Sunday, May 29, 2022

How heaven helps us to hold on (Hebrews 10:32-39)

Everything in this paragraph points to the last part of verse 34, and to the reality which had animated the lives of these Hebrew Christians in the past, and to which our author was calling them again: “knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.” It is what they are called to remember (32), what they are called to cast not away (35), and that for which they are called to endure (36-37). It is a part of the future grace (to use a favorite phrase of John Piper) to which our faith is directed (38-39). It is the central thesis of the passage. It is around this reality that all the exhortations, either explicit or implicit, hang. Heaven helps us to put things in perspective, which is the burden of verses 32- 34. It strengthens and makes meaningful our confidence in Christ (35). It creates patience for the way (36-37). It inspires a faith that endures (38-39).

Note that our author keeps coming back to this. What he calls “heaven” in verse 34, he calls the “great recompense of reward” in verse 35, “the promise” in verse 36, and “the saving of the soul” in verse 39. All of these things are pointing back to this “better and an enduring substance.”

And they all tell us something very important about heaven. In particular, note those two words: better and enduring. We’ve noted throughout Hebrews that there is this running comparison throughout the letter showing that Christ is better than the angels, Moses, Joshua, the high priest, and the sacrificial system of the Levitical priesthood. But here it is heaven that is called better. Of course, it is better surely because Christ is there (cf. Phil. 1:23).

It is also called enduring. It goes without saying, that without the “better” part, the “enduring” part wouldn’t be good at all! But heaven is a place of eternal and increasing blessing and joy and happiness. When everything else has passed away, heaven will still be beautiful and glorious and breath-takingly wonderful. It will never grow old or become boring or desolate. There will always be a newness to it. It will never become a place from which you would want to leave. When I was in grad school in Texas, I knew of a guy who lived in Hawaii who desperately wanted a job at my school. At first I wondered, “Why would a guy in Hawaii want so badly to live in Texas?” I mean, I liked my town, but I couldn’t imagine why someone would want to change addresses from Hawaii to Texas! And then he explained: as great as Hawaii is, it is still a tiny island many miles away from the mainland, and eventually it wears on you. And he was far away from family and it was always a big undertaking just to visit. It underlines the fact that there is no place in this world that is like heaven. Eventually, some aspect of the fallenness of this world will catch up with you. But in heaven, the fall will be a long-forgotten memory.

In addition to this, this paragraph underlines several other important features of heaven.

Heaven is a reward (35)Now we shouldn’t take this to mean that we deserve heaven, as if heaven is given to those who merit it. Heaven is indeed a “great recompense of reward,” but not in the sense of “you earned it” (cf. Rom. 4:1-5). Nevertheless, that does not mean that we shouldn’t see heaven in terms of reward, since the Bible does this repeatedly. It refers to it in terms of the “prize of the high calling of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). The apostle tells Timothy as he is awaiting his death, that “there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Our Lord tells us in the Beatitudes, that when the saints suffer, they should “Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Mt. 5:12).

Heaven is indeed a gift of grace, but we must recognize that it is also a reward given to those who endure. We endure by grace as well, so in the end, it is just God crowning his own work. I think William Tyndale put it best, when he wrote, “All that I do and suffer is but the way to the reward, and not the deserving thereof.”i That is the way to look at it: the doing and the suffering of the Christian is the way to the reward, but not the meriting of the reward (cf. Acts 14:22). It is a reward in the sense that it follows the finishing of a life of faith, just as the crown follows the finishing of a race.

It is also called a reward in part because it is so desirable. It will be an eternally pleasing refreshment of the soul after life’s long combat with sin. It is called “rest” in Hebrews 4. It is worth enduring all that this fallen world throws our way, and with Moses, to choose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season: esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26).

Heaven is a promise (36). “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began” (Tit. 1:2). In the next chapter, we read of the “heirs of promise” (Heb. 11:9) who “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (10). Indeed, “now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (16). Unlike man’s promises, God’s are never characterized by deceit (heaven will be exactly what he says it will be) or by a failure to follow through (all to whom God promises heaven will get there). This means that heaven is not only a reward, but it is a sure reward.

Heaven is the place where our salvation will be finally realized. There is a real and true sense in which we can say that we have been saved (cf. Eph. 2:8). But there is also a true and real sense in which we can say that we are not yet saved (cf. Rom. 13:11). We are not yet saved in the sense of being perfected and in the presence of Christ in heaven. We are not yet glorified. This is the sense here. When we are told of them “that believe to the saving of the soul” we are meant to see this in terms of future and final salvation. One way to see this is the contrast between salvation and perdition in verse 39. In the Bible, perdition is used to refer to the end of Judas (Mt. 17:12). It is used to describe the non-elect, “vessels for destruction” in Rom. 9:22. In Phil. 3:19-20, Paul contrasts those whose end is “destruction” or perdition with those whose citizenship is in heaven. In 2 Thess. 2:3, it describes the end of the antichrist. So over and over again we see this word used in reference to final and eternal destruction. Hence, to be saved here is a reference to final and eternal salvation. Heaven is the goal of our salvation. God is bringing us to himself and that means bringing us to heaven where we will see his glory in ways that we have never yet experienced or can in this present mortal clod even imagine.

It is in light of this reality that we are called to live. There are four ways in this text that we are encouraged to respond to it.

Look at your sufferings in light of eternity (32-34).

He tells his readers to “call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were enlightened, ye endured a great fight of afflictions: partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions, and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used. For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.” Here he is referring to their past, when, shortly after their conversion they had begun to endure a lot of suffering for the cause of Christ. They had suffered the loss of property and possessions. Things had been unjustly and unlawfully taken from them. And there was nothing they could do about it. Also, they had lost their reputations – they had become a gazingstock (“publicly exposed to ridicule” as translated by William Laneii). They were reproached. Like their Savior, they were despised and rejected by men. To lose your stuff is one thing, but to lose your name along with it is altogether another level of loss. But that was not all: some of them at least had suffered imprisonment.iii Think about what this means: many of them had lost their possessions, their reputations, and their freedom, at least for a time. This is not a little thing. And they had endured all this tremendous amount of pain and suffering as a result of their faith in Christ.

But note how they had endured all this: not with moaning and groaning, not with a “woe is me” attitude, not with a bitter and miserable and accusatorial spirit. With reference to themselves, we are told that they “took joyfully the spoiling of your goods”! (That seems very strange indeed!) But that is not all: with reference to others who suffered, there was this remarkable and admirable selflessness and caring, a genuine Christlikeness (the verb “had compassion” in verse 34 is the same used of Jesus in Heb. 4:15, to “be touched”) for they “became companions of them that were so used” and “had compassion” on those who were imprisoned. In doing so, they exposed themselves to further persecution and ridicule.

Contrast this with where they were at now. Like Job, the sufferings had worn them down. They no longer had this exuberant faith, and they were now willing to consider the possibility of leaving a commitment to Jesus for the comfort and security of another religion that would not expose them to any more persecution. So the question is, how do you take people that have gotten into this condition and turn them around?

The author does this, not only by warning them of the dangers of apostasy (see previous verses), but also by reminding them how they had held up in the past and by encouraging them to keep doing what they had already done (a “You can do it!” type of motivation): “knowing that in yourselves ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.” They needed to regain a proper perspective, in other words; they needed to look at their sufferings in light of eternity. Whatever you might lose, you can’t lose heaven. And whatever you presently have or might have in the future here on earth, heaven is infinitely better. In other words, if you belong to Christ, people can take away your earthly possessions, but no one can take away your most precious possession, which is in heaven. No one can take away your life in Christ. No one can take away your place in heaven. No one can take away the love that the Father has for you. You can only lose that which isn’t going to last anyway. But you can’t lose that which will last forever and is infinitely superior to every earthly possession.

In the same way, we need to keep this eternal perspective. It is so easy to become focused on the hard things we are going through so that we forget all that God has promised to give us, and which will certainly be ours, not because of what we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us. Whatever we might gain or lose in this world, this is always true of the child of God: they have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.

Don’t cast away your confidence in light of the reward (35)

“Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.” The confidence here does not mean confidence in ourselves, which is what our culture is constantly preaching at us to get and maintain. Now of course, I don’t mean to imply that a total lack of self-confidence is a good thing. Not at all. But self-confidence is not what you need to endure through the rough and difficult patches of life. What we need, when the bottom seems to fall out, and when all earthly hope is gone, is confidence in God and in his only-begotten Son. Go back up a few verses, to verse 19. The word “boldness” there is the same word as “confidence” here. But you will note that our boldness to enter in and to draw near to God is not based on who we are or what we have done, but completely on the basis of “the blood of Jesus Christ.” It’s not self-confidence that is commended here, but Christ-confidence.

So this not only tells us what the basis of our confidence is, but also what our confidence is in: it is in the fact that we have access to God through Christ. We don’t want to throw away that confidence, which is what we will do if we walk away from Jesus. Jesus is the only way to the Father. He is the curtain through which we enter into the Most Holy Place (cf. 20). He is the door of the sheep (Jn. 10:7). No one comes to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6).

Now, we want to be careful that we don’t make faith somehow the ground of our salvation. We are not saved because our faith – even faith in Christ! – makes us worthy. We are saved totally on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ. I think one of the most important passages in this regard is Rom. 4:5, that God justifies the ungodly. This is the reason for Martin Luther’s memorable phrase describing the Christian: we are simul justus et peccator (“at the same time just and sinful”). We are simultaneously righteous and sinful, except that the righteousness here is not ours but Christ’s, whereas the sinfulness is not Christ’s but ours.

Nevertheless, we don’t want to go into the other ditch, either. Saying that faith is not the basis of our justification does not warrant saying that faith has nothing to do with justification. The Bible says over and over and over and over again that we are justified through faith. Paul said that we believe that we might be justified (Gal. 2:16). Faith is not the ground, but it is the means by which we are justified. God is pleased, in other words, to justify those who believe in his Son. This is the reason why our Lord himself said, “He that believeth on him [on the Son] is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (Jn. 3:18).

Hence, what the author of Hebrews is saying here is that if you walk away from Jesus, if you tread him under foot and count the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, then you are casting away your confidence in him. And in doing so, the implication of the rest of this verse is that you don’t get the reward. You cannot have the reward if you don’t have Christ. And if you don’t have faith in Christ, if you consciously and purposefully reject the gospel, then you can’t have the confidence or the reward. There is no salvation for those who are unbelievers.

Of course, the motivation here is primarily positive: think of the reward! Those who trust in Christ will never be ashamed (cf. Rom. 10:11). Our confidence in him can never be misplaced. So don’t cast it away (cf. Heb. 3:6, 14).

Be patient in light of the promise (36-37)

“For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.”

The patience to which we are exhorted here is not primarily a psychological state of mind. Rather, it is a lifestyle of endurance in obedience to God. That is what we need. We need to endure. Why? Because it is through enduring in a life of obedience and faith that we receive the promise, the promise of a city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God.

The promise is that which will come to fruition at the Second Coming. This is almost certainly what is being referred to here in verse 37. Who is “he that shall come”? It is Christ. When will he come? When he comes again, of course! We need to be like the Thessalonian Christians who were waiting “for [God’s] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).

Why can we wait? How can we endure? These questions are especially critical when we are going through the furnace of tribulation and affliction, especially for Christ’s sake. And the answer is two-fold. First, those who endure receive the promise. Like Abraham, of whom it was said, “And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise” (Heb. 6:15). In the same way, we are encouraged to “be not slothful, but followers of them who trough faith and patience inherit the promises” (12). Endurance is the path to the promise. The promise of eternal life and glory is attached to endurance through suffering – again, not in terms of merit but in terms of the way to it. As the apostle Paul put it to the Roman Christians, that we are “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Rom. 8:17). And then there is the fact that the promise is worth whatever suffering we must go through to get there. If you keep reading in Romans 8, you get to the next verse: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (18).

The second step to the answer is that the promise is sure. How do we know it? Because God keeps his promises. He has already brought his Son into the world to be the redeemer of sinful men and women. So we can be sure that the Coming One will come and will not tarry. Again, if you bank your life on the promises of God, who are not making a gamble. You will never be disappointed.

Live by faith in light of the saving of the soul (38-39)

In verse 38, the author quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 (he had just quoted from Hab. 2:3 in the previous verse). It is a text that the apostle Paul uses many times in his epistles in order to illustrate the principle of justification by faith. However, here the point is that the just, the saints, are characterized by lives of persevering faith. Those who have faith are also faithful. They live by faith; they are not “of them who draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (39). God is not pleased with those who draw back, who apostatize. As we will see in the next chapter, without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6). Note that this is not just saying that unbelief means that God is not pleased with what we do, but that he is not pleased with the unbeliever: “my soul shall have no pleasure in him” (10:38), something that is clearly not true of God’s children. Those who are united to Christ by faith are united to him of whom the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). And being united to him, we also become in him those with whom the Father is well pleased.

And as we will also see from the next chapter, this faith is primarily future oriented. Now of course there is a very important past dimension to our faith. We look back to the cross. We look back to God’s purpose of redemption in eternity. We look back to God’s works in history. But, as it is put in 11:1, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) does not mean that we live with our eyes closed to reason and evidence. All it means is that we are meant to live in light of God’s future promise, and that our faith is fixed on that. We don’t yet see it, but faith connects us to God’s promise now and gives present substance to that which is yet in the future. This is how we are to live. This is what is supposed to define and flavor our lives as Christians.

Again, it is important to point out that our faith terminates, not in ourselves, but in God and in his Son. In faith, we don’t look to ourselves. Faith is not a mirror in which we look back at our works and worthiness. Rather, faith is that by which we see the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ and rest in him. And God is pleased to create this faith in his elect so that by faith they taste and see the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ. For those who believe, who look outside of themselves to Christ, God is pleased to grant his own righteousness to their account so that they are no longer condemned but justified. And he is also pleased, not only to give them this faith, but to keep them in it. This is why the text says that we “believe to the saving of the soul.” Not because believing itself saves but because Jesus Christ sovereignly saves those to whom he gives this faith.

So faith looks to heaven as it looks to Christ. We don’t look to ourselves. We don’t glory in ourselves. We don’t trust in ourselves. We don’t boast or have confidence in the flesh. Let the one who glories, glory in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31).

So the hope of heaven ought to create in us these four things: an eternal perspective, a prized confidence in Christ, patient endurance for the promise, and future-oriented faith and faithfulness. A Christian is not a person who lives for the present but a person who lives in light of his or her hope in Christ. The question is, do we? Do the decisions we take and the choices we make reflect the fact that we put greater value on eternity than on the present? That’s not to say that the present is unimportant. Of course it is. But the way we best use our time now is by living in light of heaven. Otherwise, we end up with a perspective whose horizons don’t rise above the sun, and in terms of Ecclesiastes, that’s a vanity of vanities perspective. Let’s hear what Hebrews has to say. Let’s live by faith in the promise. Let’s not allow the sufferings of the present to rob us of our hope and joy or to derail our patient endurance as we pass through this vail of tears. For on the other side is fulness of joy and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand.

_______________________________

William Tyndale, Prologue to the Book of Numbers, in Works, I (Cambridge, 1848), p. 434 [qtd. in P. E. Hughes, Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 432].
ii William Lane, Hebrews 9-13 [WBC] (Zondervan, 1991), p. 274.
iii The KJV has “on me in my bonds” but the true reading is probably “on those in prison” (cf. ESV).

page6image9111424

Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Warning against Entrenched Unbelief (Hebrews 10:26-31)

Here we are at the fourth warning against apostasy in this epistle. The three previous are found in 2:1-4, 3:6-4:13, and 6:1-8. The final warning will come in 12:25-29. We’ve noted that these warnings which punctuate the letter to the Hebrews indicate that at least some of the recipients of this epistle were on the verge of apostasy, and that this letter was sent to keep that from happening. To that end, the author not only gives them positive reasons for remaining faithful (the superiority and sufficiency of the Son of God as our great high priest) but also warns them as to the consequences of leaving the faith.

Now I don’t think that our church is in the same place as the church to which this letter was initially sent. Of course, I can’t see into everyone’s heart, but from what I can see, I am encouraged to think that our church is by and large in a good place, and hopefully we are all growing in grace together and headed in the right direction. In other words, the purpose of my preaching through Hebrews is not because I think you are all on the brink of leaving the faith! So why preach through a letter like this, especially when there are 65 other books in the Bible?

Well, there is the obvious reason that whatever is in the Bible is for our profit. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16). But still, that doesn’t in itself answer the question why this particular book? And there are several of answers to that. The first one is something that I said at the beginning of our series, which is that Hebrews is the best one book summary of both the Old and New Testaments in the entire Bible. If you want one book that gives you the essence of both testaments, and how they relate to one another, this is the place you want to go to. That in itself is a good enough reason to tackle it.

A second reason is that there are few books in the Bible that deal at such length and depth with the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Since the author’s intention is to show the superiority of Jesus to the Mosaic Law and the Levitical priesthood, he deals at great length with the person and work of Jesus, and he does this at a depth that is possibly unrivaled by any other book in the Bible. In it, we learn that he is the Son of God and the true high priest who offers a once-for-all sacrifice that truly purges our sins before God. Again, that in itself would be a good enough reason to preach through this book.

But there’s a third reason I’m doing this, and this does have to do with the warning sections. And that is that although we may not currently be in the place or on the brink of apostasy from the faith, yet it is still good and instructive for us to take heed to these warnings. In other words, by considering the folly and the hideousness and the danger of spiritual drift, we should be motivated to deepen our own walk with the Lord so that this doesn’t eventually happen to us.

In other words, we have to be careful that we don’t become presumptuous. Listen, even though that hardness which comes through the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12) doesn’t happen overnight, that makes it all the more dangerous. It comes in little steps, until we are no longer in the right path. Think, for example, of the church at Ephesus. Here was a church founded by the apostle Paul; and we know from the book of Acts that he spent several years just at this one place. Later, when he wrote his epistle to the church, it doesn’t deal with any particular problems in the church, by which we can surmise that it was a good and healthy church at the time. And yet, around forty years later, in the book of Revelation, Jesus rebukes the church by saying that they had left their first love, and if they didn’t repent, he was going to remove their lampstand (Rev. 2:1-5). If it can happen to an apostolic church, it can happen to us. Let us be forewarned – and let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12). To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and that surely is a good thing.

Now I have argued before, and will argue this morning, that apostasy – permanently repudiating a previous profession of faith in Jesus – leads to eternal destruction. Some would argue that since the elect can’t be lost (and I agree with that statement), it is wrong to tell people that they should beware of apostasy, since certainly the elect can’t be lost and therefore the elect can’t apostatize. On the other hand, the non-elect are going to be lost anyway, so what’s the point in warning them? How is it right to warn people of an eternal danger, when either no such danger exists (as in the case of the elect), or it is inevitable anyway (as in the case of the non-elect)?

Well, it is right to warn people of the danger of eternal destruction, even the elect, if for no other reason than the Bible does so. It does so right here. Paul does it in Ephesians (of all places) when he says, “Let no man deceive you with vain words, for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). The wrath of God that falls on the children of disobedience is meant to function as a motivation not to follow them in their sins.

In any case, here is how it works (I am repeating myself here, from messages we gave in the second and sixth chapters): we are not called in these warnings to believe a lie; we are simply called to believe that those who apostatize will be finally lost. That is a Biblical truth. Second, this is meant to motivate us to not pursue the path of apostasy by helping us see the need for perseverance. The more convinced we are that we must persevere, the more deliberate we will be to do it. And that is not only a Biblical motivation; it is one of the means God uses to bring about the steady faith and obedience, especially in the face of opposition, that constitutes perseverance in the faith.

This is what we want to deal with this morning. And as we look again at one of these warning passages, my hope is not to discourage you, but to encourage you to keep on the way of faith and holiness. I don’t want to put a weight on your shoulder, but rather a hopeful determination in your step. My goal in this message is to help all of us – myself as much as anyone else – to fall out of love with sin and to become more deeply committed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To that end, I want to consider three things that this paragraph invites us to consider. In it, we are given a description of apostasy, which I am calling “entrenched unbelief.” Then we will look at the danger from entrenched unbelief. Finally, we will consider our duty with respect to entrenched unbelief.

A Description of entrenched unbelief

The way that apostasy is described in this passage is primarily in the phrase to “sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth” (26). This is amplified in verse 29 in three ways. First, those who sin in this way are described as treading underfoot the Son of God. Second, they are described as those who count the blood of the covenant by which they are sanctified an unholy thing. Finally, they are described as those who despise the Spirit of grace.

But why am I calling this “entrenched unbelief”? I am calling it unbelief because to sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth means to fundamentally reject the truth, and this is the essence of unbelief. And it is entrenched, because we are not talking about a temporary lapse into unbelief, but something that persists, something for which there is no sacrifice for sins (26), and which will result in falling into the hands of an angry God (31). One writer describes this as “a calculated, persistent renunciation of the truth.”i

It is entrenched because of the attitude that is behind this species of unbelief. The word “willfully” (26) is particularly important here. It denotes “a conscious expression of an attitude that displays contempt for God.”ii This is akin to what is spoken of in the Mosaic Law of presumptuous or high-handed sin: “But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Num. 15:30). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul talks about folks who are “overtaken in a fault” who can then be restored (Gal. 6:1). But the kind of sin that the author of Hebrews is talking about is not like that. This is not being overtaken in a sin. This is the deliberate, conscious, and persistent rejection of the truth of the gospel. This is not talking about someone who walks away from the faith for a time but then comes back. This is talking about a kind of person who walks away and never comes back.

When you compare this to Hebrews 6, what we see is that we are getting another description of what I there called “Judas Christians.” Judas Christians are not people who lose some temporal blessings of salvation because they messed up. Rather, they are people who professed to be Christians but were never really born again. They didn’t lose their salvation in any sense, for they were never saved to begin with.

Let’s look down at verse 29 and see further how these people are described.

They tread underfoot the Son of God.

Of course, no one can literally do this. Jesus was crucified once at the hands of wicked men, but he will never again be dishonored in this way. Instead, this is talking about an attitude that treats Jesus with utter contempt. This reminds us of what the author had said in chapter 6: “If they fall away, [it is impossible] to renew them unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (6:6). This does not describe someone who is just plagued with doubts or is struggling with sin; this is a description of someone who hates Jesus. And that is not the description of a saved person. As the apostle Paul would put it to the Corinthians, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus, let him be Anathema” (1 Cor. 16:22) – “anathema” is Aramaic for “accursed.” If you don’t love Jesus, you are cursed, not saved. Or as he will put it to the Ephesians, “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” (Eph. 6:24). Who are the recipients of grace? Those who truly love Jesus. Those who do not love him cannot count themselves as the recipients of his grace: it’s as simple as that.

They count the blood of the covenant as an unholy thing.

There is terrible irony here. If there is anything holy in this world, it is the blood of Christ, by which he brought into being the New Covenant along with all its blessings. The apostle Peter calls it “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:19). But here are people who consider that which is holy as unholy.

Now there is this phrase, which has given some folks considerable trouble: “wherewith he was sanctified.” This is sometimes used to argue that a person can lose their salvation. Some folks say it proves a person can lose their eternal salvation. Other folks say it proves that a person can permanently lose temporal blessings this side of heaven. Both are certainly wrong.

You can’t lose your salvation because you can’t lose what you don’t have. As we’ve already argued, this is not talking about people who were truly saved, but people who professed Christianity when they had never been really born again. But because they had professed faith in Christ, they had at one time professed to be sanctified by him (see 10:10, 14), even if they hadn’t been sanctified in reality. This is again where the irony comes in. The author is wanting us to see how incredibly sad this is. They were treating as unholy that which is most holy. And when they did this, they were rejecting the only thing that could sanctify them. This is why in verse 26 the author had said that for these people there remains no more sacrifice for sins. This is because they have rejected the only thing that could truly take away their sins.

They despise the Spirit of grace

When Stephen confronted his religious opponents, he said that they were “stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” and that they “do always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51). In a similar fashion, here were people who had experienced some of the blessings of the Spirit (cf. Heb. 6:4), and yet afterward rejected and resisted him. They had seen “signs and wonders, and . . . divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost” (2:4). And yet for all that, they still turned away. Not because they were saved, but precisely because they were not saved.

This is a terrible place to be. To despise the person of God’s own Son, his blood, and his Spirit, to treat him with contempt, is horrific. It is to be blind and deceived. It is to be spiritually deranged. It is to be foolish and spiritually reckless. It is to reject the only one who can save us. As Paul would say to those who rejected the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, “seeing you put [the word of God] from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). To turn away from the word of God, as these people had done, is to turn away from everlasting life.

I hope you can see that this is not a description of a backslidden Christian. That is a genuine thing, I know, we all know, because every Christian experiences times when we are going backward instead of forward. But what is being described in these verses is in an altogether different category. This is not a Romans 7- like description of the struggle every believer has with sin. Rather, this is a description of persistent, entrenched unbelief – a species of unbelief that brings with it terrible and irremediable consequences.

And that brings us to our next point.

The Danger from entrenched unbelief

There is a real sense in which we can say that we reap what we sow. Sometimes our sins carry with them their own punishment. But we must not take that too far. For there is also the reality of an objective, future judgment at the hands of God (cf. Heb. 9:27). And that is what is being warned about here. There are at least five things that are highlighted here with respect to God’s judgment upon apostates.

It is a certain judgment (27).

“There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (26-27). It may be future, and something which is looked for, but it is certain. We can be sure that, just as God’s promises for good will come to pass, so will his promises for justice. We must remember that God is holy, and that the height of sin is sin against God. It must be punished, and it will be punished. Thus, those who set themselves against God as his adversaries will be surely devoured by his judgment and fiery indignation.

It is a fiery judgment (27).

It is described as “fiery indignation.” In the Scriptures, fire is often associated with God’s judgment. It is not incidental that Sodom and Gomorrah perished when fire reigned out of heaven upon those cities. In fact, the apostle Jude says that this is a foretaste of that future and final judgment: they are “set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7). John the Baptist said that those who do not bring forth good fruit for God will be hewn down by God’s judgment and thrown into the fire; indeed, that the chaff will be burned up “with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:10-12). The apostle Paul, in speaking of future judgment, describes it in terms of “flaming fire” by which God will take “vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:8-9). In the book of Revelation, we read that those who worship the beast “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name” (Rev. 14:10-11).

Now it is true that fire is perhaps a metaphor for the judgment of God which, like fire, will “devour the adversaries.” But that does not make the future punishment of the wicked any the less severe; if anything, the reality is certainly more terrible than the metaphor. In other words, we shouldn’t read this and not tremble. It is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

It is an eternal judgment (28-29).

How do we know this is not just describing some temporal judgment? Well, for one thing, because this is a description of people who are not saved. These are people who, to use our Lord’s words (Jn. 8:24), will die in their sins; there is no sacrifice for them (Heb 10:26). But another way to see this is how this is compared to punishments under the Mosaic Law: “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God?” (28-29). The punishment that belongs to this entrenched unbelief is compared with punishments under the Mosaic Law. How is it compared? It is “sorer.” It is worse. Worse than what? Worse than physical deathIn fact, worse than being stoned to death. This tells me that this is not some temporal judgment, for the Mosaic Law did that. This is something not only worse, but far worse, something from which you cannot escape by physical death. It is, therefore, an eternal judgment. Our Lord reminded his disciples of this reality, when he said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt. 10:28). And that is terrifying. And for those who are teetering on the brink of apostasy, it is meant to be, I assure you.

It is a predicted judgment (30).

It is not as if God has hidden this. In some sense, the reality of future judgment is even embedded in our consciences, for the apostle Paul says of the pagan society of his day, that they know the judgment of God (Rom. 1:32). But he has made it even more plain in Scripture. Here, in verse 30, the author quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35-36. The two verses read, “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the LORD shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.” (Interestingly, the phrase “their foot shall slide in due time” was the text that Jonathan Edwards took for his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”). The remarkable thing is that in these verses, God is speaking about the children of Israel.

They were his covenant people, under the Mosaic covenant. They had so many privileges. And yet many of them sinned in the wilderness and were destroyed (as we have seen in Hebrews 3-4). God’s judgment, his vengeance and his recompense brought about their calamity. The application is both obvious and pertinent. In the congregation to which the author is writing, there were those who were outwardly at least part of the New Covenant community and yet they were also poised to depart from the faith. Make no mistake, the author is saying, you can expect God to bring his judgment upon you as well.

It is a fearful judgment (31).

This paragraph ends with the sobering comment, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” When we look at the danger to which entrenched unbelief exposes people, we too should fear. Have you ever looked over the edge of a cliff and felt the chills go down your spine? Well, here we have been invited to look over the cliff and to imagine what it would be like to throw yourself over. Which is what apostates do, in a sense. It is a terrifying thought.

Please listen: everyone is on a path, and that path will end before God. He is the one inescapable reality that we will all eventually face, one way or another. And God will be for every son and daughter of Adam either eternal blessing or he will be for them eternal destruction (Mt. 25:48). According to our Lord, there are only two paths: the narrow path and the broad way (Mt. 7:12-14). The narrow path leads to life and the broad way to final and eternal destruction. We should be sobered by a reflection upon that reality. We should feel that chill going down our back. And if we don’t, it doesn’t mean that we have attained some level of spirituality that makes us immune to such fear; it really means that we have become spiritually insensitive to the holiness of God and the danger posed to everyone who flaunts their sin in the face of this holy God.

I think it is worth pausing at this moment to consider why these individuals will be judged rather than saved. Why is it that for them “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins”? Is it because the blood of Jesus didn’t take the first time? Of course not! What we need to see here is the connection that there is between faith and forgiveness. What the argument here assumes is that because they did not believe, they did not receive the benefits of Christ’s death. No faith, no sacrifice, no forgiveness.

This does not mean that our faith, in and of itself, is what makes us righteous before God. But God saves us, and justifies us, and forgives us, when we believe. This is why the Scriptures uniformly say that we are saved by faith. Not on the basis of faith, not on the grounds of faith, but through faith. Faith is the means by which we personally appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death. And God guarantees that his elect will receive the benefits of Christ’s death by giving them faith. This is one of the implications of Eph. 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

Now that we’ve seen a description of entrenched unbelief as well as its danger, what should be our response? For this was written to elicit a certain response from the readers, and it should have the same kind of effect on us as well. But what kind of response? This leads us to our next and final point.

Our Duty with respect to entrenched unbelief

I think there are at least five responses that we should have to the picture which has been painted in these verses with respect to apostasy.

If we love Jesus and remain faithful to him and to his gospel, we should be thankful to the Lord for preserving us from the fate and end of unbelief. If you are not where these people were at, then you have the Lord to thank for it. He is the one who is able to keep us from falling (Jude 24). He is the one who keeps us in the faith (1 Pet. 1:5). He is the one who restores us, like Peter, when we fall away. He is the one who is effectually praying for his elect that they might be kept, and that their faith fail not (Luke 22:32; John 17:15).

Moreover, you might be there, and the Lord can often use warnings like this to wake us up and turn us from a course of self-destruction. These warnings are not just meant to be descriptions of non-elect apostates, but they are meant to awaken slothful and slumbering Christians to the fate of those who do fall away, so that they won’t. God knows our personalities, and he knows that some of us need to be awakened from sleep. And these warnings are sometimes what we need. This is not, therefore, an indication of God’s harshness, but of his kindness in turning us from sin to a greater commitment to him. And for that we should be very thankful, as well as encouraged, that our Father will never let us go. If he has to warn us, he will. If he has to chastise us, he will, and it will yield in time the fruit of holiness in our lives (cf. Heb. 12:11).

We should be comforted in light of the fate of the wicked. One of the reasons it is important for us to contemplate God’s judgment on those who walk away from the faith is to remind ourselves that our own sufferings in this life aren’t a reason to join them in turning our backs on God, because no matter what we endure here, it is to be followed by eternal glory, whereas the wicked will have their temporary ease replaced by eternal destruction. This is the argument of Psalm 73, for example. The psalmist saw the ease and the riches of the wicked, and it tempted him to think that his faith in God was useless. But this all changed when he was reminded of the end of the wicked. I think that is one of the things we should be reminded of when we read passages like Heb. 10:26-29. However bad it might be for us now, we need to have an eternal perspective, and passages like this can help us to maintain that. It helps us to live in light of our future hope, and to be comforted in the expectation of the coming glory.

We should be disgusted and repulsed at the thought of what entrenched unbelief does. What does it do? It despises the person of Christ, his blood, and his Spirit. If you love Jesus, that ought to disgust you. It ought to repulse you. It ought to make you never want to get there, or even get close to there. It ought to make you jealous over your heart, that you reverence Christ, value his atoning work, and grieve not his Spirit. So one of the strategies for this is by seeing the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. But another strategy for this is by seeing the ugliness and vileness of unbelief.

We should be afraid at the thought of where entrenched unbelief leads. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying a believer can’t have assurance of their salvation. Nor am I indicating that the elect can be lost. What I am saying is that something is wrong with us if we can contemplate the end of the wicked and not feel something of fear. There is something wrong with us if this does not motivate us to flee from the wrath of God (cf. Mt. 3:7; Eph. 5:6-7). It means that we have not really reckoned with the extent and the intensity and the severity of God’s judgment. We are not only meant to behold the goodness, but also the severity, of the Lord: one should lead to a godly and holy joy and the other to a godly and holy fear (Rom. 11:22). And this fear ought to motivate us even further to be rid of every inroad that sin has in our hearts and lives.

We should hate the thought of what entrenched unbelief makes us. It turns us into the adversaries of God! I can’t think of anything more foolish. What are the wicked like? They are like chaff which the wind will blow away (Ps. 1:4). The ungodly will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous (5). The way of the ungodly will perish (6). Entrenched unbelief makes a person the object, not of God’s love, but of his derision (Ps. 2:4). We should hate that.

But at the same time, though we hate the idea of ourselves ever becoming like that, this doesn’t mean that we ever look down on others. We should rather grieve for those who remain in unbelief, and like the psalmist, let rivers of water run down our eyes when we see those who do not keep God’s law (Ps. 119:136). For we know that if anyone cannot see the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, it is because they are blinded and as of yet the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ has not shone unto them (2 Cor. 4:3-6).

This passage is meant to have an effect on us. It should make us more thankful for the Lord who saves us, and more disgusted with our sin. It should draw us closer to Jesus and put distance between us and the world and the devil. It should help us to see how hateful sin is because all sin is sin against Christ, the Son of God, and the only one in whom we can be saved. Let us resolve, brothers and sisters, to love Jesus more and to hate sin more, to be more holy, to persevere in the faith, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

William Lane, Hebrews 9-13 [WBC], p. 292. 

ii Ibid.

page8image61348800

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Three things to do when you’ve scaled the summit of Hebrews. (Hebrews 10:19-25)

What is the bottom line here in the book of Hebrews? What is being offered to us? What is being set before us? What has the argument been driving at all along? It is this: that through Christ we have “boldness to enter into the holiest” (19). By “the holiest” is a reference to the Most Holy Place, as we saw in previous chapters (see 8:2; 9:3, 8, 24), the place into which the high priest was allowed to go only once a year, and not without blood. It was the place where the presence of the God of the universe was especially manifested in the shekinah glory that shone between the cherubim above the ark of the covenant. So whereas under the Old Covenant the people had been barred from entering into God’s presence and were in fact being taught that “the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing” (9:8), now in the New Covenant we have access into the presence of God.

And we can have “boldness” as we enter. We don’t have to come in trembling and wondering if God is going to accept us. We don’t have to come in fear and doubt because of Jesus. In other words, the believer in Christ is not being presumptuous as he or she claims to have union and communion with the Almighty, and the reason is because they have a “great high priest” (10:21), whose shed blood (19) and broken body (20) have opened the way for them. Our boldness is not therefore a product of our holiness or goodness or worthiness in any way. Our boldness is solely the product of the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf.

Jesus is the way into the presence of God to bless. And he is the only way. There is no other way. There was no other way into the Most Holy Place, except through the veil, which the author likens to the body of Christ broken for us and for our salvation (20). If you will have God’s blessing and favor, if you want to be accepted by him and to be received into his friendship and fellowship, there is only one way you will find it: in Jesus Christ. He is the “new and living way” (20), “living” because he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6). In him we have eternal life: he is the “living way” because though he died, he rose again, and lives forevermore, having conquered death for all who are united to him by faith.

All throughout this epistle, the author has been laboring to convince his audience of the supremacy of Christ and of his sufficiency to save. He does this because he knows that a person’s commitment to Christ will not endure if that person is not fundamentally convinced of two things: first, that they need a Savior, and second, that Jesus is the only one who can save and who will save those who come unto God by him (7:25). He hasn’t needed to spend too much time on the first thing since presumably his audience was already convinced of that fact, so he has labored hard on the second.

My friend, if you have never embraced Christ in faith as your Lord and Savior, you too need to be convinced of your need of a Savior. For our Lord did not come to save the righteous but sinners. And that is all of us, for “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But then you also need to be convinced that you cannot save yourself, that you cannot deal with the sin that separates you from God. You cannot free yourself from its grip and you cannot atone for your guilt. Nor can any other prophet, priest, or king. Only Christ can save. And he does save. Indeed, he saves all who come to him, who put their trust in him, who receive him as Lord and Savior. He promises, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn. 6:37). Do you wonder that Christ will push you away if you come to him? He won’t because he has promised he won’t. Indeed, “as many as received him” in his day, and as many as receive him in our day, “to them gave he [and continues to give] the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:12).

All this is wonderful and good news, because the summit of privilege and blessing and honor is this: to find the way open into the very presence of God and then to make your way in. That way is open, and it is open in Christ. That is what the book of Hebrews is about: it is about helping you find your way to that summit.

You will notice that what is offered to us in the gospel is not the goods of this world, or even that of the next. What is offered to us in the gospel is God. Everything in the Holy Place was about God. God is the gospel. He is the ground of all reality and therefore of all real happiness. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:9). You won’t find this kind of joy or peace in anything else. Nothing else is lasting. Nothing else is substantial in comparison. So when we are told that God is the blessing given to the believer, may we never view this as a sort of second choice or as a substitution for earthly blessings we would rather have but can’t get. No! Anything else is the substitution, and an infinitely cheap one at that. When Solomon says, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2), he is not talking about God – he is talking about everything else. He was talking about whatever exists “under the sun.” God alone is not vanity. God alone is “worthy . . . to receive glory and honor and power” (Rev. 4:11). The gospel does not invite us to a cheap banquet of human praise and physical stimulus and riches that rust. It invites us to the only One in the universe who can give us peace and satisfaction and joy, precisely because he gives us himself. “Come unto me,” says our Savior, “all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).

Well, if you have found your way with the author of Hebrews to this summit, what should you do? As we look now at verses 22-25, we are going to see that there are three things we should be doing. There are three basic exhortations here, three “let us” statements, that point us to the privilege as well as the responsibility that confronts everyone who claims the name of Christ.

Let us draw near to God through Christ (22)

It is one thing to know that the way is open; it is another to personally enter in and to draw near. Have you? We are encouraged to draw near to God, and the way we do this is “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from and evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (22). Here we see once again that the way we appropriate these wonderful and glorious realities for ourselves is by faith. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). We are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1). We are risen with Christ by faith (Col. 2:12). If we would be found in Christ, it is not by having a righteousness of our own, “but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). In fact, the entire Christian life is one of living by faith in Christ (Gal. 2:20).

What is faith? Well, it is not blind faith. It is not believing something for which there is no evidence or believing something in spite of the evidence. Rather, Biblical faith has three elements: knowledge, assent, and trust. As such, faith involves the whole of the inner man: mind, heart, and will. There is knowledge, the intellectual content of faith, by which we understand what the gospel is and the reasons to believe. Then there is the aspect of assent, the hearty consent of our hearts to the truths we are being called to believe. Finally, there is trust, which is the soul’s reliance upon the object of faith. Gospel faith therefore involves understanding what the gospel is (which is Christ, his person and work, bringing us to God), finding it our hearts drawn to him, and finally reposing ourselves upon him, receiving him as Lord and Savior. I like to illustrate this by Hebrews 11:13, which says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them [there is knowledge] afar off, and were persuaded of them [there is assent], and embraced them [there is trust], and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

But we are not just encouraged to enter in by faith, but “in full assurance of faith.” We want a robust faith. And though it is not the amount of faith that saves, but the object of faith that saves, yet we don’t want to remain among those with “little faith.” Let us grow in faith, and in our confidence in Christ as our high priest. For he is a “great priest” (21, Greek is hieria megan), and is worthy of great faith. However, note that the confidence of our faith is not rooted in our own goodness or merits, but in the person and work of Christ. We don’t come having washed ourselves from our sins but having been washed by the blood of Christ. Just as the ark of the covenant was sprinkled with the blood of the sin offering, even so our hearts have been sprinkled with the blood of Christ – showing that we don’t draw near to God except through the atoning work of Jesus.

Let us take this one step further: practically, what does it mean to draw near to God? Let me suggest the following four things, all which come also from the book of Hebrews.

First of all, let us draw near to God for salvation. Listen to what the author of Hebrews says in 7:25, “Wherefore he [Jesus] is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” This verse says that Jesus saves, and that he saves those who come to God by him. How does a person know that he or she is saved when they come to God through Jesus? They can know it because God has said it. Those who come unto God through Jesus, he will save. And not only will he save them, but he will save them “to the uttermost.” How much more assurance do you need?

Second, let us draw near to God for help. Remember what was said in 4:16, “Let us therefore come boldly [the same language is being used here as in our text] unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” And we should, because no one can help like God helps. No one else, for example, knows exactly what we need, when we need it, and in what proportions we need it. No one can meet the needs of soul and body as God can. No one else is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent as God is. When I think of this, I think of the way Psalm 23 opens: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Our Lord is the good Shepherd, and he knows his sheep intimately, will never forsake them, and will always guide them and provide for them in the very best way. Yes, my friend, draw near to God for help. He knows what things we have need of before we ask him, and he has promised to take care of us.

Third, let us draw near to God for sympathy. For in those same verses in Hebrews 4, we are told that “we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (15). We are therefore invited to approach the throne, not of a stranger, but of one who has intimately entered into all the vicissitudes and trials and changes of this life that are the sources of our anxieties and griefs. He knows your grief and is willing to take your burden, so cast it upon the Lord and let him sustain you (Ps. 55:22).

Fourth, let us draw near to God for reward. I get this from Hebrews 11:6 – “But without faith it is impossible to please him [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a

rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” As we’ve already said, those who come to God understand that he is the treasure, he is the pearl of great price. He is our reward, for what God said to Abram the man of faith is also true of all who share his faith: “Fear not Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Gen. 15:1). Those who know this are willing to sell everything else for it. We don’t come to God in order to be deprived, but to receive “all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19).

Let us draw near to God for salvation, help, sympathy and compassion, and for reward. And let us continue to draw near. Which brings us to our next point, and the next verse.

Let us hold fast the profession of our hope (23)

I translate this, not as “the profession of our faith,” but as “the profession [or confession] of our hope” because the word used here is not pistis (the Greek word for faith) but elpis (the Greek word for hope). I’m not sure what the KJV translators intended when they translated it this way. Certainly, we recognize that there is a strong and close connection between faith and hope. After all, in 11:1, we are given a sort of definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for.” Nevertheless, they are not the same (actually, as the definition in 11:1 shows, since you don’t define a word by the word itself!). Such a translation also conceals the connection that the author is making between the triad faith, hope, and love, and these exhortations. Thus, the exhortation to draw near is exercised by faith, the exhortation to hold fast is exercised with hope, and the exhortation to consider one another is exercised by love.

Here again we have a call to perseverance, a call to endure. Not, by the way, a call to remain secretive about our faith, but a call to profess and to confess it. Note that whereas God is the one to whom we draw near in verse 22, and our brothers and sisters in Christ as the ones we consider in verses 24-25, in this verse (23) it is the world to whom we confess and profess our faith. And this world can be very hostile at times. As the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). And he would ask the Thessalonian Christians to “pray for us . . . that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith” (2 Thess. 3:1-2). It is this world that either through the temptation of pleasure or the fear of pain and loss will tempt us to leave the faith. But we must not; we must hold fast.

I have been listening to a podcast recently on the history of the early church; the last episode I listened to was on the martyrdom of Perpetua, an African Christian woman who was killed in Carthage in the year 203 for being a Christian. She had an infant son that she dearly loved and a father who kept begging her to burn incense to the gods and to think about her son. And yet, when asked by the Roman proconsul whether or not she was a Christian, she did not hesitate to say yes, and by that answer sealing her fate to die in the coliseum from wild beasts and gladiators. When I hear about the martyrdoms of Christians like that, it makes me wonder if I would endure. Do I love Jesus Christ that much? Am I willing to lose all for his sake? For we are called to do so, aren’t we? We must not put even our children or our dearest relatives above our allegiance to Christ. Jesus told us to count the cost, and that “if any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26-27).

How do you do that? How do you hold fast? Indeed, it is not just that we are called to hold fast, but to do so “without wavering.” Let your hope be such that you are not even for a moment seduced by the promises of earthly comfort and safety to abandon your faith in Christ. Now we may not be called upon to be martyrs. The Hebrew Christians themselves had “not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (12:3). But there are many ways the devil and the world can pressure us to leave the faith. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we? There is the love of the world as well as the hatred of the world that can lure us away from a steadfast love to Christ. We don’t want to bite down on that lure. So we ask again, how do you become that kind of person?

The answer is in the last part of verse 23: “for he is faithful that promised.” This is why our hope is so important. Our hope is built on the faithfulness of God to his promises. We can be enabled to persevere even through very difficult times because God has promised that all who endure to the end will be saved (Mt. 24:13). The promises of eternal blessing await those who remain faithful to Christ, and they are sure. On the other hand, there are no promises for those who do not persevere, except promises of judgment, as we will see in the following verses (10:26-39), and as we have already seen in previous passages (as in chapters 2 and 6).

Please understand that I am not in the least bit indicating that a true child of God will lose their salvation because they didn’t remain faithful to Christ. What I am saying is that God will preserve his children so that they do persevere. The perseverance of the saints is not what saves them, but is a certain and true evidence that they are saved. And that is the reason why we persevere: not because we are so reliable, but because God is. And when I become afraid at the thought of whether or not I might falter if I were called to be a martyr, this is what I remember: I am “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (1 Pet. 1:5). Christ is faithful, not just in the promise of heaven, but also in the promise of all the grace we will need to get us there.

Let us consider one another (24-25)

We are not meant to just hold fast ourselves, but we are also meant to encourage our brothers and sisters in the faith to hold fast too. And that is the purpose of this exhortation: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the Day approaching” (24-25).

Remember what our author has already said in this connection. He has already said this in chapter 3, and he considers this to be so important that he is repeating it again. Thus, in 3:12-14, we read, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called, To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.” It’s the same thing here. In verse 23, we have been exhorted to persevere, to hold fast. Now we are told to encourage others to persevere as well. But in doing this, we are not only helping our brethren to hold fast, but we are also helping ourselves to hold fast. For it is in the context of considering and exhorting others to love and good works that we ourselves are also considered and exhorted.

So here we are reminded again of the importance of the church, and especially of the importance of the gathering of the church. A church that never gathers is like a soccer team that never comes together for a game. It doesn’t deserve the name! For it is as we gather and assemble, that these things (being stirred up to love and good works) take place. We’ve been praying for Elder Timothy and Zach Guess. They traveled to Nicaragua to help a church get established there. In a recent update, Elder Timothy Guess said this, after describing some of the interactions they have been having with the believers there: “These kinds of conversations remind me of why it is important to regularly make these trips. There is something about face-to-face conversations that can’t be duplicated with technology.” Exactly!

Now I’m not saying that these things can’t happen to some extent over the phone or even over the internet. But the fact of the matter is that if you are not in person with other believers, then you are not gathering with them, and you are forsaking the assembling of yourselves together. And let’s just call that for what it is: it is nothing more and nothing less than sin. Which means that if you call yourself a Christian and regularly make excuses for not coming to church and gathering with the saints, you need to repent.

Some folks have gotten the idea that God will bless them whether they come to church or not. And then they wonder why they have so many problems in their spiritual life: they pray and read their Bibles, but they can’t seem to draw closer to the Lord. And the reason is because they aren’t using all the means of grace which God has given them. It’s like the person who was trying to escape a flood and who prayed that God would save them, and then rejected all the help (helicopter, boat, etc.) that God sent their way. Well, my friend, God has given you other believers for your help. You may not think you need them, but you do. God made believers to grow as they help each other and minister to each other. This is the way we hold fast. This is the apostle’s very point in Eph. 4:15-16, where he says that, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (ESV). They body, that is, the body of believers in Christ, builds itself up and so grows up into Christ.

Unfortunately, there have been several events and cultural and technological changes that have made it easier for people to stay home and not gather with other believers. One of these changes is the internet. Now I am thankful for livestreaming options. A big reason I’m thankful for it is that we have several in our church who are shut-ins and this is the only way they are able to join with us. I’m certainly not saying that they should ever feel guilty for not gathering with the saints, because they want to, but cannot. (They don’t need to come to us – we need to go to them! If you haven’t visited with some of our shut-ins, I highly recommend that you do so.) But though I am thankful for livestreaming options, this should never be used as an excuse to get out of coming to church. If you are not a shut-in, if you can get out to the store or go to work or go out to visit with friends in their homes, and so on, then you don’t have an excuse for not coming to church. And at this point (for most of us, at least), Covid is no longer a valid excuse either. It really comes down to how important you think it is to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It really comes down to how much you love God’s people (and according to Scripture, you can’t love God and not love his people) and want to help each other be more Christ-like. It really comes down to how dangerous and destructive you think sin is. If you have an unbiblical view of sin and a small view of Christ and a small view of his church (that for which he gave his life!), then you will find all sorts of excuses not to gather with the saints. My friend, if that describes you, you are not in a good place.

I can say from experience and observation that almost every time the first step to apostasy is failing to obey this very simple directive in Heb. 10:24-25. Sheep don’t do well on their own. Those who wander off usually die from exposure or get gobbled up by the wolves. As Spurgeon once put it, it’s not the sheep who go alone, it’s the wolves. God didn’t make us to be Lone Rangers. If you think it’s okay for you to not invest yourself in a local congregation of believers, you are on the road to a very bad place. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day you end up denying the faith altogether or at least becoming spiritually estranged from it. I shudder to think of such an end! It is incredibly grievous and sad.

Now notice the last part of verse 25: “and so much the more, as you see the day approaching.” I heard one preacher say once that “the day” in verse 25 is a reference to the Lord’s day, or the day on which the saints gather. But that would be to say that they are to gather as they see the day to gather approaching. That doesn’t make even a little sense. Others (like John Gill) say that this is a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem. But this assumes a Palestinian provenance for the epistle, which is doubtful (I argued for a Roman provenance in our first message on this epistle). So what “day” is this? Well, if you look at the next few verses (27, ff), it’s obvious: it is the day of judgment, which will coincide with the Day of the Lord (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10-12), that day of days, the last in our current age, when the wicked and the righteous will be gathered before the throne of God. There the chaff will be separated once for all from the wheat (cf. Mt. 13:37-43). There the hypocrites will be exposed. There those who apostatized will be punished with eternal judgment.

In other words, the Day of the Lord should bring to our hearts and minds two reactions. One reaction should be the reaction of hope-inspiring courage which causes us to hold fast. We persevere and encourage each other to grow in grace, in love and good works, because we know that whatever we endure for the Lord, all the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). The hope of glory doesn’t make us cowards for Christ; if we really have this hope it will make us lions for our Lord. Thus it motivates us to gather with the saints and to encourage each other in light of this future and glorious day.

On the other hand, there ought also to be the reaction of healthy fear which causes us to flee sin. Listen to what the author will say a few verses later: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (31). This is not the sentiment of an unbeliever, but of a believer. He looked at the coming judgment and was afraid. Not because he believed the elect would be lost, but because you cannot consider the future judgment of the wicked and not be moved to tremble. As such it acts as a means that God uses to help his saints persevere – we are helped not only by seeing how glorious is the reward of God’s people, but also by how awful is the punishment of the wicked (cf. 2 Thess. 1).

Conclusion

Doctrine is the fuel that makes the Christian life go, as it were. But the exhortations help us to steer the Christian life in the right direction. You need both: fuel to go and steering to go in the right direction. A vehicle without fuel just sits there. A vehicle without steering will careen off into a ditch, or worse, over a cliff. Here in the epistle to the Hebrews you have both. Doctrine and duty, teaching and exhortation. If you want to be a healthy Christian, you have to embrace both. It’s not enough to understand the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ if you are willing to draw near and hold fast and consider other believers to stir them up to love and good works. We need to apply what we know. And one of the places to start is by obeying the text and by listening and applying these three exhortations. Brothers and sisters, let us draw near to the throne of God by faith in Christ. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope before the world. And let us consider one another to stir each other up to love and to good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.

Antediluvian Exemplars of Faith (Hebrews 11:4-7)

What is the faith to which the Bible calls us? What is Biblical faith? What is saving faith? Or does it even matter what kind of faith you h...