What does the Bible phrase root of bitterness mean?

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The root of bitterness

The author of the Hebrews wrote, “looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). In this passage, the root of bitterness was a figurative expression for that which would bring harm to the body of Christ. 

The phrase root of bitterness is based on the LXX of Deuteronomy 29:18 which reads, “Make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.” The word “bitter” translated “gall” appears as “venom” in Deuteronomy 32:33, “poison” in Job 20:16, and “hemlock” in Hosea 10:4 (NKJV). 

Idolatry and strife

The above terms are suggestive of the bitter consequences of idolatry and rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 29:18). And in Hebrews 12:15, it seems to be a warning against any wicked person in the church who intentionally causes strife and contention among the members. It is usually a “root of bitterness” growing in the heart of an evil person that spikes into open rebellion against the spiritual leaders of the church and causes disunity among the brethren. 

Example in the Old Testament

The author of Hebrews presents Esau as an example of a person who had the root of bitterness (Genesis 25:27–34). Esau despised his birthright. To him, the only thing of value was the brief satisfaction of appetite; future spiritual blessings were uninteresting to him. In this, he showed himself to be a “profane [irreligious] person” (Hebrews 12:16). He had one goal in life and that is the gratification of his carnal desires.

Esau needed to realize that a child of God should be ready to lose all things in order that he may gain eternal life (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18; Philippians 3:7–15; Acts 20:24; Luke 20:34, 35; Hebrews 11:10). He sold his birthright for a dish of lentils and this revealed his unfitness to become heir to the gracious promises of God.  When Esau realized that he had lost his birth right “he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry” (Genesis 27:34). But he was beyond forgiveness, because his repentance was only sorrow for the results of his impulsive action, not for the action itself (Hebrews 12:16, 17). 

Example in the New Testament 

In the early church, we have another example to a person who had the root of bitterness. Peter told Simon the Sorcerer, “I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:23).  Peter saw Simon as rooted in bitterness and chained in sin. For Simon had allowed jealousy and covetousness to corrupt his mind. He permitted wickedness to become his way of life, until he was a captive to it. He did not value righteousness nor had a desire for holy things. He had goals and ambitions that didn’t rise higher than the material things of this world.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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