Hebrews, as many of you have probably realized by this point, has some pretty difficult passages. And we are looking today at what should be the last of such passages that present for many people theological difficulties, or perhaps what they even might consider theological inconsistencies. And I say inconsistencies, because on the surface it would seem that certain verses in this book are at odds with the teaching of the New Testament as a whole.
But I hope to dispel any such concerns here today by treating this passage in a way that is first of all consistent with the greater message of the gospel. It is a dangerous thing to let a verse or two in one passage become a dogmatic doctrine, especially at the expense of other scriptures. As I have often said, scripture is best used to interpret scripture, and scripture should be used to confirm scripture. As we saw last Wednesday in our study of Gideon, he asked three times for confirmation of the Lord’s word. And God did not rebuke him, but confirmed it to him. Scripture will never contradict scripture.
Many theologians, in attempting to address this passage, tend to enter the debate on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, or on the opposing argument, that you can lose your salvation. I would readily confess that I am not as smart or as educated as many of those theologians and so I am not going to debate them on those issues. In fact, call it ignorance on my part, or hopefully divine illumination, or at the least common sense, I don’t really see those issues addressed here at all. But rather what I see presented here is a contrast between faith and knowledge.
The author in the next chapter is going to address the type of faith that is required for salvation, and for living the Christian life. In fact, both require the same thing. One cannot have saving faith, and another type of faith that is for living the Christian life. But what the author is doing here I believe is setting up the next chapter, called the faith chapter, by giving something of an introduction to faith, and doing that especially by showing what faith is and is not. In chapter 11, he tells us what faith is, and gives us many examples of living faith. At the end of this chapter, as I see it, he tells us what faith is not.
Now let’s take a look at our text from that standpoint. As we finished up the last section prior to this passage, the author spoke in vs23 of holding fast the confession of our hope. Hope is another way of expressing Christian faith. He could just have easily have said, hold fast the confession of our faith. Isn’t that what our creeds consist of? Our salvation is based on our faith. But as I said last week, faith looks backwards at what Christ has done, and hope looks forward. But hope is still an essential element of faith. In the very next chapter, vs 1, it says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” So faith and hope are essentially related. In vs 38 of this chapter, we are told that the righteous one shall live by faith. “Shall live” refers to forward looking faith, or another way to express it is hope. You shall live. That’s hope.
In describing this hope, the author goes on to say don’t forsake the assembling of yourselves together, love one another, and encourage one another as you look forward to Christ’s appearing. That is living faith, living in hope, confidently trusting in God’s word. And we said last week that exhorting one another was primarily the preaching of the word of God, among other things.
Now as to the preaching of the word of God, we are told in Romans 10:17 “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” So we know that the preaching of the word of God is essential to the building up of faith. But the point that is made here, is that knowledge of the truth is not in and of itself saving faith. In other words, it’s possible to know a lot of facts about God and our Savior Jesus Christ, to even believe in God, and yet not have saving faith.
That is what he is saying in vs 26. “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” In other words, it’s possible to sit under the preaching of the word, to hear the word of God, to believe in it in an intellectual sort of way, and yet not be transformed by faith in Christ, not be reborn by faith, not be a new creature by faith, but yet still be enslaved to the same sinful passions, and still willingly engaged in them.
Such persons have a knowledge of the truth, but still continue in sin. Now this is not talking about sinning occasionally, or even becoming backslidden, but this is talking about someone who has heard the truth, but it never goes deeper than skin deep. They have never truly repented of their sins, but instead, they willfully, intentionally, continued in their sin.
Now how do I know that is what is being spoken of here? Because the author himself delineates this willful sinful lifestyle in vs29. Notice the three aspects of this kind of willful behavior as outlined in Vs29. “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?”
First of all, this is someone who has heard the truth, they have a knowledge of the truth, but in deliberately continuing in their life of sin they essentially trample underfoot the Son of God. That means they have a contempt for the work of Jesus Christ. Secondly, such persons consider the holy blood of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as lesser value than the value of their own autonomy. In effect, Jesus giving up His life has not resulted in them giving up their life. And third, such a person has insulted the Spirit of Grace. He has blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. He has rejected the conviction that comes from the Spirit of God, resulting in eternal damnation. If you reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then you cannot be saved. If you have contempt for Jesus Christ then you certainly cannot believe in Him and have faith in Him. And if you consider HIs sacrifice as an unclean thing, then His sacrifice is of no benefit to you. As it says in vs 26, for such people “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”
Now it is patently clear that such a person who meets all the characteristics outlined in vs 29 cannot be a Christian, they never were a Christian, and unless they have a dramatic change of heart before they die they will never become a Christian. In fact, I think all of us would be in agreement that if they did in fact express the rebellion and disdain for Christ mentioned in vs 29, then they wholeheartedly deserve to be consumed by the fire as described in vs 27. They are actually enemies of Christ. They give homage to another sovereign, who is no less then themselves. And so they deserve the terrifying judgment which is to come upon the adversaries of Christ.
I think we all would agree with the author, that if the Israelites who rebelled against the law of Moses received the penalty of death in their human bodies for their rebellion, how much more should those who have rejected one greater than Moses, Jesus Christ our Great High Priest, who ministers in heaven for us, how much greater punishment should these persons receive, even to their very souls?
The Bible makes it clear that judgment is certain, it is promised, and it is coming soon. And lest you take it lightly, God Himself warns us in vs30, which is quoted from Deut. 32:35-36, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” Now He is speaking in the sense that all the people on this earth are His people. Both saved and unsaved. 2Cor. 5:10 “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” He is sovereign over all, and those that rebelled against Him as their Lord will suffer the judgment of that rebellion.
Now for the good news, the gospel is simply that for the Christian; good news, which is that for the man of faith, God has placed our judgment upon Jesus Christ. His sacrifice took away our judgement. Isaiah 53:8 says “by oppression and judgment He was taken away.” In vs 6, “But the Lord has caused the inquiry of us all to fall upon Him.” That’s the good news for those who have saving faith in Him. But for the one who has rejected His sacrifice, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, and so that person must bear the judgement of God upon themselves. And that is a terrifying thing to consider. Vs.31, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
So that’s a picture of the person who rejects Jesus’s sacrifice, scorns the blood of the covenant, and disregards the gospel; they are without hope, without faith, and destined for judgment and destruction. I don’t find any indication that this could ever be referring to a person who has become a true believer by faith in Christ. I don’t find any reference to someone that has been saved but then fell into sin. I don’t find any reference to someone that has backslidden. Such Christians will receive discipline, without which it would be evident that they are not the children of God, but illegitimate children. God does discipline his children when they sin.
In the next chapter he makes it clear the distinction between discipline and judgment. Hebrews 12:6-11 “FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom [his] father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He [disciplines us] for [our] good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
So God does reserve discipline for His children so that they may share in HIs holiness. But our passage today is not talking about discipline of His children, but of judgment towards those who are clearly not his children, nor were they ever.
Now my assertion that those were not ever truly saved is born out by the author of Hebrews as well in the next section, starting in vs 32, in which he states that he is convinced of better things concerning his readers. We aren’t sure who his readers are particularly, but it’s believed to be a Christian church made up of primarily Jewish converts somewhere near Rome. But irregardless of exactly who he is referring to, we can be confident it was to an early Christian church, probably prior to the fall of Jerusalem.
And so he says in vs32-35, “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.”
Now obviously, he is describing a congregation who has first of all been “enlightened.” This same word was used back in chapter 6 vs4, and in that case, it is clear from vs 9 which follows, that it is a referral to salvation. Hebrews 6:9 “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.”
So in this passage, he says that his audience after being enlightened, or born again, endured a great conflict of suffering. Now I don’t think it is important that we identify which particular persecution of the early church he was referring to. I don’t believe there is any consensus among theologians anyway. But the point is that suffering and tribulations are part of parcel of the Christian life. Jesus Himself said in this world you will have tribulations.
1Peter 4:12-13 tells the early Christian church, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”
Their perseverance in the midst of persecution was an indication of their faithfulness. Their faithfulness in persecution, in suffering, was evidence of a life of faith. He says because of their faith they were made a public spectacle. That makes me think of the public spectacle that went on last week in the Senate confirmation hearing regarding Judge Kavanaugh. I don’t know the extent of that man’s faith, or his innocence for that matter. But I can easily see a template there that there are those in government who would make a public spectacle out of anyone who professes to be a Christian or to hold onto Christian values. I’m sure the day is coming when a lot of us will have to pay the price of being a public spectacle because of our faith.
James called such trials, tests of our faith. These Jewish Christians, the author is saying, are evidenced as Christians by the perseverance in their faith. They were not sunny day Christians. But when they had to suffer, even as Christ suffered, they bore that suffering well, without renouncing their faith. Though their possessions were taken, they accepted it joyfully knowing that they had a better possession and a lasting one in heaven reserved for them.
I wonder if we would have the same attitude in the midst of persecution. If our possessions were taken because of our faith, I wonder if we could manage to continue joyfully to worship the Lord, to assemble together, to risk our lives for the sake of others who were suffering? I wonder. Because I must confess I see most Christians today as unwilling to suffer the loss of anything for the cause of Christ. They give lip service to God, but when church or service to God interferes with the kid’s soccer game, the soccer game wins and church loses. When an important job or contract interferes with our worship of the Lord, then it seems that God’s priorities take a backseat to our needs. I’m afraid that outside of some imaginary dramatic time in the future which we might have to bear persecution, in reality in the here and now we dutifully avoid even the most innocuous affronts to our faith by caving in to demands of the world.
But nevertheless, the author commends the Christians here for standing firm in persecution, and looking for a lasting kingdom which will not fade away. So their faith is commendable, and their faith is made up of three elements which he describes in the next couple of verses. First he says, your faith needs confidence. The Greek word there is parrēsia, which means freedom, boldness, assurance, especially in speaking. I think he’s indicating a boldness in proclaiming the gospel, which he says has great reward. The rewards of proclaiming boldly the gospel has the reward of winning souls for the kingdom of heaven. I think there will be no greater reward given in heaven, than to those who lead others to the Lord.
Then he says, you need endurance, or perseverance, steadfastness. But endurance for what? To do the will of God. That’s so important. We are saved to do the will of God. Paul reprimanded the Galatian church in Galatians 5:7 “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” You need endurance to finish the work which God has called you to do. Do not be weary in well doing. It’s more than possible for a Christian to get distracted from what is really important. It’s very easy to get discouraged in this life of faith. It’s easy to become despondent when you see the world seemingly prospering in their rebellion, but we are suffering in our obedience. But there is a great reward for those who finish the race that is set before them.
This is another evidence of faith, that you do the will of God. Peter had a lot to say about the will of God. In 1Peter 4:1-2 he sys, “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” That is really the essence of the life of faith, to live for the will of God, rather than according to our will.
So we live in faith, with endurance and boldness, doing the will of God, with an eye on the future hope of Christ’s return, that we might receive our reward. Notice, the Christian looks forward not to judgment, but to a reward. Christ has taken our judgment, and our reward is to be with Him forever.
Verse 37 and 38 contain another quote from Habakkuk, in chapter 2 vs 3 he says, “FOR YET IN A VERY LITTLE WHILE, HE WHO IS COMING WILL COME, AND WILL NOT DELAY. BUT MY RIGHTEOUS ONE SHALL LIVE BY FAITH; AND IF HE SHRINKS BACK, MY SOUL HAS NO PLEASURE IN HIM.”
This is really the key verse of this whole chapter. And it sets up the next chapter as well. On the one hand it is an Old Testament prophecy regarding the coming of the Messiah. But on the other hand it is a prescription for the life of a Christian. This quotation from the second part of the verse, the quote “my righteous one shall live by faith,” is used in the New Testament three times. It’s used in Romans 1:17, Gal.3:11, and here in this verse in Hebrews. And the emphasis that it is given here in this instance in Hebrews is on the word “live.” That’s really the key to this passage, the idea that faith is not just a head knowledge, but it is a way of living, in trusting in Christ, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, no longer living for the lusts of the flesh, but for the will of God.
This is the distinctive of a Christian. It’s not knowledge of the gospel, it’s not knowing a lot of facts about God, it’s trusting and obeying the word of God. It’s living in faith, living by faith, not only in the past work of Jesus Christ on the cross, but in the present work of Christ in me and through me. Do you have faith enough to let Christ have control of your life? Do you trust God enough to give Him everything to be used for His service? That is how we really live, by the power of Christ in us. No longer for ourselves or in our own wisdom or strength, but in faith we submit to the Lord all that we are, and in all that we do.
The author of Hebrews has confidence that the church he is addressing does in fact have that kind of faith. And so he gives them an encouraging word in vs39, “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” Now the first part of that verse obviously refers to the people in the first example, those who had a knowledge of the truth, but continued to willfully sin by rejecting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and spurning the offer of salvation He sacrificed Himself to procure. Those people he says are those destined for destruction. When they saw the cost of Christianity they drew back, or shrunk back, and they do so to their ultimate destiny which is destruction.
But he is convinced this church he is writing to who have suffered for the cause of Christ, and persevered in faith, those folks he says have faith to the preserving of the soul. There is your case for the perseverance of the saints. A living faith, a faith that continues to the end, results in the preservation of the soul. Our faith in the Son of God, who is eternally seated in the heavenlies, interceding on our behalf, having made a perfect, effective, once for all sacrifice, is able to keep that which I have committed to Him.
The question today is do you have that living faith in Jesus Christ. It’s possible to have gone to church your entire life, and have all knowledge, and yet not be saved. I pray that if you’re here today and have never trusted Jesus Christ with your life, turned from your sin, and asked Him to change you and remake you into a child of God, then you would take advantage of this time to do so today. Do not harden your heart. Do not consider HIs sacrifice as a common thing that is of no interest to you. In a very little while, He is coming again, and He will not delay. His righteous one shall live by faith. Are you righteous in the sight of God? You can be through faith in Jesus Christ.