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).
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.