ: they leave the true church and either join a false church that excuses their sin, or they return to the world. Such people must know that for the one who despises fellowship with Christ, there is no happy, earthly ending—God will curse even their earthly life. God cursed Esau in his earthly life, and God curses apostates today too. 

The text is dreadfully solemn—“he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” (v. 17). Those words bring us to the pathetic scene in Genesis 27:34 and 38. There is something dreadful about a grown man crying—Esau wails like a wounded beast. “And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father” (v. 34). When Isaac refuses, Esau wails, “Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?” (v. 36). On hearing Isaac’s answer, Esau wails again, “Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father” (v. 38). “And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept” (v. 38). Esau cries because he realizes that he has lost something very precious—no, not eternal life (he didn’t want that), but earthly prosperity in the land of Canaan. 

Hebrews 12:17 says, “he sought it [the blessing] earnestly with tears.” But Esau’s loss is irretrievable and irreversible, for “he found no place for repentance” (v. 17). The meaning is not that Esau desired to repent of his sins, but could not repent. No one who desires to repent of sin will ever be rejected from mercy. The meaning is not that Esau changed his mind and wanted salvation in the coming Messiah after all; that he wanted the forgiveness of sins and life with God. No one who desires forgiveness of sins, life with God, and salvation, and who comes in true faith will be rejected. The meaning is this—Esau could not find a way to change Isaac’s mind. 

The text, then, speaks of the irresolute decision of Isaac, Esau’s father. Isaac had not intended to bless Jacob, but Esau; and God had prevented Isaac conferring the blessing on Esau despite Isaac’s desire and determination to do so. But when Isaac realizes the mistake he almost made, he refuses to change. Listen to Isaac in verse 33—“I have blessed him; yea, and he shall be blessed.” Isaac cannot reverse it for he understands that as the patriarch he speaks as the mouthpiece of God: God determined the blessing for Jacob, not Esau. And the tears of Esau do not move him to bless his profane son. In that sense Esau found no place for repentance although he sought it earnestly with tears. 

There is a day coming when apostates of the church will seek earnestly with tears a place for repentance, but then it will be forever too late. They will not seek a place to repent for their sins, for the apostate never does that. But they will seek a place for the overturning of God’s judgment. But all the tears and wailing of miserable sinners will not move God, for one who has rejected Jesus Christ and has despised his birthright will perish. And the one who despised Christ for the things of this world will weep and gnash his teeth forever in the lake of fire. 

By God’s grace we treasure Christ above all things. Perhaps we suffer the loss of all things, as Paul did; perhaps we suffer the loss of some things, as many Christians do, but we will never suffer the loss of the most important thing. We who have foregone money, earthly advantage, popularity, friends, and family for Christ’s sake will never lose the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, fellowship with God, and eternal life. We will never lose them because God has determined that we should inherit them: he has purchased them for us through the cross of his Son. And by his grace we cling to Christ, we look to him, and we never forsake him, even if it means the loss of everything else. 

For we who have lost the world for the sake of Jesus Christ have everything.


Martyn McGeown is a pastor in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is also the editor of the RFPA blog and the author of multiple RFPA publications.

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