24. Should There Be Second-Class Saints? (Hebrews 10:26-39)Related Media
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:19-25).
26 For if we deliberately2 keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, 27 but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies.3 28 Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.4 29 How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”5 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.6
32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession. 35 So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. 36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised. 37 For just a little longer and he who is coming will arrive and not delay. 38 But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him.7 39 But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls.8
A few weeks ago, one of my favorite high school teachers died. His name was Clyde Riddell. He was the teacher who once punished a fellow-student for watching me fly a paper airplane out the classroom window. His grades indicated that he had no time for such frivolity – so said Mr. Riddell. Whew! But that is not why I thought of Mr. Riddell in connection with this lesson. Mr. Riddell had the uncanny ability to flip some kind of switch, by which he could instantly change his mood and manner. He was a very jovial fellow, and so we laughed a lot in class. But at the very hint of losing control, he would immediately change his demeanor to a very stern disposition which tolerated no nonsense. I have to tell you that it worked – it worked well.
So what does Mr. Riddell possibly have to do with Hebrews 10? As I read this chapter (and chapter 6 as well), I am almost shocked at how the author of our text can change moods. He has just eloquently demonstrated the superiority of our Lord’s priestly ministry, and then he warmly urges us to draw near, hold fast, and help others (10:19-25). Then, almost out of the blue, his mood changes to a very sober one, and he sternly warns us of the consequences of rejecting and rebelling against God’s provision for our atonement (the forgiveness of our sins) in words that send chills up one’s spine.
This text, along with the first 12 verses of chapter 6, is the reason why I have put off teaching the Book of Hebrews for over 30 years. It would be dishonest of me if I did not confess that I have agonized over our text for this morning. One can understand how it is possible (even if unacceptable) for Christians of the Armenian persuasion to point to our text as proof that a genuine believer could reject Christ and therefore lose their salvation. This does not mean that we agree with them, for there are simply too many other texts which teach us that we are saved because God first chose us, and that our eternal security rests in His hands, not ours.
There are those with more Calvinistic convictions who explain our text differently. One group concludes that Hebrews 6 and 10 address those who are genuine Christians. This is surely consistent with the rest of the book, as I have attempted to demonstrate in my first message.9 They understand the “judgment” spoken of in our text as the severe earthly judgment that falls upon genuine believers as a result of their rebellion. I, too, believe that severe judgment does fall upon willfully wayward saints,10 and so I would agree, in part, with those who hold to this view. My problem is that the judgment described here sounds terribly “hellish” to me. I find it difficult to accept the conclusion that the author is limited to only warning Christians of severe earthly judgment.
Most of the strongly Calvinistic scholars appear to hold to the view that those warned in Hebrews 6 and 10 are those in the “close to faith, but not in the faith” category. They believe the warnings of Hebrews are addressed to those who have come close to faith, but who have not truly embraced it, those who have drawn near (so to speak), but not near enough. Thus, the author is viewed as strongly exhorting these folks to renounce their “faith” in the Mosaic Covenant (law-keeping) and fully embrace the salvation which has been achieved and offered in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Israel’s promised Messiah. Like these folks, I see the judgments described in our text as “hellish” – as the judgment which unbelievers will face for rejecting Christ. But unlike those who understand Hebrews in this way, I am uncomfortable with the conclusion that the author’s description of those addressed is limited to unbelievers who have come near to faith, but have not truly embraced it. Just as the judgment of our text appears “hellish” to me, so those being warned appear to be genuine believers. But how can genuine believers be warned about such judgment, since they are eternally secure? That, my friend, is the question we must seek to answer in this message.
Such was my dilemma as I struggled with this text, agonizing over its interpretation and (to be perfectly honest) what I was going to say to you about it. Providentially, I believe, this past week I read an email from a friend in the Middle East, one that some of you have also read, no doubt. He was trying to describe how those in the Middle East read the Bible differently from those of us who live in the West. The truth of Scripture, he assured us, does not change, but how easily and quickly we are able to grasp that truth of a particular passage is another matter. Thus, we Western thinkers often relish the precise, linear, logic of Paul that we find (for example) in the Epistle to the Romans. But we have greater difficulty with the less linear and more circular logic of folks like James (or even our Lord).
In pondering this, it occurred to me that my problem with Hebrews 10 (and with chapter 6 as well) is not merely with the text itself, but also with the way I am looking at it. I am looking at this text as a Christian living in America, where (until recently) Christian values and beliefs were respected, even if not embraced by the culture. Believers living in places where Christians are persecuted merely for trusting in Christ would approach this passage from a different perspective. And so what I am going to attempt to do is to view our text from a different perspective, one that I believe will enable me (and hopefully others) to see it as addressed to believers, yet with a warning about a judgment that is “hellish.” Let us all begin our study by asking the Spirit of God to make the message of this passage clear to our hearts and minds, in a way that is consistent with the teaching of the whole of Scripture. And – as our author has exhorted us – let us purpose to draw near, hold fast, and consider how to encourage others in their Christian walk.
The Big Picture
Up to this point, the author has been establishing the superiority of Christ and the New Covenant to the Old Covenant and its priesthood. There are several aspects of superiority. These are:
1. Christ is a better High Priest (after the order of Melchizedek) than that of Aaron and the many who made up the Levitical priesthood.
2. Through Christ, there is a better place of worship (in the heavens, at the right hand of the Father) than that which was possible in the tabernacle.
3. Through Christ, we have a better covenant (the New Covenant, inaugurated by Christ’s sacrificial death) with better promises than the Old Covenant.
4. Through Christ, we have an infinitely better sacrifice, the once-for-all sacrifice of a man (God-man) who was without sin, rather than the continual offering of animal sacrifices.
The result of this superior person and work of Messiah is that our sins can be forgiven once for all. As a part of this cleansing from sin, the believer also is granted a cleansed conscience, so that he or she may boldly approach God without fear (the fear of judgment which comes from guilt) or hesitation. In Hebrews 10:19-21, the work of Christ is summarized as the basis for the exhortation which is to follow:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, . . . (Hebrews 10:19-21, emphasis mine).
On the basis of Christ’s blood, shed on the cross of Calvary, we have the confidence to enter into God’s presence, where we find Him seated at the Father’s right hand as our Great High Priest. And so it is that the author can exhort us to take action in three areas:
22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near (Hebrews 10:22-25, emphasis mine).
Sobering Words of Warning
26 For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, 27 but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies. 28 Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).
“For” at the beginning of verse 26 indicates to us that the warnings of verses 26-31 are closely related to the exhortations of those verses which precede them. If the work of Christ is full and final, so that “there is no longer any [other] offering for sin” (10:18), then to reject the supreme and ultimate sacrifice of Christ is to leave oneself with no other means of forgiveness.
Think of Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael (born to him by Hagar) and Isaac (born to him by Sarah). God had clearly indicated to Abraham that the covenant which He had made with him was going to be fulfilled through Isaac, and not through Ishmael.11 Thus, we are not surprised to find that God instructed Abraham to send Ishmael away, so that Isaac became his only heir, and his only hope. There was nothing else for Abraham to fall back on, other than God’s promise to bless Abraham through his son, Isaac. This set the stage for his supreme test in Genesis 22, where God instructed him to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. So, too, when God sent His only Son to become the ultimate offering for sin, there could be no other sacrifice, no other way of salvation. To reject the Son and His sacrifice, then, would be the ultimate sin, and we would expect that the consequences would correspond in terms of gravity and severity – which I believe they do.
Allow me to call attention to the pronouns “we” and “us” which the author employs as he commences his warning in verse 26: “For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us.” The author includes himself – and I presume other believers – in his warning, which makes it difficult for me to see this as a warning only to unbelievers who have fallen short of coming to genuine faith. It appears to me to be a warning to believers in general. This would be consistent with the exhortations and warnings found elsewhere in the book.
The author warns of a specific kind of sin, rather than of sin in some more general sense. This specific sin is described for us in verse 26 as that which is conscious, deliberate, and persistent. This sin is committed in spite of the fact that the sinner had received the knowledge of the truth. Not only is this sin willful, it is also persistent and ongoing. In verse 29 we are given three more characteristics of this particular sin:
- It expresses contempt for the Son of God
- It profanes the blood of the covenant, the very blood that sanctified12 him
- It insults the Spirit of grace
Deliberate sin is not new to the readers of Hebrews. It was something for which the Old Testament sacrifices had no solution:
27 “‘If any person sins unintentionally, then he must bring a yearling female goat for a purification offering. 28 And the priest must make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally – when he sins unintentionally before the Lord – to make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. 29 You must have one law for the person who sins unintentionally, both for the native-born among the Israelites and for the resident foreigner who lives among them. 30 “‘But the person who acts defiantly, whether native-born or a resident foreigner, insults the Lord. That person must be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person must be completely cut off. His iniquity will be on him’” (Numbers 15:27-31).
I’ve always agonized over the difference between “unintentional” sins and “defiant” sins, though I believe that the distinction is very important. It surely was for an Old Testament Israelite! It spelled the difference between forgivable and unforgivable sins. So what is that difference? If “unintentional” meant “you didn’t mean to do it,” that would cover a very few sins, and would leave most of my sins without an offering.
I believe that a defiant sin was one that not only showed a disregard for the law, but also a disdain for the covenant, of which the law was an extension. A defiant sin would be one which was committed in deliberate disregard for God, for His covenant with Israel, and for His laws. It was an “in your face” sin against God.
As an aside, parents really need to distinguish between defiant disobedience and, let’s say, childish disobedience. Defiant disobedience is usually pretty obvious. After you have given the child a clear command (for example, “Don’t touch the electrical wall outlet.”), he or she looks you in the eye and puts their hand on the outlet. Such times need to be dealt with decisively, for the real issue is the child’s respect for parental authority.
Given the description of deliberate sin in verses 26 and 29 of our text, I would say that it is a disregard for Jesus Christ, for the blood which He shed at Calvary, and for the New Covenant which He inaugurated by His atoning sacrifice. Consequently, it insults the Spirit of grace – the Holy Spirit – who manifests Christ (and thus grace) to us in a way that brings glory to the Son.
Thus, deliberate or defiant sin could happen in several ways. First, it could happen when a person turned away from Christ, His church, and the New Covenant, to identify with unbelieving Judaism by looking to the Old Covenant and priestly sacrifices for right standing before God. If the New Covenant is perfect through the atoning work of Christ, making the Old Covenant and its sacrifices unacceptable to God, then what does it say of the Son of God and of the Holy Spirit when the provision of salvation by grace has been set aside in order to follow the ineffective rituals of unbelieving Judaism?
There is yet another way in which this deliberate and defiant kind of sin could occur, such that a Gentile could commit it. We find this sin addressed in Romans 6 and in 1 Peter 2:
Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves (1 Peter 2:16).
This is a deliberate sin that despises the person and work of Christ in another way. It does not deny the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work; it assumes it, and applies it in a way that deliberately and directly defies its intent. Christ died on the cross of Calvary to forgive us of our sins and to give us the power to live a new kind of life, so that we can have victory over sin:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).13
Some could show contempt for the Lord Jesus, profane the blood of Christ, and insult the Spirit of grace by defiantly persisting in sin, presuming that the shed blood of Jesus must cleanse us in such a way that Christ’s work does not defeat sin, but facilitates it.
The consequences of such defiance are spelled out in a way that should give the defiant sinner pause for thought. I believe that the author’s basis for the warnings he issues in verses 26-31 is set forth in verses 28 and 29:
28 Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:28-29)
The author draws upon this text in Deuteronomy 17:
2 “Suppose a man or woman is discovered among you – in one of your villages that the Lord your God is giving you – who sins before the Lord your God and breaks his covenant 3 by serving other gods and worshiping them – the sun, moon, or any other heavenly bodies which I have not permitted you to worship. 4 When it is reported to you and you hear about it, you must investigate carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thing is being done in Israel, 5 you must bring to your city gates that man or woman who has done this wicked thing – that very man or woman – and you must stone that person to death. 6 At the testimony of two or three witnesses they must be executed. They cannot be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. 7 The witnesses must be first to begin the execution, and then all the people are to join in afterward. In this way you will purge evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:2-7).
The sin committed here is that of idolatry – worshipping other gods. It is a sin by which the guilty one breaks his covenant with God and therefore the penalty is death. The author then argues this way: The Old Covenant was an inferior, ineffective covenant. It had its purpose in foreshadowing the New (and better) Covenant, and it served as an interim provision for the people of God. If defiant disregard for the Old Covenant warranted the death penalty, then how much greater must the penalty be for defiance with regard to Christ and the New Covenant? This is but another reason why I am inclined to understand the “judgments” spelled out in our text as those of eternal condemnation (or, more bluntly put, hell). So what are these judgments? We can see that they are spelled out in Old Testament terms, using the words of Old Testament texts, so that each indication of divine judgment is linked to the Old Testament. Are these folks tempted to think that “the old is better than the new”? Then let them listen to the words of the Old Testament, and see how they help to demonstrate that just as the New is better, so the judgments for rejecting the New are greater than those of the Old Covenant.
(1) “A fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies” (Hebrews 10:27; Isaiah 26:11). This text in Isaiah contrasts the gracious deliverance God gives to His people with the judgment God will bring upon His enemies. George H Guthrie, citing Paul Ellingworth,14 speaks of this as “God’s reckoning with the sinners’ defiant rebellion against his grace.”15 Guthrie goes on to state,
The context of that Old Testament passage is suggestive since it depicts a contrast between the righteous, who walk in the ways of God and long for his presence, and the wicked, who go on doing evil in spite of God’s grace toward them. The former look forward to the judgments of God on the earth; the latter belong to the ranks of God’s enemies, for whom the fire is reserved.16
(2) “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and “The Lord will judge his people” (Hebrews 10:30; Deuteronomy 32:35-36). These words speak of God’s wrath that He will pour out upon His people for experiencing His grace and yet turning to worship other gods.17 It could be, then, that these words initially spoke of the coming defeat of Israel and Judah, and of the cruel treatment they will receive at the hands of their enemies for their sin. Some (whom I greatly respect) would see it this way. But we must remember that in the immediately preceding verses in Hebrews (10:28-29), the author has argued from the lesser to the greater: “If the sins of rejecting the Old Covenant merited such fearful (earthly?) judgment, then how much greater (eternal?) judgment will those receive who reject the New Covenant? I must confess that while I have the greatest regard for those who think the judgment here is God’s severe temporal judgment on true, but willfully wayward, believers, I can’t shake the sense that the judgment described is eternal (damnation).
(3) “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). This is not really an Old Testament citation or allusion, but it certainly does summarize the essence of what the Old Testament citations have indicated. Those who willfully reject God’s New Covenant in Christ and persist in their sin, knowing the dangers and threatened outcome, will fall into the hands of the living God when He brings judgment on His enemies.
Words of Encouragement and Exhortation
32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession. 35 So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. 36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised. 37 For just a little longer and he who is coming will arrive and not delay. 38 But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him. 39 But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls (Hebrews 10:32-39).
Suddenly and unexpectedly (very much like I experienced when I sat as a student under Mr. Riddell), the author ceases his stern warning and speaks words of encouragement. The author ceases to employ the “we”/“our” pronouns and the less direct references to willful sinners, and addresses his readers directly (“you”). He did not have to hold before his readers the example set by others; all he needed to do was to remind them of their own faithfulness in the midst of substantial persecution in the past.18
The persecution they endured was intense, as we can well see, but there was more severe persecution coming as the author indicates in chapter 12:
You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin (Hebrews 12:4).
They may not have shed any blood in the past, but it seems as though that will come before long. But their suffering was sufficient to reveal their faithfulness.
I am reminded of a conversation a friend of mine had with a persecuted saint from another part of the world. He asked this lovely believer how much persecution the church was enduring where he lived. The man replied, “Just enough.” What he meant by this was that it was just enough persecution to cause the uncommitted to abandon the church. The true believers now stood out, because the rest were not willing to endure persecution.
I think we could say that the persecution of these Hebrew saints was “just enough” to prove the sincerity of their faith and their perseverance in the midst of their suffering. “After they were enlightened”19 – that is, after they came to faith in Jesus – they began to experience persecution, though we are not certain of the exact nature of their suffering. The nature of their suffering and of their response is surely encouraging. They suffered public ridicule and because they did not shrink back from associating with other believers;20 they suffered on account of this identification.
I have a good friend in a foreign country who has chosen to visit a fellow-believer who is on death row. All appearances are that this is the result of a conspiracy, police corruption, and prejudice. The very fact that he continues to visit this condemned man means that he could suffer for doing so. Isn’t the fear of suffering because of their association with an alleged enemy of the state the reason why the disciples scattered21 and Peter denied knowing Jesus?
The result of their identification with fellow believers was that they suffered not only public ridicule but the loss of their property. They willingly suffered the loss of their worldly goods, assured that true riches awaited them in heaven. This truth reminds me of Peter’s words in his first epistle:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold – gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away – and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith – the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).
This brings us to verse 35, where the author begins to exhort his readers once again. They are strongly urged not to throw away their confidence, which has great reward (a truth that sustained them in their previous persecution – see verse 34). As they persevered in the past, so they now need to endure so that they will do God’s will and receive the blessings He has promised to those who remain faithful. The statement in verse 36 is buttressed by these words from Habakkuk that are cited in verses 37 and 38:
37 For just a little longer and he who is coming will arrive and not delay. 38 But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him (Hebrews 10:37-38; Habakkuk 2:3-4).
The prophet Habakkuk called to God to judge the wicked in Judah, for it appeared as though they were getting away with their sin (Habakkuk 1:1-4). God answers the prophet’s prayer for judgment by indicating that judgment is coming soon, as He employs the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to overcome His people (1:5-11). Habakkuk is horrified to think that God would use those who are more wicked than his own people to judge them. He reminds God of their cruelty. The prophet will wait, with his hands on his hips (so to speak), to hear God’s response – one which he fully intends to challenge (1:12—2:1). God instructs Habakkuk to write down His answer so that others can easily read it. This vision of judgment is future, but it is certain. It is true that the enemy is wicked and arrogant; and thus the righteous are those who must live by faith, enduring the difficult days of divine discipline, and looking for the days when God will restore His people to their land and to His blessings. The righteous must persevere, for God finds no pleasure in those who shrink back in times of adversity.
Days of great judgment are once again soon to come upon the Jewish people. These are days when God will once again use a wicked Gentile nation (Rome) to judge His people for their sins (rejecting their Messiah). The righteous are to persevere in these difficult days, assured that God will take pleasure in their faithfulness, and thus they will receive an eternal reward. Shrinking back is not an option, for it brings with it God’s displeasure.
This chapter ends with these final words of encouragement:
But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls (Hebrews 10:39).
The author once again includes his Hebrew readers with himself and others (“we”), assuring them that they are not among those who shrink back to judgment, but are those who persevere by faith, and in so doing, preserve their souls. Whatever warning has been issued, the author has confidence that his readers, like himself, will endure, to the preservation of their souls. He is not dangling his readers over the pit, seeking to produce fear, but is seeking to strengthen their faith.
These last words which speak of having faith that leads to endurance are the perfect segue to the next chapter, which provides the readers with ample definition and examples of what this faith is to look like in the hard times.
The major issue facing the student of Scripture is how he or she will resolve the tensions which this text presents. We must decide whether those being strongly warned are true believers or not. I simply must take the descriptions given as those of true believers. As much as I respect the character, scholarship, and theology of those who see these people as Hebrews who have attached themselves to the church, but have not truly come to faith, I just can’t agree with their conclusion.
We must likewise decide whether the judgment that is described is eternal or temporal, disciplinary or eternal judgment (hell). I greatly respect and admire those who see this as earthly, temporal discipline. I understand that they do not wish to “water down” the severity of judgment that is threatened. But I just can’t set aside the “hellish” feel to the warnings.
These two conclusions: (1) that those warned are true Christians; and, (2) that the judgment described is eternal condemnation would seem to put me in an untenable position theologically since I also believe that the Scriptures clearly teach the eternal security of the believer. How, then, do I resolve the tension? Here is my best response (and one that I realize some will not find acceptable):
First of all, if the person and work of Jesus surpasses anything that we find in the Old Testament (and beyond), and if the work of Christ sets aside any other sacrifice for sin, then to reject Christ and His atoning work at Calvary leaves one without any hope of salvation, but rather necessitates eternal judgment. This is the logic of the author’s argument. The person and work of Jesus is so good that there is no substitute, no alternative. One must either trust in Christ and be saved or reject Him and face eternal judgment.
Second, the worth of Christ’s person and work is to be measured not only in terms of what it produces for those who accept it, but also in terms of the consequences for those who reject it. The magnitude of the judgment for rejecting Christ (and the reward for trusting Him) is an indication of the worth of His person and work.
Third, believers in Jesus can learn from God’s judgment of the lost. Expressed in more general terms,
Flog a scorner, and as a result the simpleton will learn prudence;
correct a discerning person, and as a result he will understand knowledge (Proverbs 19:25).
The certainly of the judgment of the wicked may not turn the wicked from his ways, but it does have an impact on others who are more inclined to listen and to learn. Being reminded of the fate of those who reject Christ is one way of encouraging believers to remain faithful.
Fourth, when one comes to a turning point in life, it is helpful to be informed as to where each path leads. I am reminded of the first chapter of Proverbs, where the author sets before a young man the two paths he must choose between, spelling out the characteristics and consequences of each. So, too, I am thinking of Romans 6, which follows Paul’s declaration that where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more.22 The question is then raised,
1 What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? 2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
Paul will argue on the assumption that his readers are believers and that they have been baptized. He then reminds them of what their baptism symbolized. When they were saved, the Holy Spirit baptized them, uniting them with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. When Christ died, they died to sin and its penalty. When Christ rose from the dead, they rose in Him to newness of life. How, then, Paul reasons, can those who died to sin (in Christ) continue to live in sin? When Paul presses the application, he reminds his readers that to be on the path of sin is to be on the path that leads to death, but to be on the path of grace by faith in Jesus is to be headed to eternal life (Romans 6:23).
One can look at life as a fork in the road, with two paths before him. He needs to know where each path leads in order to make the right choice. This he will find in Proverbs 1. We might also look at life as one path that leads in opposite directions. Let’s say that the “path” is the highway between Dallas, Texas and Fort Worth. One will not get to Fort Worth by going east on this freeway, but only by going west. If one wants to get to Fort Worth and they are headed in the wrong direction, they need to be told where their travels will take them. Hebrews 10 tells the readers what the outcome of going east will be, exhorting them to continue in the same direction they set out when they began their journey. And thus (as I see this text), the author can be speaking to genuine saints and yet warn them of the fate of the lost who chose to reject Christ rather than to trust in Him with perseverance. Those warned can be believers, and the judgment can be eternal punishment, meted out at the return of Christ. Thanks to the grace of God, they will not be allowed to follow this path to its final outcome – eternal torment.
Having said this, let me spell out some implications and applications of our text to which nearly all Christians should agree. Even if you interpret the text differently than I do, I believe that you will agree our text teaches us these lessons:
Our author assumes, as does the rest of Scripture, that suffering is a part of the normal Christian life:
“Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too’” (John 15:20).
Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Our author assumes that while Christians will suffer in this life, they will persevere because their heavenly rewards are certain, and their eternal destiny is secure:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold – gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away – and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy (1 Peter 1:3-8).
A deeper understanding of the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ is the ground and basis for our faith and perseverance. We know that we are saved and secure through the high priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. He not only died to save us, He now mediates on our behalf at the right hand of the Father in heaven. He is always available to help us in our time of need. This we learn more emphatically in Hebrews than from any other New Testament book.
As I pondered this truth (that our salvation and security are the result of Christ’s work), I came to better understand why the author was unwilling to leave his readers untaught regarding the deeper dimensions of Christ’s person and work (see Hebrews 5:11—6:3ff.). We desperately need to understand how Christ’s priesthood is of the order of Melchizedek, and not of the order of Aaron for this is the foundation for salvation and for godly living.
Greater knowledge of Christ’s person and work makes us more responsible to act accordingly (see Luke 12:45-48). When we have come to understand what the author of Hebrews is saying, we are all the more culpable for turning from these truths.
Suffering is no excuse for our silence (regarding our identification with Christ). How easy it is to “clam up” when speaking out for Jesus is not only unpopular, but the source of persecution. The persecution that these saints faced in the past was public ridicule. But the actions of the Hebrew saints that were praised – and that will be called for once again – are public acts. Is it any wonder that the first act of obedience for the new believer is public baptism? Now in our church we have a baptistery, and often friends and family will come to witness the baptism of a believer. And often, too, there is the clapping of hands after each baptism, an expression of joy and appreciation. Be that as it may, the baptisms we see in the New Testament were not privately conducted in a church baptistery, witnessed only by believers. Baptism then and now (especially in countries where the gospel is despised and opposed) often brings opposition and persecution. In some instances, the one who professes faith in Christ is tolerated, but when they are baptized, they may be shunned by their family or even killed. The Scriptures do not speak of silent Christians, but of Christians who almost immediately upon conversion publicly identify themselves with Christ and with His church, even in times of opposition and persecution.
If one is not drawing near, he is drifting away. Recently a U. S. Airways Airbus 320 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, headed for Charlotte, North Carolina. Minutes into its flight, it was forced to ditch in the Hudson River. What was fascinating to me was to watch the plane drift down river, caught in the flow of the current. When you are afloat in a river, you either move forward against the current, or you drift backward with it. The spiritual life is like that. Drifting away is the result of doing nothing. We are exhorted to “draw near” to God, and if we fail to do so, we will drift. If silence is not tolerated, neither is passivity in the Christian life.
Carnal Christianity is not an acceptable option. There are those who would argue that it is impossible for anyone to be a carnal Christian. By whatever you may wish to call it, such people are not making progress in their faith. They are not growing in their understanding of Scripture; they are not becoming more intimate with Christ in their worship. I believe that some of the Hebrews who read this epistle were content with carnality. The author’s words were meant to shock them into realizing how dangerous such a condition really is. And lest we think that it is only our author who speaks so strongly against “second-class Christianity,” listen to these words of our Lord to the carnal saints at Laodicea:
14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write the following:
“This is the solemn pronouncement of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the originator of God’s creation: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot! 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth! (Revelation 3:14-16)
Moving forward in our faith sometimes requires looking back. The author of Hebrews challenges his readers to look back on days gone by, days when they suffered for their faith and endured, joyfully. The same backward look is encouraged for the saints at Ephesus:
2 ‘I know your works as well as your labor and steadfast endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have even put to the test those who refer to themselves as apostles (but are not), and have discovered that they are false. 3 I am also aware that you have persisted steadfastly, endured much for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you: You have departed from your first love! 5 Therefore, remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place – that is, if you do not repent (Revelation 2:2-5).
Do you remember the joy you first had as a new believer and your eagerness to tell others about Jesus? Do you remember your hunger for reading God’s Word and for gathering together with other Christians? Then be encouraged by your own example in days gone by, and seek to be like that once again.
I thought I was finished with this lesson, but a few final thoughts have come to mind which I would like to share with you. They have to do with how we handle difficult texts such as that found in Hebrews 6 and Hebrews 10. Consider these thoughts as I conclude:
I don’t let isolated texts of Scripture become the basis for some new doctrine which sets aside the clear teaching of many other texts of Scripture. I interpret the problem texts of the Bible in light of the clear and emphatic teaching of God’s Word. Difficult texts are not to be the “jumping off place for exotic (false) teaching”:
14 Therefore, dear friends, since you are waiting for these things, strive to be found at peace, without spot or blemish, when you come into his presence. 15 And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, 16 speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures (2 Peter 3:14-16).
I let difficult texts remind me that I am “under” God’s Word and not “over” it. Put differently, I am not in control of God’s Word; it is in control of me.
Why should I expect to understand every bit of God’s Word when He is the One who is infinitely wise, and I am finite? Further, why should I agonize about a problem text when I will have all eternity to ask God about it?
Finally (and I must admit this one made me smile when it came to my mind), my struggles with Hebrews 6 and this text in chapter 10 helped me to identify with the Hebrew recipients of this epistle. I was reminded of the author’s words in chapter 5:
11 On this topic [of Christ and His relation to Melchizedek] we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).
Am I struggling with this text? Does it cause my eyes to glaze over? Then this text does the same thing to me that the author’s earlier words did to the first Hebrew readers. I dare not feel smug or look down my nose at the first recipients of this epistle. I must remember that I am like them and desperately need to deal with the deeper things of God’s Word, so that I can appreciate the greatness of Christ and His work, and trust Him more fully and more consistently.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 24 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 25, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 See Numbers 15:27-31.
3 Isaiah 26:11; see also 33:14.
4 Deuteronomy 17:2-7; 13:8.
5 Deuteronomy 32:35-36.
6 See 2 Samuel 24:14.
7 Isaiah 26:20 and Habakkuk 2:3-4.
8 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org
10 See, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, especially verse 5.
11 See Genesis 17:9-21.
12 When I look at the way this word “sanctified” is used in 10:10 and 14, I find it very difficult to think of the one sanctified as someone who has not truly been saved.
13 See also Romans 6:1-14; 7:6; Galatians 2:19.
14 Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 534-535.
15 George H. Guthrie, Hebrews – The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 356.
16 Guthrie, p. 356.
17 See Deuteronomy 32:21.
18 No one really knows with certainty just what the time or circumstances of this persecution (the city, the political ruler, etc.) was, but that is not necessary. The author has provided ample detail, and the readers certainly did not need to be reminded of the particulars.
19 See verse 32. This same term is found in Hebrews 6:4 of those being warned. Here in chapter 10 is seems almost undeniable that the author is using this in reference to the salvation of those he is addressing. Thus, when this same term is employed in chapter 6, it is almost impossible for me to conceive of the author as speaking of those folks as unbelievers who came close, but not close enough to truly believe.
20 This does further clarify the exhortation “not to forsake their assembling together” (10:25), does it not? To associate with the church in times of persecution could be costly in several ways.
21 And later went into hiding (see John 20:26).
22 Romans 5:20.