Now remember that this preacher characteristically alternates, as good preachers will, between exposition and application. He has completed a long exposition of the priesthood of Jesus Christ and now is going to complete that section with another section of application. What he is going to say, of course, he has already said several times. Hebrews is a sermon on the absolute necessity of a persevering faith in Jesus Christ. His exposition of the Scripture, proving the superiority of Jesus Christ to all supposed substitutes for him, including even, perhaps especially, those people and those rituals that belong to biblical faith, is now applied again in an exhortation that completes the 10th chapter. Note the therefore with which the section begins. Because Jesus is the only priest who can make the worshipper perfect before God, therefore it is to Jesus that we must come and continue to come.
v.20 Once again, we cannot read “new and living way” as referring to a contrast between the old way of the Mosaic law and the new way of Christ and his apostles. That interpretation, common as it is, violates this author’s entire viewpoint. There has always been but one way, one gospel, one salvation. And the OT saints drew near to God as do we, as he will say in 11:6. Besides, in the NT the old/new contrast is too radical, too absolute, and too moral a contrast to refer to comparative differences between dispensations in the history of salvation. The old man is not the OT believer but a man still dead in his sins. The old way is not the good but not as good way of Moses, it is the way of death. The new way is the way that makes a new man, that brings him or her into a new covenant with God, that leads a person to sing a new song, that brings a sinner to new life, gives him a new heart, and a new name. It is not a question of varying degrees of access to God, but of real access when before there was none. There was always this access for believers, but there never was for those who trusted instead the rituals of the Mosaic law and did not have true faith in God. In and of themselves, those rituals could make no one perfect and bring no one to God.
v.21 vv. 19-21 pass in review the long argument that the author has just completed proving that salvation is based on Christ’s priesthood, his once-for-all sacrifice of himself and not on the repeated rituals of the Levitical system.
v.22 “sprinkling” and “bodies washed” are obviously references to baptism, but to what baptism signifies and seals. It is not ex opere operato baptism, but baptism in the context of faith. Remember, Israel was “baptized” in the Reed Sea, but it didn’t save them! It is important to add that caution. But, rather than spend our time thinking about what this way of speaking about baptism does not mean we would be wise to note what it does mean. This way of speaking, if it shows us anything at all, shows us how vividly baptism represented spiritual cleansing to first generations of Christians after Pentecost and how they thought about salvation in sacramental terms. We American evangelicals, for example, would be much more likely to mean, if we said that we went to church and were fed, that we heard a good sermon than that we ate the body and drank the blood of Christ.
v.23 The preacher has said this already a number of times, as you recall. (Cf. 2:1-3; 3:6, 14; 4:1, 14; 6:11-12; etc.] This is the theme of Hebrews. Mark it in red in your Bibles and commonplace it at one of the these texts and gather all the others next to it in the margin and you will always remember what Hebrews is about.
v.25 That endurance in faith requires the encouragement and accountability that we get from other believers. People who call themselves Christians but who show little or no interest in the fellowship of the saints are people who don’t realize what is at stake or how vulnerable they are to fatal errors of thought and life.
v.31 This terrible warning repeats more powerfully the warning found in 6:4-8. The point made here is the same as that made there. If, having once become acquainted with and having laid claim to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ as alone able to make sinners perfect before God, one rejects it as his or her hope of salvation, all hope is forever lost. Apostasy is the sin that will not be repented of: God will not grant repentance from it and the apostate will never seek it. And no wonder! Such a turning away from Christ in full knowledge of what he is and what he did is nothing less than “trampling the Son of God under foot” and “insulting the Holy Spirit” who brought that knowledge to you and, in your heart, gave you evidence of its truth and power. No one should be surprised that God is implacable in such a case. That God is described as “the living God” reminds us that his judgment is inescapable. We mere mortals cannot escape the living God, the ever-living God is what is meant.
This warning will be repeated in similarly solemn words at the end of chapter 12. In any case, these texts put paid to the idea, still commonly found among Christians, that the OT form of the faith was harder, less characterized by grace and love, more practiced in a spirit of duty than fear. No, there was plenty of love and gratitude and joy in gospel life during the Mosaic epoch, and there is and should continue to be plenty of fear in ours.
v.35 Now the author encourages his readers with their former steadfastness. They stood up for the gospel and suffered for it and did so because they had hope of everlasting life. You know the gospel, he is telling them, you can’t turn away now. What is more, the Lord helped you then, he will help you now.
v.37 The citation from Habbakuk 2:3-4 is taken from the LXX. The MT has “it” is coming, a reference to the revelation of God’s judgment. The LXX has “he” and makes it a reference to the coming of the Judge himself! The point is the same in any case. Then, interestingly, our preacher transposes the two lines of Hab. 2:4 to lay stress on the warning.
v.38 Knowing what they know, and having identified themselves as followers of Christ as they so wonderfully did earlier in their Christian lives, to defect now would be the equivalent of Israel’s irrational apostasy.
v.39 The author is confident that at least most of his readers, having flirted with danger, will at last stand fast. Note, once again, the futuristic perspective. Salvation awaits the return of Christ. The salvation we are in danger of losing if we do not hold fast to Christ until the end of our lives is the world to come.
Now, we have looked already at the threat of judgment as part of the message of the gospel and of Christianity as a whole view of human life. And we have already considered apostasy and the warnings against it we find in the Bible when we took up 6:4-8. Surely those subjects could well be tackled again, important as they are and as wisely repetitive as this preacher is in this great letter we are studying. If he thought to bring up the point over and over again, then a Christian preacher will be no less wise to do so when he is preaching through Hebrews. All the more is this true in our day when so much of the biblical iron has gone out of preaching and God’s people are getting so much less of the sterner parts of biblical truth, those very parts that form the sub-structure, the skeleton of our faith and without which the gospel slowly begins to sag and lose its shape.
But I want to take up this subject from a different vantage point this evening. The striking and grim definition of apostasy that we have in vv. 26-31 and the consequences that ensue for the apostate force us to ponder how differently things are judged in heaven and on earth. The Bible characteristically treats such matters in these categorical terms and, by and large, avoids consideration of the psychology of unbelief and apostasy. But, of course, we must face these things as they actually occur in human life and they look very different, don’t they?
People certainly don’t in general think of themselves as “trampling under foot the Son of God” or “insulting the Spirit of grace.” I guarantee you that these Jewish Christians to whom Hebrews was first written did not think of their sliding back toward Judaism as insulting God or treating the blood of the covenant as an unholy thing. They thought of it as something that would lessen the pressure on them from family and fellow Jews, as something that would restore their lives to the peace they had known before they became Christians, and, perhaps they thought of it as returning to the theology they had grown up with, which, after all, was the theology of people who also claimed to follow Moses and the Word of God. If there were those who had already defected and returned to Judaism, you can be sure that they were confident that they had done the right thing and could articulate their arguments for leaving Christianity. It is not at all unlikely that some of these folk were attractive and intelligent people who seemed to be very sincere in the step they were taking.
As C.S. Lewis reminds us in one of his Letters to An American Lady ,
“Humans are very seldom either totally sincere or totally hypocritical. Their moods change, their motives are mixed, and they are often themselves quite mistaken as to what their motives are.”
No doubt it was so with these folk to whom Hebrews was first sent. And, yet, this author shows little interest in “understanding” their viewpoint, at least in the modern sense of taking seriously the arguments that they might mount for their second thoughts about the gospel of Christ. Rather, he addresses these dire warnings to them straightaway and seems to be saying that none of their reasons and none of their excuses and none of their extenuations will matter at all to God when the day of judgment dawns.
And, what I find particularly important for us to observe, is the fact, which this author, so far from denying, makes a point of mentioning, that these people had suffered. Life had been hard for them. Christian faith had meant hardship and trouble for these people and, in all probability, was still meaning hardship and trouble for them. That is why they were being tempted to bag it and go back to Judaism. But their hardships he does not view as an excuse, as a reason why these folk should be sympathized with in their flagging faith.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that this man would not be a sympathetic pastor. I’m sure he would have been. I don’t mean to say he wouldn’t have taken seriously the arguments that these folk might advance to explain their wavering about Jesus Christ. He would have dealt with those arguments no doubt. But, what is clear is that he does not consider their psychological situation as doubters, as those who are doubting because of life’s difficulties, as the main thing. He treats them as those who are dallying with sin, with a fatal sin, and warns them accordingly.
I’m thinking about all of this because I was with an apostate several weeks ago. None of you know who this person is, so I can say something about her. She was a college classmate of mine and I remember her from those days quite fondly. She was a pretty girl, a gentle and sweet personality, and she came from a difficult background and, as I remember, she was held in affection by almost everyone. I remember that at one point I loaned her some money to pay a bill and she is the kind to have remembered that to this day. I think, if we had been asked at the time who among us might later apostatize and give up the Christian faith in its biblical form, she would have been among the last considered a likely candidate.
But she did apostatize. She now writes books and leads seminars teaching a kind of cross between feminism of an extreme type and new age religion. God, in her thinking, ends up being the affirmation of herself as a woman. Indeed, one of her books was entitled, The God who Looks Like Me. Her target audience is women who aren’t happy with the historic Christian faith; who feel, so she says, marginalized or belittled or abused by historic, patriarchal Christianity. Her mission is to comfort them and tell them that they don’t have to believe those ancient doctrines, that there is another way of thinking about God that is more affirming of these disaffected women. Another of my college classmates, who came to college from the same church she came from, wrote her some years ago to express his outrage that not only had she left the faith – that was bad enough – but she seems determined to help others leave it as well.
Now, humanly speaking, there is a reason for all of this. This woman hates men. And, if you were a woman who had suffered at the hands of men as she had, you might very well hate them too. It is not as if this woman’s rejection of the Christian faith occurred in a vacuum. She was raised in an orphanage and was sexually abused by a priest. There seems to be no doubt as to the facts of the case. She married the son of a pastor and it turned out, by everyone’s account, to be a horrible marriage for her and in it she suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her so-called Christian husband. It is enough to make you weep when you think about her misfortunes and you cannot help but think of what might have been had she been loved as she should have been loved. But, there is little doubt that her apostasy is directly related to her deeply painful experiences. And surely we can understand that and sympathize with that. Surely we can feel a proper outrage at religious figures, Christian religious figures, who so terribly misrepresented Christianity to her and gave her at last such a misshapen view of what the gospel is and what it means in human relationships. We could, I suppose, go so far as to forgive her for her final unbelief.
But, just at that point we run into the solid wall of this teaching here in Hebrews 10, which is, after all, the same teaching we get from the Lord Jesus and from all the other biblical writers.
Psychology notwithstanding, life experiences notwithstanding, troubles and trials notwithstanding, there is to be no concession made for those who know the gospel, have claimed to believe it, have been taken to be Christians, and then turn their backs on Jesus Christ. They know better. Whatever their circumstances, however they have been treated, they know better.
And as I sat last week on a couch in the living room of our hosts and spoke with her, I knew that she knew better. I saw the choice she had made and knew she knew better. I listened to her and to all that was missing in her speech and knew that she had made a bad choice, a terrible choice, and that she knew better than to make it. Badly as she had been treated, she knew her hope for redemption and a new beginning in life and, still more, she knew her hope for eternal joy, lay with Jesus Christ. Whatever her hardship in life, she cannot take herself and her new age/feminist nonsense cannot take her to heaven. She knew that. She really did trample under foot the Son of God and she really did insult the Holy Spirit who had over years communicated the truth of things to her heart. What she did was rebel. We may think her circumstances make that rebellion more poignant, but they do not really alter the nature of what she did. And she, so far as anyone can tell, and as we would expect from Hebrews 6 and 10, doesn’t feel a twinge of repentance over what she has done.
Now, no doubt if we had known these Jewish Christians we might feel, at least about some of them, the way I am tempted to feel about my college friend. They had suffered for their faith, they were under constant pressure from family, friends, and neighbors. We can understand that. We can even sympathize with that. But what we cannot sympathize with, no matter what the circumstances of life may have been, is trampling under foot the Son of God, turning your back on the terrible sacrifice he made for sin, insulting the redemption he won for his people at such horrific cost and for the sake of nothing except an everlasting love. No excuses for that will be heard on the great day! No appeal to the troubles of life will be taken seriously in the case of someone who treats as an unholy thing Christ’s precious blood shed for sinners.
It can bother us, from time to time, that the Bible does not seem to be as accommodating of human frailties as we want to be. The Bible is a very sympathetic book in many ways, but what it does not do and does not allow us to do is to lose sight of what is really going on when a person fails to follow Christ in the first place, or, worse, turns away from following him after a time as someone who thought himself or herself to be and was taken by others to be a Christian. Even people who suffer much know better than to turn away from the only one who can make them perfect before God. Unhappy people can be just as rebellious as those unbelievers who are comfortable and blasé.
What will they say? “I didn’t want to believe in you anymore. I was unwilling to follow Christ anymore. He didn’t give me the life I wanted and I couldn’t believe in him any more.” And what will he say? Will he say, “Oh, well, that excuses you.” No; he will not. He will say, “Well, then, you shall have what you chose, the life and the future that human beings get who don’t have me.”
In our day, I fear, we have found another way to mitigate, to soften the terrible warnings of Hebrews 10. We can come to feel that they must apply only to people who don’t have good reasons for their doubt and their eventual unbelief. We take everyone’s troubles so seriously that we find it difficult to believe that God will still require of them what he requires of everyone else. But he makes this clear in his Word. He who has the Son has life and he who does not have the Son does not have life. And it is the same for those who suffer much as it is for those who suffer less.
To be fair, in many ways life was a lot tougher on people in the first century Greco-Roman world than it is on people today. There was more social injustice, much more early death, there were no modern medicines, no aspirin, few of the modern conveniences we take for granted. There was a lot of suffering, as there is today. And these people, to whom Hebrews was written, had suffered significantly even as Christians. But, for this author, their sufferings made it only more necessary that they continue in the faith of Christ, more essential that they held fast to him. There is one way and one way only to get to heaven. There is one way for every human being no matter the condition of his or her life. That way is Christ. And God will not take kindly to those who claim to believe in his Son and then walk away from him. The Lord Jesus having suffered so much more terribly than any human being, he will not consider suffering an excuse for apostasy.
This is very important for us American Christians to hear and to ponder. The Lord often tenderly invites us to come to him. He acknowledges that we are weary and burdened. We have already in this sermon heard of the Lord’s tender sympathy for his people in their troubles. But we must also take with full seriousness the implacable determination of our God to reject those who reject his Son, troubles or no.