Sermon Leftovers: Esau, The Blessing, and You
Hebrews 12, like the book as a whole, is built around the call to endure in the faith, even in the face of difficult circumstances around us. Look to Jesus who did this, the chapter begins. Remember God’s purpose in discipline. Stand strong and walk straight. And, as we’ll see next week, do all of this because of the eternal kingdom ahead of us. Standing in stark contrast to all of this, in the middle of the chapter, is the anti-hero, the example we’re decisively not to follow, Esau.
Esau’s story is an old story that has a lasting message, one that is entirely relevant to life in 2023 America. His example of seeking the gift and not the giver, of seeking immediate pleasure and not lasting joy is a cautionary tale not primarily for the world around us, but primarily for us who are in the church. The question is: will we be like the faithful ones of Hebrews 11, like Jesus Himself, who endured for what was lasting, or will we be like Esau, and walk away for the sake of an immediate and temporary pleasure?
We’ll get to that last question, but prior to that we need to consider Esau’s motives, and first, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the two verses about him in Hebrews 12:
In Hebrews 12:15, we read that we together (that is, the congregation as a whole) are to see to it, and then he lists three things that we are to see to: that no one fails to obtain the grace of God (v.15), that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble (v.15), and that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau (v.16–17). Let’s see those two verses in full:
(See to it . . . ) 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.Hebrews 12:16–17
You can read the whole story of Esau and Jacob and this incident in Genesis 25:19–34, but here’s a quick synopsis. Esau and Jacob were the twin sons of Isaac, the son of promise who was born to Abraham. Genesis 25 tells us in a brief account that one day when Esau came in from the field, exhausted and hungry, he asked Jacob for a meal. Jacob replied that he would give Esau food, provided that Esau exchanged his birthright for the meal. Esau answered, “I am about to die, of what use is a birthright to me?” His reply reminds me of a child, I am so hungry! I’m going die if I don’t get a snack! He wasn’t about to die, but he was very hungry, and so he sold his birthright for a quick meal, and he lost the blessing of the inheritance in the process.
HE DESIRED IMMEDIATE PLEASURE, AND NOT LASTING JOY
First, we need to see that Esau’s problem was that he desired something immediate, and not what was lasting. His problem was not that he desired pleasure—pleasure and joy were offered to him in the form of “the blessing” (the same as “his birthright”). His problem wasn’t that he desired joy or pleasure, his problem was that he sought gratification of that desire in the wrong place, in something that was far less than the fullness that was being offered to him. He sought gratification of that desire in an immediate pleasure (“a single meal”) instead of the lasting joy (“his birthright,” or the inheritance of “the blessing”).
This is probably one of the reasons why the writer of Hebrews equates this to sexual immorality in verse 16. “See to it … that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau.” Sexual immorality doesn’t factor in to the story in Genesis 25, but there are likely two reasons why it is included. The first is that Esau wrongly married two Hittite women, Judith and Basemath, who “made life bitter” for his parents Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 26:34–35). But the second reason is because the heart issue is the same: sexual immorality is seeking the immediate pleasure over the lasting joy.
Sexual pleasure is a good gift from God. In the context of a covenant marriage of one man and one woman, sex is meant to provide lasting pleasure and joy to the partners in marriage. The problem isn’t sexual pleasure, the problem is when we seek the immediate pleasure outside of the marriage relationship. The problem is when we seek pleasure through pornography, or through sex or sexual activity in any way apart from marriage, whether that be prior to marriage or in the form of an extra-marital affair. When we do that, we’re engaging in the same activity as Esau: we’re trading the lasting joy of sex in marriage for the immediate pleasure. And Hebrews is warning us, that trade has consequences. If we don’t repent—that is, if we don’t turn back in faith to God and seeking to follow His ways—its consequences are deadly.
HE DESIRED THE GIFT, AND NOT THE GIVER
Esau didn’t repent. This is the challenging part of the passage, not only because of the tragic ending of Esau’s story, but because of the difficulty in rightly understanding what Hebrews 12:17 is saying. Read these words again: “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 question that springs to mind is, Why couldn’t he repent? And the answer is, Because he didn’t want to repent.
What Esau desired was “to inherit the blessing,” not repentance. “He found no chance to repent” because what he sought was not repentance, but the blessing. That’s not clear in English, where it seems like the word “it” in “he sought it with tears” looks back to the near referent of “chance to repent.” By the English translation, it seems like Hebrews 12:17 is saying “he sought a chance to repent with tears.” But that’s not what was going on. The fact is, the word “it” refers to “the blessing.” That’s clear in the Greek wording, where “it” is a feminine-gendered pronoun that is tied to the feminine-gendered term “blessing”, and where it should be a masculine-gendered pronoun if “it” was tied to the masculine-gendered word “chance” in the phrase “chance to repent.”
Esau sought the blessing; he didn’t seek repentance. That is to say, he sought the gift, and not the giver. He wanted to enjoy the blessing, and not the relationship with his father, or the heavenly father. His tears were due to missing out on the blessing, the gift, not because he had broken relationship with the giver. Again, Esau only sought immediate pleasure, not a lasting joy.
WHO ARE WE FOLLOWING?
The question for us is, who are we following? Are we following in the path of Esau, or are we following in the path of the faithful of Hebrews 11?
Esau is the anti-Abraham, the anti-Sarah. They left the easy pleasure of their home on earth to live as strangers and exiles, seeking the lasting reward of the heavenly country (Hebrews 11:13–16). Esau is the anti-Moses. Moses chose to not “enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin,” refusing to be identified with Pharaoh’s household and all that came with it, and instead to be mistreated along with God’s people. He chose to deny himself the immediate pleasure and instead he sought the lasting joy, “for he was looking to the (true and lasting) reward” (Hebrews 11:24–26).
It’s not just that. Esau is also set in blunt contrast to Jesus himself. Jesus set aside the immediate pleasure of avoiding the cross and instead endured the cross, but he did so knowing that there would true joy on the other side (Hebrews 12:1–2). Jesus denied himself the immediate pleasure for the lasting and eternal joy, a joy that he invites us to share through persevering faith in him.
So who are we following? Are we trading eternal joy with Christ for the sake of a quick pleasure here on earth? Are we seeking an immediate pleasure in a way that is “unholy” like Esau, a way that is denying God and God’s good and holy path for our lives? If so, and if we do not repent and do not turn back to God, we’re in danger of reaping the same result as Esau. But if we repent, and if we seek Christ, what is offered to us is far beyond a fleeting pleasure; what is offered to us is the” better country,” “the reward,” “the joy set before (us)”, “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” “a lasting city…the city that is to come,” that is, what is offered to us is the eternal reward, where we’ll be with Christ, who is “at the right hand of God,” where there is “fullness of joy and pleasure forevermore.” (Hebrews 11:16; 11:26; 12:2; 12:28; 13:14; 10:12; and Psalm 16:11)
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.