Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 46, November 9 to November 15 2008

Hebrews 10:26-39

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning in our ongoing series on the book of Hebrews, picking up a chapter 10 verse 26 and continuing through to verse 39 of the same chapter. As those of you who have been with us will know, in this letter the writer has been working very hard to persuade his wavering readers not to buckle under the ongoing pressure and persecution they are experiencing because of their newfound faith.

Judging from the content of the letter, it would seem that a significant number of his readers had either converted out of Judaism, or were at least familiar with it. Now that they were experiencing personal difficulties because of their conversion, the temptation, for at least some of them, was to abandon their professions of faith and return to their former way of life and practice.

However, as the writer of this letter has been at pains to show, for them to do so would be disastrous, on at least two counts. Firstly, it would be disastrous because they would be returning to a means of relating to God that was no longer legitimate. To be sure, the Old Testament system of temple, priests and sacrifices had been established by God himself and, for a long time, was the ordained means by which his people related to him.

But now things were different. With the coming of Jesus it became clear that the Old Testament system was not the ultimate goal toward which God was moving but was, instead, a shadow, a partiality, a promise of which Jesus was the fulfillment, and the reality, and the fullness. Everything in the Old Testament pointed forward TO, and was preparatory FOR the time when Jesus would come. Now that he had come, these former things were no longer necessary.

Accordingly, anyone who rejected Christianity in order to return to the Old Testament system was clearly misguided. To use a contemporary analogy, abandoning Christianity and going back to Judaism would be like a person trading in his house for the blueprint from which the house was built. It would be like a person giving up her car and replacing it with a photograph of her car. It would be like a person trading a real piece of chocolate cake for a crayon drawing of one. In short, it would be foolish. For that reason alone, leaving the faith would be disastrous.

But the greater disaster in their abandoning the faith was not just that they would be returning to an invalid system, but more importantly that they would be turning their back on Christ, abandoning their profession, and walking away from the only means that God had provided to address the sin that separates humanity from its Creator. That was an even greater disaster of immeasurable, eternal proportions.

Because of that, the writer of Hebrews has included in his letter not only numerous descriptions and explanations of how the salvation that Jesus brings is superior to anything they might find in the Old Testament system but the writer has also included in this letter a number of warning passages for his readers. He has told them on several occasions now of the dangerous consequences that awaited those that would drift away from their professions of faith and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We saw the first such warning in Hebrews 2:1-3. That was followed by warnings in Hebrews 3:7-19 and Hebrews 6:4-8. The passage before us this morning contains yet another stern, even frightening warning for the people of God. And that will be the focus of our study. Before we dive into that, however, let us pray and then we'll read the passage together:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one 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." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Now, the two things I want us to look at this morning are: 1) What this warning is and what it is all about and 2) what we are meant to do with a warning like this.

Firstly, what is this warning and what is it all about? What did the writer of Hebrews have in mind when he wrote these words? Well, for starters we have to say that we do not have any direct statements to go on. The writer does not tell us exactly what he has in mind, at least not in so many words.

However, while he does not say so directly, it seems to me that the writer has indirectly given us plenty of clues along the way such that we can, I think, form a pretty clear idea of what he has in mind.

The first clue comes from looking closely at the warnings previously given in this letter. In the first warning: chapter 2, verses 1-3, in the midst of a discussion about how Jesus is not a mere angel but is, in fact, superior to the angels, the writer cautions his readers not to drift away from what they have heard and so neglect the great salvation they have in Jesus.

In the next warning, chapter 3, the writer of Hebrews is showing Jesus superiority to Moses and, in the context of that discussion, he warns his readers to not be like those that rebelled against Moses in the wilderness. What was that rebellion? If you remember, there was a questioning of Moses' leadership. Some of the people had had enough of things and made a point of saying so. They wanted to stop following in the way they had been going, to abandon their previous loyalties and commitments, to entrust themselves to the leadership of another.

In the third main warning, found in chapter 6, the writer of Hebrews sternly admonishes those who had fallen away from the covenant community of God's people. If you remember from our study of those verses, the people in question who were in danger of falling away were not strangers to the Christian faith. They were not mere fringe dwellers, but were card-carrying members (professors) of the local church who had seen and experienced something of the goodness of God and who had heard and understood, cognitively at least, the significance of the Gospel and had been beneficiaries of the kindness and blessings that God, by His Spirit, showered upon the covenant community of His people. However, not all professors are possessors. It was mere professors and not possessors who were in danger of turning away.

So, those are the warnings we have seen thus far. While the details of each warning vary, the common theme that is present in all of them is this note of caution; to not drift away but to keep hanging on, to stay on the path they were on, to keep believing the things they had first believed, to keep following Jesus. That is the first clue as to how we should understand the warning of Hebrews 10.

The next clue comes from looking at the verses that immediately precede verse 26 of chapter 10. If you remember from our study of that section, which was verses 19-25, we saw how the writer of Hebrews, after many chapters of giving us "indicatives", i.e., the theology or "theory", so to speak - after a lot of that he transitioned into this last main section of the letter - the section we are in now, a section that is devoted to putting the "theory" or theology he has just laid out into practice.

And so verses 19-25 are the first part of that, and they taught us that, because Jesus truly is our Great High Priest, because he has fully accomplished what the Old Testament system, at best, only foreshadowed - because all of that is true, the writer of Hebrews says his readers are to draw near to God in Jesus and hold fast their confession of Jesus, and to encourage and stir up one another to love and good deeds done in Jesus' name.

At least in verses 19-25, one of the primary means by which God's people are to draw near to him is through drawing near to his people. They were to engage themselves with the community of those that professed Christ as Lord. They were to do this not just physically, not merely by "showing up" - although that was certainly a minimum sort of pre-requisite. But more than just drawing near physically, by showing up, they were to draw near personally, relationally, sacrificially, ministerially - serving their brothers and sisters by encouraging them and building them up and stimulating them to live in ways that accomplish good and so honor God.

That is the second clue. The final clue I want to draw your attention to is found in the verses that immediately follow the specific warnings we are looking at here in verses 26-31. Listen again to verses 32-39:

Hebrews 10:32-39 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one 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." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Why are these verses here? What is the writer of Hebrews doing? Simply put, he is following up his harsh words of warning with a note of encouragement. After saying some difficult things that needed saying, the writer softens the blow by drawing his readers' attentions back to their own recent history. He wants them to remember the time when they were new to the faith and when, as a result, they suffered hardship. He wants them to recall former times when some of them were slandered and humiliated publically and some even imprisoned because of their faith.

He reminds them of how, when that happened, those that were NOT imprisoned did not shrink back as a result of this but had compassion on those who had been imprisoned - going to them and caring for them during that particular difficulty, and putting themselves at risk by doing so.

Even further, he reminds them of times when they had their possessions stolen, their lands taken, and yet how they endured that hardship joyfully - Why? Because they knew and were firmly convinced that the material possessions they lost here - however great they might be - paled in comparison to the greater and eternal reward that awaited them in heaven.

In short, the writer reminds his readers that this is not the first time they have faced hardship. This is not the first time that they would have been in trying circumstances that would have tempted any man or woman to think about running away and throwing in the towel. They have been here before and the writer has seen them respond magnificently before - not shrinking back, not running away, not giving up, but pressing on, moving ahead, remaining steady, living by faith and not by sight. That is the fourth clue.

So, if we take all these "clues" together, what seems fairly obvious is that the thing that the writer of Hebrews has in mind - surely - as he "pens" this warning in chapter 10, the thing that he exhorts his readers NOT to do, at all costs, is to not give up, to not walk away, to not abandon their Christian profession and return to their former way of life and practice.

In other words, the "deliberate sinning" that the writer speaks of in verse 26, while inclusive and generative, no doubt, of many things, find its source in the primary, foundational sin of deliberately, conscientiously, knowingly abandoning one's profession of faith and confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ. The deliberate choice to turn away from the faith has returned them to their former life - a life in rebellion, a life of rejecting him. That is the sort of "deliberate sin" that the writer has been talking about throughout this letter. It is the thing that is foremost in his mind here in chapter 10.

It is important to stop at this point and make a couple of important distinctions since these verses can be, and are, easily mis-understood and taken out of context. As you and I both know, because we are ALL recovering sinners, we are all quite familiar with the workings of the fallen heart. We can all sit here and recall countless times when we were in situations where we were tempted with a particular sin, where we knew exactly what was going on, where we knew what the right thing to do was, where we knew what God's perspective on the thing was - and yet we gave into that temptation, we willfully, knowingly, deliberately did what we knew was wrong, and embraced our sin.

Now hear me out on this. I do not want to trivialize this in any way. Because when we do those things, it is a tragedy. When we do those things, we profane the name by which we have been saved. When we do those things we shame and dishonor ourselves and our Savior, and the Church for which He died. When we do those things we render ourselves liable to the judgment and discipline - even severe discipline - of our heavenly Father. When we do those things we are without excuse.

We ought never get to the place where we respond lightly to our sin. Indeed, if we DO find ourselves in that place where our consciences are no longer bothered by our sin , where we justify and accept and nurture and cling to our sin - if we find ourselves in that sort of place then we have every reason to be concerned - and deeply concerned - as it may well be an indication of very grave things.

But having said all that, and without trivializing any incidence of sin by a believer, I want you to see that there is a difference between a believer deliberately choosing to sin against God, and a person deliberately turning his or her back on God and, in so doing, rendering the whole concept of sin as meaningless. There is a difference between the daily, struggle that true believers experience in their battle with remaining sin - there is a difference between that and the person who has given up on the whole enterprise altogether, who has determined that there is nothing in it at all, who has concluded that he/she was wrong to have gone down this path, wrong to believe that the death of a Jewish carpenter 2000 years ago has any meaning whatsoever for people today.

The person that the writer of Hebrews has in mind here, and throughout this letter, is the person who has turned his/her back on the whole thing, who has, in the language of verse 29:

..."spurned" or rejected Jesus, i.e., denied that He is, in fact, the Son of God...

...who has profaned the blood of the covenant - in other words who has treated the blood of Christ as profane, as common, as having no more significance than the shed blood of any other person.... ...who has "outraged" the Spirit of grace, in other words, who has insulted and repudiated the reality and work of the Holy Spirit of God, by whose operation the blessings of God are administered to the people of God....

That is the person and situation that the writer of Hebrews has, primarily, in view here. Which is why he says what he does in verses 26-27:
Hebrews 10:26-27 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
For the person who walks away from their Christian profession, who abandons the faith, who spurns and treats as nothing the death of Christ - for the person who is deliberately sinning in such a way there truly is no more sacrifice for sins. If a person rejects the only means that God has provided for dealing with sin, then what other conclusion or future could they expect? The only thing such a person can expect is the same judgment and condemnation that any other person who rejects the grace of God can expect - an "expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire", as the passage says.

Lest his readers have any doubts as to God's willingness to make good on this threat, the writer goes on to make a comparison in verse 28 with God's reaction to those that set aside the law of Moses. His point in saying that is simply this: If the penalty for doing such a thing back then was death without mercy, then how much more seriously will God respond to those who set aside not just the law of Moses, but one who was greater than Moses himself, indeed, One who was and is the very Son of God?

"Vengeance is mine" says the Lord, "I will repay" and "The Lord will judge His people" - two quotations from a section of Deuteronomy where Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, is issuing an indictment against Israel for her lack of faithfulness. The writer of Hebrews' point is that if God has been willing to respond quite harshly to His peoples' faithlessness in the past, then they ought to take seriously his willingness to do so now.

Which leads us then to the second - and shorter - part of our study - thinking about what we as a community of God's people today are meant to do with a passage such as this. How should we respond to the very challenging and sobering warning found within these verses?

Well, for starters, we need to remember and take very seriously these words. We need to remember that this is a live issue for God's people today - for us - for the covenant community of God's people contained within this room. What we have before us here is not like some dud missile that is dug up in the desert somewhere that has been defused and no longer carries any real threat within itself. On the contrary, what we have here is a live bomb.

What we see here is a real warning that contains a legitimate threat for all those who have identified with people of God, who have professed faith in Christ - but then turn away, and stay away. That is not a statement about losing one's salvation. It is a statement about abandoning a professed faith. The two are not the same. And the danger of falling away from one's professed faith is as real and relevant now as ever.

To be sure, our particular circumstances are not the same as those who would have first received this letter. For the original readers of this letter, it seems clear that there were living in a much more hostile environment. They were in a situation where their Christian profession regularly made them a target for abuse and humiliation, for imprisonment, for theft - and even worse. For them, being a Christian was risky business. It was no place for the faint-of-heart. That context had a lot to do with their being tempted to abandon the faith.

But for the church in our own day - at least in this country — we are not in the same situation. To be sure, there are Christians around the world today who are in precisely the same situation as the original readers of this letter - but that is really not true for you and me. So, far at least.

Yet, in spite of that, people continue to drift away from the faith, people still abandon their professions - even in our context, don't they? Don't we all know people who have fallen into this category?

To be sure, the factors behind such drift in our own day would certainly vary from one situation to the next. For some there is a gradual "crowding out" of Christian things - like what we see in the parable of the soils. Other priorities, other engagements, other pursuits multiply and pile up and, sooner or later, something has to give. For others there has been - from their perspective at least - an overwhelming experience of the broken-ness of the world and the ugliness that permeates this world because of the Fall - a crushing of hopes, a piling on of despair, a seemingly disproportionate distribution of personal tragedy and hardship. Such realities are often found beneath the smoking ashes of a ruined and shipwrecked faith.

But whatever the circumstances are, whatever the situation in which the ugly serpent of temptation raises its head - whether persecution, or distraction, or worldliness, or idolatry, or broken-heartedness - whatever the circumstances might be for the people of God - the admonition remains the same. Hear again these words from Hebrews 10:

Hebrews 10:35-39 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one 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." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
The writer of Hebrews calls his readers - the covenant community of God's people - to maintain their confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ. He exhorts them to persevere, to endure, to continue to do the will of God. He reminds them that the Lord IS coming back and that those who belong to him - whom he refers to as "my righteous one" - are those that live by faith, who do not shrink back - even though the temptation to do so might be great.

That same encouragement needs to be heard by God's people today - by you and me. And so, taking my cue from the writer of this letter, let me encourage you, today, to not throw away your confidence in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let me encourage you to keep hanging on to Jesus, to not grow weary in doing good, in doing his will, in following him, in trusting in his promises, in waiting for his return. Let me urge you to keep on, keeping on, to continue to live by faith, to not shrink back.

But let me also go on to not only try and spur you on with words and assurances - let me also do as the writer of this letter has done for his readers and give you two practical ways in which you can help safeguard yourself - and others - from the very real danger of drifting away and abandoning your profession.

The two practical things that the writer offers his own readers can be found in the verses on either side of verses 26-31, and function almost like "bookends" on either side of this warning. One of these we have already seen and talked about at length - verses 19-25 - but it bears repeating here, even if only briefly. And the thing I am referring to here - the practical thing that we can, and should do, and which will go a long way in terms of "drift prevention" for you and me is to continue to draw near to God

And the specific way that we can do that is by continuing to draw near to the people of God. Now, as we saw in a previous study, drawing near to God is the logical and obvious thing that one should do simply because of who God is and because He has removed the barrier of sin that separated us from Him.

But in addition to drawing near for those reasons, we ought also to draw near to God, by drawing near to the people of God because that is one of the surest and most practical means of guarding against drift in the Christian life. As we saw before, the "drawing near" that the writer of Hebrews has in mind, and which I am now commending to you, is more than just "showing up" and "hanging out." Drawing near to the people of God means more than just being physically and bodily present - it means drawing near in much more tangible ways - drawing near relationally, emotionally, personally, ministerially. And really, that's the only sort of connection to the church that the New Testament knows and endorses.

Because, you see, if there is no engagement - real engagement - with one another that is growing, that is personal, that is sacrificial, that is honest, that is seeking to serve one another, and to challenge one another — if that is not really going on, if that is not what you are about - then that Is not the sort of engagement that the writer of Hebrews has in mind. That is just showing up. That is just punching the clock. Occupying a three-dimensional space.

If you are not really engaged with the people of God - if you are just showing up - then it could hardly be the case that the church, for you, is functioning as a means of grace by which you are drawing near to God Himself. If you are dis-engaged and drifting from the people of God, then it is a safe bet that you are dis-engaged and drifting from God Himself.

"I'm not adrift," you might say to yourself. Of course, you're not. No one ever is. But you see, that Is the thing about drift. It Is the thing that happens when you do not think it is happening. It is happening when you would swear it is not happening, when it does not look like it is happening. Drift is the thing that usually gets noticed after the fact, some time during the post-mortem, when the crash inspection team shows up to try and piece together why the plane came down.

Now, if you are sitting there feeling pretty uncomfortable then I have two things to say to you: Firstly, good. Secondly, if you are realizing some important, albeit sobering, things about yourself - take heart. The fact that you have any sort of conscience about this whole thing is good. The struggle is good. The realization is good. There is plenty of grace there for you to own your sin, to repent of your sin, and to respond, again, in faith. So, let me encourage you to do that.

But you may be sitting there, and the thing you are feeling is not discomfort for yourself but, instead, sadness and concern for a brother or sister - possibly someone from this church, possibly another person that you know outside of this church. You are wondering if they may be drifting. Well, guess what? You do not have to keep wondering. Go after them. Find them. Hunt them down. Ask them how they are doing. Encourage them to something more than just "showing up". Invite them to something deeper, bring them along, show them the opportunities that are there. Pray for them. Pray with them.

Now, of course, if they do not respond then you may be the one that God will use to wake them up, or shake them up. You may be the one, the only Christian they know, that will bother to tell them the truth. If that responsibility falls in your lap, then you have got to do it. For God's sake, for their sake, for the church's sake, you have to do it. Show them that you love them by not letting them drift away. Tell them that they are in a dangerous place. Tell them with tears in your eyes, but tell them nevertheless.

That is one "bookend." That is one practical thing that the writer or Hebrews encourages his readers to embrace - to draw near to God by drawing and keeping near to the people of God - and so create a strong preventative to drift.

The second one, the other practical "bookend" here would be to recall the story of God's faithfulness to you. If you cannot remember, ask someone who can help you remember. LOOK BACK upon your own story for those things that are evidences of God's presence and working in your own life. That is what the writer of Hebrews did with his readers - he reminded them of these times where they responded well to hardship and struggle, times when they, at personal risk, identified with others who had been imprisoned for their faith, where they joyfully accepted the plundering of their material possessions.

You and I too need to recall those times when God worked in our lives, providing for us, caring for us, challenging and testing us. The same God who was faithful then, is the God who will be faithful now. Nothing is changed. No one else is in charge. You and I, like the first readers of this letter, need to look back on our own lives for these evidences of God's working, of God's care, of his inexplicable grace toward us, of his Spirit's transforming us in ways that we would never have come to on our own.

Through that, through the means of grace that is the Church, and through the keeping power of God's Spirit - we will avoid the danger described in these verses - and will in the end find ourselves among those who, as Hebrews says, " have faith and preserve their souls".

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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