The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday morning, January 24, 2010
Without a doubt, the most difficult parts of the book of Hebrews to deal with are the “warning passages.” Five different times, the writer of Hebrews issues a warning to the Jewish Christians in Rome. While Hebrews is full of difficult to understand passages, the warning passages are the most difficult not only to understand but to accept. There are some truths in Scripture that are so foreign to our fallen mind that they are simply hard to swallow. We find ourselves saying, “Surely it can’t mean what it seems to be saying.” And sometimes our minds have to be renewed, and at various points the truths of God come in direct conflict with the assumptions of mankind. So the challenge is to both understand and to accept.
In our text for today in chapter ten, we find the fourth of five warning passages in the book of Hebrews. In the first warning, the writer asked the question, “How shall we escape if ignore such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2.1-4). The writer starts us off easy since that warning is not all that hard to understand or accept. It simply warns of the danger of ignoring God’s offer of salvation. But the warnings proceed with intensity and with difficulty in interpretation.
In the second warning, the writer begins to hint of the danger of an “unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3.7-18). And here we get the first hint that the author is not just talking about the pagans out there who reject God, but the danger of developing an unbelieving heart is a very real danger to those who are among the people of God.
In the third warning, the writer speaks of the impossibility to bring back to repentance those who have once been enlightened if they fall away (Hebrews 6.4-12). Its this third warning that is the most troubling, at least until we read today’s text. And while the author is “confident of better things” in their case (Hebrews 6.9) and that they won’t fall away, even so, he continues to issue the warnings.
In the fifth and final warning passage, which comes later in chapter twelve, the author encourages the readers to not miss the grace of God (Hebrews 12.14-28), and this warning can easily be applied to those who are not among the apparent believers.
But with the fourth warning, our text today, as with the third warning, it seems to be quite clear that the words are meant for those who appear to be among the redeemed. And these are some of the most difficult words of all of the book of Hebrews to understand and to accept as true, so let’s work out way through them carefully. Let us read our text for today.
Hebrews 10.26-39 NIV
26If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
32Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
35So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. 38But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” 39But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
To Whom is the Author Speaking?
The writer is speaking to someone, and saying, for you, “no sacrifice of sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire” (Hebrews 10.26-27). The question is, “of whom is the author speaking?” When the author says that there is no sacrifice of sins left for you and all you can expect to get is judgment and raging fire, who is he talking about? We get several clues from the text itself as he describes this person, or type of person, he is talking about.
First, he is addressing those who “deliberately keep on sinning” (Hebrews 10.26). The word “deliberately” means “voluntarily and willfully.” The picture is not of one who commits sins, but of one who continues in their sin with no evidence of conviction, remorse, or repentance. Instead of turning away from their sin, they have volitionally and willfully chosen to continue in their sin.
Secondly, they are called “the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10.27). “Enemy” may not be the best translation of the Greek word. A better word might be “adversary.” The word literally means “one who is set against, opposed to, or contrary.” These are people, whoever they are, have made a conscious and willful choice to continue in their sin and they have set themselves in opposition to God and His gospel plan.
Third, they have “trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Hebrews 10.29). This one word in Greek is used sparingly in the New Testament, only a couple of times. Jesus used it in the Parable of the Soils to describe the seed that fell along the path which was trampled by those who walked on the path. He also used the same word to describe what is to be done with salt that is no longer salty. In both cases, there is something that is considered of so little value that it is simply tossed out as worthless and trampled underfoot to become part of the dirt floor of the earth. It gets treated as insignificant as we treat dirt. In this case, the shocking thing is that the people of whom the author is referring to have done this to the Son of God, to the incarnation, to the once and for all sacrifice for our sins. They have, in effect, taken the gospel and cast it out as something so worthless they don’t even care if it gets trampled into the dirt.
Fourth, they have “treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him” (Hebrews 10.29). While the NIV translates koinos as “unholy,” a better translation would be “common.” In other words, the very idea of Jesus pouring out blood on the cross for the forgiveness of sins is mundane, insignificant, common. Far from being “holy” or set apart, these people thought of the blood of Jesus as insignificant and common.
Finally, these people have “insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10.29). Both the NIV and ESV take pneuma to be the Holy Spirit, since they capitalize the word, but the emphasis seems to be upon the idea of grace. If grace is God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, then these people have insulted God’s work by refusing to repent of their sin, by setting themselves in opposition to God’s work, by casting out the Son of God as worthless and insignificant, and by treating the blood of Jesus as common. When we look at these five descriptors, surely these people were unbelievers, pagans, and were not be part of the Kingdom of God.
What makes the picture all the more difficult to discern is to consider how the author describes the people for whom “no sacrifice for sins is left.” These people had “received the knowledge of the truth” (Hebrews 10.26). They had heard the gospel message. In some way, they are part of “His people” (Hebrews 10.30). And, most troubling, they have been “sanctified” (Hebrews 10.29). Which brings us back to the very same question we had to face when we studied the third warning passage in Hebrews 6: is the writer speaking about the unsaved who are risking eternity by rejecting the gospel or is the writer warning the saved about the dangers of abandoning their salvation?
Asking the Right Question
What makes this question so difficult to answer, and what makes it so difficult to let the Scriptures speak for themselves, is that we instantly reduce this complex conversation into one simple question: is it possible to loose our salvation? I think it is important for us to make sure we are asking the right question.
I think a better way to approach these warning passages is to see the painting of the artist instead of getting too focused on the individual brush strokes. The author is painting a picture of what it means to be genuinely saved. Not pretending to be saved. Not just acting like it on Sundays, but genuinely redeemed and reborn. Regardless of how religious one might be, or might not be for that matter, genuine salvation, across the witness of Scripture, demonstrates itself in two primary ways: the fruits of righteousness and perseverance. With the fruit of righteousness, a genuine believer will continue along the life long path of being conformed into the image of Christ. Not that they are perfect or sinless, but one who has been redeemed has repented of their sin, turned around, and is walking another direction. And while they will not be perfect, they will demonstrate a redeemed attitude towards sin. Their orientation has changed, and they are no longer content in their sin. With the fruit of perseverance, a genuine believer will continue in his or her faith until the end. If you get started in the Christian faith, and then change your mind or lose interest, that is evidence that you never really were among the redeemed. Those who are redeemed and reborn remain until the end. Anything less is religious behavior or a phase but not genuine salvation.
Consider the parable of the soils, or what we commonly call the parable of the sower. In Luke 8, Jesus told the very familiar parable, where he compared the different ways that individuals receive the gospel. Some are like the seed that fell along the path, they hear the gospel but they don’t understand and are not saved. Others receive the word with joy, so the message of the gospel seems good to them at first, but they have no root and they fall away when a time of testing comes. Everyone likes the message of heaven, but when the implications of the gospel start to dawn on these people, they walk away because they didn’t sign up for that. Still others hear the word, and they embrace it and begin to grow but they fall away when life’s worries, riches, and pleasures begin to choke out the gospel. They receive the gospel at first, but as they begin to grow they have to choose between their real loves. And they choose something other than Jesus. Only those who hear the word with a good heart, retain it, and persevere actually produces a good crop.
In Hebrews 10, the apostle is seeing the parable of Jesus being lived out in the community of faith in Rome. Some in Rome heard the gospel but they never understood it, and they never became a part of their fellowship. Others heard the gospel, and immediately responded with joy. They liked what they heard and they accepted the gospel, but a time of testing has come. It has become difficult to be a Christian in Rome, and so some are considering returning to Judaism to escape persecution. Others may be reconsidering whether or not Jesus really was the Messiah. Others are perhaps being pressured by family or friends to return to the Jewish faith and to reject Christ. Regardless, the seed growing in their heart is getting choked out by the tares.
And the author of Hebrews is seeing this play out in Rome. These people are not just “not coming to church anymore.” But they are insulting the Spirit of Grace and treating the blood of Jesus as unholy and setting themselves in opposition to the very plan of God and are deliberately continuing in their sin. And the writer of Hebrews is laying out the very simple truth: if you turn your back on the once and for all sacrifice of Christ, then “no sacrifice for sins is left” (Hebrews 10.26). If you reject God’s plan for salvation, then there is no “plan B.” If you don’t like the “Jesus is Lord Gospel Version,” there is not another gospel coming. Gospel 2.0 is not going to be released in the near future. There is not a more “user friendly version” in the works. This is the only gospel out there.
There will come a day when we will all stand at the judgment seat of Christ and give an accounting for our lives, and the fact that we are sinners will be painfully obvious. God will ask us what we thought about His plan to bring forgiveness to sinners. And these people will have to confess that they didn’t much care for it. They thought the whole idea of Jesus dying for their sins was cute but insignificant. In reality, they wanted to keep living in their sin. In reality, they insulted the Spirit of grace and scoffed at the cross. And the only thing those people can expect to receive on that day will be “judgment and raging fire.”
The Message for Today
The writer of Hebrews is addressing a group of people who are considering turning their back on Christ primarily to return to Judaism, but the author could write these same words to the Christian church today in America. When the visible church gathers on Sunday mornings, there will always be those among us who have received the gospel message with joy but who have little root. There will be those who have knowledge of the truth and who understand that Jesus died for their sins. They like the idea of heaven and forgiveness, who doesn’t? And these people will most like consider themselves to be among God’s people.
However, when you consider their orientation towards sin, you will notice that they have little passion for confession and repentance from sin. In fact, these people think that a little sin won’t hurt anyone. In fact, you got to “live a little” to enjoy life. The mission of the Son of God, to be the once and for all sacrifice for our sins, to pour out His blood on the cross for our sin, so that we can be rescued from bondage to sin, is of no account to them. It’s a nice story, and it makes for a good musical on Easter. But its not something to get carried away about. For them, sin is something to be enjoyed, not to be turned away from. So what if Jesus died for it, they just want to have a little fun with their life. It seems all right to them. And they insult the Spirit of grace, the entire idea that sin is such a big issue that God Himself became flesh and became our sin to set us free.
Or perhaps the apostle would address another group of people. With this group, they have believed upon the gospel and they have repented from their sin, but life has gotten hard. Things have not gone well for them, and God must be the one to blame. And if God would let that happen to them, then they can’t follow Him any more.
Or perhaps the apostle would speak to those who are just too busy pursuing the treasures of this world. As Jesus said in the parable of the soils, life’s worries, riches, and pleasures have chocked out the gospel. Sure, they plan to get back to Jesus when there is more time, or the kids have graduated from high school, or when they retire. But what they are really saying is that the blood of Jesus is common, insignificant, and worthy of little more than being cast outside to be trampled underfoot.
And to them the writer of Hebrews issues this powerful warning. Be careful. If you turn your back on the grace of God today, you will have nothing to stand upon when the day of judgment comes tomorrow.
A Look Back
The author does something interesting here. He reminds them of the good works of their past. He remembers the “earlier days” when they stood their ground in the face of great suffering (Hebrews 10.32). He remembers that they were publicly insulted for their faith, and they stood publicly beside others as they were mistreated for their faith (Hebrews 10.33). The author remembers how they sympathized with those who had been imprisoned for their faith and even “joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property” (Hebrews 10.34).
It seems that the author is saying to his readers, “I am so confident that you are not one of those who have insulted the Spirit of grace because I remember the good deeds of yesterday.” He does not say, “I remember all the good things you have done in the past so I am sure that you are not enemies of God.” No, what the author says is, “Don’t throw away your confidence….You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10.35-36).
I know you have had great days in the past, but the testimony that you are not among those who are insulting the Spirit of grace is not the great deeds of the past, but the testimony of the present. And in this moment, you need to persevere. Don’t shrink back, but keep believing.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is not fun to preach on these kinds of passages. I don’t like preaching about warnings of judgment anymore than you like hearing them. I like the great promises of Scripture and the passages of hope. And certainly our current culture likes to hear the good stuff, about how God can help you with the struggles of your life.
But it is not loving to refuse to warn someone about the dangers before them because it might hurt their feelings. Since you have chosen to drive down this road and since this road is so important to you and since you are enjoying your new car so much, it would be unloving to ruin all of that by telling you that the bridge is out just around the corner. The loving thing to do is to say, “I know you have come out for a Sunday drive, but if you keep going down this road you will perish.”
You cannot read the Scriptures without recognizing the clear message that one day, Jesus will return and He will judge the living and the dead. The Bible is very clear, there is a day of judgment looming before all of creation. This world will end, and eternity will break forth. The Bible makes this very clear. Consider the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians,
This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. (2 Thessalonians 1.7-10)
You may say, “That might be true but I don’t like thinking about it.” Well the Bible likes to thin about it, and I do to. I rejoice in the fact that one day, the Righteous Judge of Heaven will return and make His creation right. I rejoice that one day, the evil and wicked will be cast out forever and creation will be restored to peace. I rejoice that one day everything will be brought under the Lordship of Christ. And I rejoice that the reason that is good news to me is that I don’t have to try to be good enough to escape the judgment. I rejoice that God has offered to me an escape. God has offered to me forgiveness and redemption.
And one day, those who deliberately keep on sinning, those who have set themselves in opposition to the gospel, those who trample underfoot the incarnate Son of God, those who scoff at the poured out blood of Jesus for their sins, those who insult the Spirit of grace will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord. And the author of Hebrews loves this congregation enough to say to them, “Don’t be among those who shrink back and are destroyed on the day of judgment. Instead be among those who believe and are saved.”
Where do you stand today? What is your confidence that you are among those who believe and are saved? Is it some great deed of the past? Or can you point to the present, not to some great thing you have done for God, but to your faith and confession in Jesus as your Lord and Savior? Can you say with no hesitation that you have confessed your sins, turned away from your sins, asked Jesus to forgive you of your sins, and daily live under the Lordship of Christ? Or are you hoping that you will be able to slip one past the Big Guy on the day of judgment? The apostle who wrote the book of Hebrews said it best,
30For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10.30)
Do not throw away your confidence. You need to persevere so that when you done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised.