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Hebrews 12:16

ESV that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
NIV See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.
NASB that there be no sexually immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal.
CSB And make sure that there isn't any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for a single meal.
NLT Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal.
KJV Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.

What does Hebrews 12:16 mean?

In this passage, Christians are instructed to maintain a Christ-honoring lifestyle, even in the face of persecution (Hebrews 12:3–4). Earlier verses commanded believers to seek peace and personal holiness (Hebrews 12:14). This section also warned against those who defy God and corrupt others as a result (Hebrews 12:15). Whether a troublemaker is not actually saved, or a believer who rebels, their presence creates corruption and interferes with others' ability to "run the race" given them by God (Hebrews 12:1).

This verse continues by cautioning against what seem to be two separate problems: sexual immorality and ungodliness. Sexual sin is a frequent topic of biblical warnings. Few sins are as tempting, pervasive, or damaging as those related to sex. This is why Scripture so often commands Christians to maintain sexual purity (Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 6:18; Ephesians 5:3). Christians are not immune to temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), so we need to be vigilant about what we say and do.

Separately, the writer refers to Esau and his careless treatment of his own birthright. As the oldest son (Genesis 25:24–26), Esau would have been entitled to various benefits. And yet, his actions show that he did not take this blessing seriously (Genesis 25:34), as mentioned in this verse. The event referenced here occurred when Esau sold his birthright to his younger twin brother, Jacob (Genesis 25:29–33). Hungry or not, manipulated or not, Esau should not have treated his birthright in such a flippant way.

Of course, the more valuable an object is, the more respectful of it we ought to be. Esau's view of his birthright showed disinterest, disrespect, and negligence. That's rightly seen as something despicable. When a person applies that same attitude towards God, it's infinitely worse. The Greek word used here is bebēlos, a word which also means profane, or, as in some translations, unholy.

This is a key point made in chapter 12. This passage commended holiness—then referred to Esau's reckless, casual attitude as something unholy. That parallels earlier warnings not to be careless (Hebrews 2:1), lazy (Hebrews 5:11–14), or defiant (Hebrews 10:26–31) when it comes to our faith. As the following verse indicates, Esau's recklessness resulted in a loss of blessing (Genesis 27:36–37). This, again, reinforces earlier warnings given in the book of Hebrews about the loss Christians suffer when they disobey (Hebrews 3:7–11; 4:11).
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