See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Hebrews 12:15)
The way I have typically heard this verse explained, the author is warning against the spiritual danger of harboring personal bitterness. Indeed, the Contemporary English Version interprets it this way in their “translation”: “Make sure that no one misses out on God’s wonderful kindness. Don’t let anyone become bitter and cause trouble for the rest of you.” Is that what the author meant to convey? Let’s look at the context.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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 12:15-17)
While some translations translate the Greek rhiza pikrias as “root of bitterness,” this is not the best translation. It is a genitive of apposition which is better translated as “bitter root.” This is similar to the difference between “ball of fire” and “fire ball” in English. The author, then, is not referring to a mental disposition, but the root of a tree. If the root is bitter, the fruit will be bitter as well. When the fruit is bitter, those who eat it become sick.
This analogy of a bitter root served the author’s point well. The context of the entire book is about the superiority of the New Covenant over the Mosaic Covenant. The author repeatedly warns his readers against going back to the Mosaic Law. He compares those in the Christian community who defected back to the Mosaic Covenant to a bitter root who could defile the community of believers by leading them toward his apostasy as well.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?… 32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. (Hebrews 10:26-29, 32-36)
The same message is found in the immediate context of Hebrews 12:15. The author reminded the readers of Esau, who gave up his birthright for something far less valuable, just like the Hebrews were giving up their inheritance in the New Covenant to revert to a covenant of types and shadows. Just like Esau could not get his birthright back, likewise the Hebrews – if they sold the New Covenant for an inferior covenant – could not return to the New Covenant of grace (which is why the author spoke of failing God’s grace).
The following translations bring out the point well:
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter root springing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. (NET)
See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (NIV)
Easy-to-Read Version as well: “Be careful that no one fails to get God’s grace. Be careful that no one loses their faith and becomes like a bitter weed growing among you. Someone like that can ruin your whole group.” (Easy to Read Version)
While there is no question that bitterness is spiritually dangerous to believers (2 Sam 2:26; Job 21:5; Eph 4:31; James 3:14), that is not what the author of Hebrews is referring to. His message is a message of warning to Christians not to apostatize by returning to the Mosaic Covenant. Those who do so, but remain in the community of Christians, become a bitter root in the community, defiling other Christians with their false doctrine.
Keep it in context….