[THE WARNINGS AND EXHORTATIONS IN HEBREWS]
Remembering that the 'therefore' links these words with Chapter One's description of Jesus as the eternal Son of God, the King whom the angels worship and serve, this warning alerts us to the stupidity of ignoring the salvation brought by this Jesus. He is the ultimate being: to scorn the salvation he offers is to scorn the ultimate salvation, indeed, it is to scorn the only real salvation.
As 'apostle' Jesus is the one sent by God to us, with God's message (1:1); as 'high priest' Jesus is the one who stands in the presence of God on our behalf, with an offering for our sins. Again, remembering what has already been said about Jesus in Chapters 1 and 2, and remembering that the Hebrews were being pressured to forsake Jesus, the writer here exhorts them to fix their thoughts on Jesus. His meaning is: don't even consider any other option, don't think that there might be a better salvation, a greater mediator, somewhere around; rather, keep your thoughts fixed on him. Because he is the ultimate, any other possible salvation, any other possible Saviour, is simply not worth considering.
Another point that it is necessary to make is this: that if we embrace additional revelation about God, from some source beyond and beside Jesus Christ, or seek to add something of our own moral or ritual performance to the work of Christ to gain or maintain our salvation, we are just as much denying him as if we substituted something else for him. This Saviour and this salvation stand alone or they do not stand at all. Because Christ alone is the perfect Saviour, and because the salvation he grants us is absolute and complete, any augmentation, any supplementation, any addition, immediately effects a reduction, because anything added can only be less than perfect and less than complete, and therefore erodes and destroys the perfection of that to which it was added.
True faith in the real Jesus would never do that.
Why does the writer say this?
He does not mean that we can lose our salvation if we do not continue to believe in Jesus. Rather, he means that if we do not persevere in belief in Christ, we have never really believed in him to begin with, and our failure to continue with Christ is the obvious expression of non-genuine faith. True faith has such a concept of Christ and his salvation that it would never let go of him and turn aside to anything else or turn back to its former beliefs. The writer here is not talking of the kind of temporary desertion or temporary hiccup of faith evidenced in the disciples, and especially in Peter, on the night of Christ's arrest, but of a base level departure from the salvation mediated by Christ to another way of salvation, from Christ to another saviour or god.
Those who truly believe in Christ know that there is no salvation and no saviour anywhere near as good as Jesus Christ, indeed, they know that there is no other salvation and no other saviour. Obviously, those who are 'his house' remain with him. If anyone does not remain with him then they have never known him to begin with. It is not that they lose their salvation but that, although they gave some kind of lip-service to it, and seemed to embrace it for a while, they had never really known Christ at all. As Peter said in John 6:68,69, when all except the twelve had given up on Christ: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.' Yet even among the twelve there was one whose apparent belief Jesus knew to be not belief at all (John 6:70). Persistence in faith in Christ is the evidence of its reality.
The writer quotes this verse three times - in 3:7,8; 3:15 and 4:7. At this point it would be good to go back and re-read Study 5: A Sabbath Rest for the People of God.
The unbelief of the Israelites recorded in Numbers 13 and 14 and mentioned in Psalm 95:7-11 is the focus of the writer's purpose in quoting this verse. Those Israeliteshad witnessed with their own eyes, not only the power of God demonstrated by the plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7 to 12), but also the miraculous deliverance which God had wrought for them at the Red Sea (Exodus 13 & 14). They had stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, overawed by the powerful natural phenomena accompanying the presence of the Lord as he spoke to Moses on the mountain (Exodus 19). They had been the objects of his compassion as he provided food and water for them on their journey through an inhospitable land (Exodus 15:22-17:7). Yet, despite some appearance of belief (Exodus 15:31), they, as an entire group, had not truly believed.
This disobedience/sin of unbelief, this hardness of heart that caused the crisis in Numbers 13 and 14 was not something that had suddenly came to light - these people had never really believed God from the start.
All that they had seen and experienced, both of the Lord's great power and his ability to supply their needs, and also of his anger which was aroused by the grumbling of unbelief, should have taught them to believe him and trust him. But they hardened their hearts, and, when it came to the point of trusting him to take them safely into the rest he had promised them, into the land of inheritance he had promised to Abraham hundreds of years previously, their hardened hearts could not and would not believe. Those who thus failed to believe never entered the land, never received all that God had for them.
Look again at the description of this hardening of their hearts given in Hebrews 3:7-19 and 4:1-13
All of these phrases explain the hardness of heart that expressed the unbelief of these people. So the writer warns believers to 'hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first' (3:14) so that we are not 'found to have fallen short of it' (4:1). That is what true faith does - it holds firm, it does not fall short. If it lets go, if it falls short, it was never true faith.
Here we are warned against the sin of unbelief into which the Israelites fell, which resulted in their turning away from the living God, and he warns his readers that this is exactly what they will be doing if they give up on Jesus Christ and revert to their former beliefs. It is instructive that turning 'away from the living God' is the phrase used here to refer to turning away from Jesus Christ.
Here we are warned that it is 'sin's deceitfulness' that hardens our hearts. This sin that deceives us is the ultimate sin of rejection of God and rebellion against him, and it is the original sin that initiated all other sins (see Genesis 3). Sin, in its essence, denies God. Sin, in its essence, refuses to believe his word. So it was in Genesis 3, so it was at the borders of the promised land, so it was as it enticed the Hebrew Christians, and so it is today. In the light of this deceitfulness of sin we are commanded to 'encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today'. It is the responsibility of each of us to encourage each other each day to keep on believing, because it is only in keeping on believing that the validity and reality of our faith is demonstrated, as the next verse states.
Here we are told in yet another way that perseverance in faith till the end is proof of our present relationship with Christ, of our sharing 'in Christ'.
For your study: Read the parable of the sower, and its meaning in Luke 8:5-8, 11-15, and Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23. How do Luke and Matthew describe the various responses people make? What is the difference between the first three and the forth? Which of the four had really understood and really believed the message? How does this relate to Hebrews 3:14?
For your study: Identify the unspoken warning contained in this verse.
In 2:1 we were encouraged to 'pay more careful attention ... to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away'; in 3:1 we were told to 'fix your thoughts on Jesus'; in 3:12 we were commanded to 'see to it' that none of us 'has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away ... '; in 4:1 we were exhorted 'let us be careful'; and now here in 4:11 we are told to 'make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall ... '. By these warnings we see that true faith is something very proactive. True faith knows that the God in whom it believes and the salvation it has received are the ultimate, and because of this realisation it actively opposes anything that threatens to undermine it. Non-genuine faith, not realising who and what it has believed, gives in under pressure, and gives up when its belief is questioned. Not knowing the absolute and ultimate nature of the message it has heard it leaves it aside and finds some thing else to believe in.
Such people have never entered God's rest, nor will they unless they come to a true faith in Jesus Christ.
The substance of this warning/exhortation is let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.Here is another warning to be proactive in holding on to our faith. The basis of this warning/exhortation is the superiority of Jesus Christ our great high priest - he 'has gone through the heavens' into the real presence of God, as we have already seen, and he is 'Jesus the Son of God' - 'Jesus' - the real and sinless human, and 'the Son of God' - the eternal Lord of all.
In other words the writer is saying: don't give up that which is greater for that which is lesser. Don't let go of the ultimate and absolute in order to embrace the inferior and relative.
The substance of this warning/exhortation is let us approach the throne of grace with confidence. Its basis is the true and perfect humanity of our high priest, Jesus Christ, (4:14-15) who is able to 'sympathize with our weaknesses ... who was tempted in everyway, just as we are - yet was without sin'.
As we have already seen, with such a high priest we can approach God's throne - a throne of grace, not judgement/condemnation - with absolute confidence that we will receive mercy and find grace. If our confidence is in our own performance of rules, regulations or rituals we are relating to God on the basis of law not mercy and grace, and in such a relationship there will never be absolute confidence. Yet that is the relationship with God to which the Hebrews were being pressured to return. And that is the relationship with God to which we unavoidably turn if we turn aside from Jesus Christ and his salvation, for that is the kind of salvation - a salvation based on our own ability to preform a required formula of human endeavour - that all other religious systems offer us.
So, we are here exhorted to approach God's throne with confidence, unshaken by those who would make us look at our own endeavours rather than on Jesus Christ our great high priest.
This passage has caused measureless uncertainty, anguish and confusion in Christians over the centuries. We need to work through it point by point, trying to recapture the situation of the original readers.
 5:11-14. The writer believes that his readers still have not really grasped the meaning and significance of the foundational truths of the gospel.
 6:1a, 3: Nevertheless, he is not going to go over these foundational truths, which would be to keep them as spiritual 'infants'; rather he plans to press on to further truth, so that they will realize how great is the difference between what they have left and what they have embraced, between their former religious belief and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
 6:1,2: The writer lists six 'foundation' beliefs on which he does not intend to give teaching. Various Bible teachers point out that all of these 'elementary teachings' have some counterpart in Judaism; this similarity made it easy for the distinction between Christianity and Judaism to be minimized and for a gradual slide back into Judaism to take place.
'Repentance from dead works' KJV. Repentance was a recognized teaching of Judaism. It featured strongly in the Old Testament prophets. Its significance in the teaching of John the Baptist found ready hearers. They knew what he was saying. The concept of repentance was thus common to Christianity and Judaism.
There are two interpretations of 'dead works'. The NIV assumes it means 'acts that lead to death' and is therefore speaking of sin, which issues in death. It does however add a footnote 'useless rituals', inferring that the phrase could refer to religious rituals void of spiritual reality, done merely as a rote performance without any heart/mind involvement; these are 'dead' because there is no life in them. The GNB translates 'useless works'. The Amplified Bible expands 'dead works' to 'dead formalism'. Both of these thus infer that these works were not dead because they were sinful, but because in themselves they have no life-giving power, and as such should never become the focus of faith.
'Faith in God'. Again both Judaism and Christianity called people to faith in God. This is nothing new. However, the 'God' in whom the Christian Gospel called people to believe is identified precisely as Jesus Christ. That is something new and distinctive, and it is this distinctiveness which is at the centre of the Christian Gospel, and over which the Jews have historically stumbled. Because, however, the Christian concept of God includes the entirety of the Old Testament concept of God, which is given its true meaning in the person of Jesus Christ, it is again very easy for these formerly Jewish believers to let slide the distinctively Christian concept of faith in God and unintentionally revert to a Judaistic one.
'Instruction about baptisms'. Two points about 'baptisms' indicate that the writer is not talking about Christian baptism: (1) the word is plural, and (2) the Greek word used here is only used to refer to ritual washing. It is to be understood then, that what the writer is talking about is ceremonial or ritual cleansing, of the kind referred to from time to time in the Gospels, and the topic of lengthy instructions in the Old Testament. The RSV translates 'instructions about ablutions' and the NEB 'instruction about cleansing rites.' A great variety of cleansing rites were performed by various groups of Jews of the New Testament era; it is likely that some of these were among those making contact with these Hebrew Christians. Under the Gospel such rites are redundant, for in the Gospel Jesus Christ cleanses us from sin (John 13:10; 15:3; 1 John 1:7).
'Instruction about ... the laying on of hands'. Laying on of hands occurred in a number of contexts: (1) the appointment of people to a position (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 6:6); (2) the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; 9:17; 19:6); (3) prayer for healing (Acts 9:12); and (4) as part of the sacrificial ritual (Leviticus 1:4; 3:2; 4:4; 8:14;16:21).
'The resurrection of the dead' . Another connection between Judaism and Christianity, but again, the Christian understanding is so much bigger, being grounded in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.
'Eternal judgement' . Another connection. But again another distinction. For the Christian the judge is now identified as Jesus (John 5:22,27); also for the Christian, the judgement is no longer a threat for there is One who has already borne the judgement on our behalf (John 3:18,36; 5:24; Rom 8:1).
Note: with all of the above being in some way similar to Jewish belief and practices it would have been very easy for people to have given lip-service to Christianity without any real change of heart and mind. In other words, some people could have thoughtlessly assumed that they were embracing belief in the Gospel of Christ who were in actual fact still holding to their Judaistic beliefs. [In the same way as some New Age people today think that they believe in God, and Jesus, and salvation, but in reality give each of these words their own meaning which is entirely different from the real meaning.]
 6:4-6. Some quotes from F.F. Bruce:
'The reason why there is no point in laying the foundation over again is now stated: apostasy is irremediable. Once more our author emphasizes that continuance is the test of reality. In these verses he is not questioning the perseverance of the saints; we might say that rather he is insisting that those who persevere are the true saints. But in fact he is stating a practical truth that has verified itself repeatedly in the experience of the visible Church. Those who have shared the covenant privileges of the people of God, and then deliberately renounce them, are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith. It is indeed impossible to reclaim them, says our author. We know, of course, that nothing of this sort is ultimately impossible for the grace of God, but as a matter of human experience the reclamation of such people is, practically speaking, impossible. ... it is possible to be "immunized" against Christianity by being inoculated with something which, for the time being, looks so like the real thing that it is generally mistaken for it. This ... is a question of people who see clearly where the truth lies, and perhaps for a period conform to it, but then, for one reason or another, renounce it.
'In our Lord's parable of the sower, the seed which fell on rocky ground, where there was no depth of earth, sprouted quickly, and for a time the passer-by might have seen no difference between what was growing there and what was growing in the good ground. It was only when a time of testing came that the difference became evident. It was a time of testing now for the recipients of the epistle, and our author is anxious that they should respond triumphantly to the test and prove that in their case the seed had fallen into good ground.' (The Epistle to the Hebrews, p118f).
 6:4-6. What made these people look like Christians?
The writer says that is 'is impossible for those ... if they fall away ... to be brought back to repentance'. He is not speaking here of any uncertainty of the salvation of genuine believers. What he is speaking of is the reality of the possibility of non-genuine belief.
What we have described here are not genuine Christians who backslide into some sin or other while still really believing the message of truth, but people who appeared to be Christians, who appeared to believe, but who are now rejecting the Christian gospel or belief system: like the Israelites of old they have 'tasted' the truth of God, they have seen, and perhaps even experienced, something of his awesome power, yet now they refuse to believe God and in that refusal are rejecting God. This is what Jesus called the sin against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven. God reveals himself, and is deliberately and knowingly rejected. Paul, referring to his former opposition to Jesus Christ says that he did it ignorantly, unaware of the true facts, and therefore found grace and forgiveness (1 Tim 1:12-14). Our Hebrews passage speaks of people who know the facts, because the Word and the Spirit of God have taught them the facts, yet they still reject the truth. For such people who harden their hearts against the truth there can be no forgiveness.
So, our writer warns his readers against being that kind of person.
If a person who has been enlightened about the true nature of Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death, and had appeared to embrace it for a time, then turns his back on that truth, that person is, the writer says, 'crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.' How do they do this? Because by their denial of Jesus Christ they are denying his claim to be the Son of God, which is the same position as the Jews who crucified Christ. They are rejecting him as a mere man who claimed to be God, they are saying he is a blasphemer. They are denying his resurrection. They are calling him a liar.
 6:7-8. Here we have a little illustration from nature to reinforce the point. The 'rain' of God's truth had fallen on these people, but their response is entirely inappropriate. They are still under God's judgement.
 6:9-12 . The writer expresses his confidence that his readers do not really fall into this category he has been describing. He recognizes their work and their love for God, and their compassion for God's people; he recognizes their diligence. These are the 'fruit' which is the evidence of true faith. He encourages them to continue in this way, and not 'become lazy'. (Then he tells them God's promise is sure 6:13-20).
 10:19: 'Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.'
Here the writer exhorts us to draw near to God with a sincere heart and in full assurance of faith on the basis of (1) 'the blood of Jesus' and (2) the fact that he is our great high priest, by and through whom we ourselves can confidently enter the presence of God guilt-free and spotless. No other way of salvation offers such a comprehensive, absolute and unconditional entrance to the presence of God. Because of this we are commanded to enter God's presence with a sincere heart (the Greek word means 'real' and 'genuine' as opposed to false) in full assurance of faith - that is, not coming to God fearful that Christ has either not done all that is necessary by way of atonement for our sins or is not a sufficient or satisfactory high priest to mediate for us in the presence of God. The person who really knows Jesus Christ knows that the salvation he mediates is complete. Such real faith will draw near to God fully assured of unconditional acceptance.
 10:23: 'Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he is faithful that promised.'
Here the exhortation to persist in faith is based on God's commitment to his promises. We can keep on believing because he is faithful. Real faith knows this, and knowing this will not swerve away to some other god and some other so-called promises.
 10:24-25: 'And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching'.
Again the corporate responsibility of faith is brought to our attention - here it is the responsibility of mutual encouragement.
Here the dreadful consequences that will result for those who reject Jesus Christ and his salvation are put to us:
This is the future of those who have heard the message of the Gospel, who have understood what it was talking about, who have even associated themselves with it in some way, yet have turned their backs on it and refused to obey the Spirit of God in his command to believe.
F.F.Bruce states: 'He (the writer) has already emphasized that the despising of the saving message spoken by the Son of God must carry with it penalties even more severe than the sanctions attached to the law of Moses, "the word spoken through angels" (2:2); and he repeats the same argument here. The context suggests that something much more serious is in his mind than what Paul calls being "overtaken in any trespass" - after all, he has pointed out more than once that in Jesus Christians have a high priest who can succour them when they are tempted, sympathize with them in their infirmities and bear gently with them when they stray from the path through ignorance. What he has in mind is rather that "falling away from the living God" of which he spoke in 3:12, that renunciation of Christianity against which he warned his readers in 6:4-8. To have received the knowledge of the truth and then reject it is to give up the only way of salvation. "There remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins" which can avail for those who have deliberately abandoned reliance on the perfect sacrifice of Christ. That outright apostasy is intended here seems plain from the language of verse 29; the man who has committed this wilful sin is described as having "spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the spirit of grace" (RSV).
'... To spurn the Son of God, to trample Him underfoot (as the word literally means), "denotes contempt of the most flagrant kind" (Moffatt); to treat the covenant-blood of Christ, by which alone His people are sanctified, cleansed and brought to God, as no better than the most common death, is to repudiate decisively both His sacrifice and all the blessings which flow from it; to outrage the Spirit of grace is, in the words of Jesus, to be "guilty of an eternal sin" (Mark 3:29).' (The Epistle to the Hebrews pp 258-260)
 10:35-36: 'So do not throw away your confidence ...You need to persevere ...'
In 10:32-39, just as he did in 6:9-12, the writer expresses his belief that his readers' faith is indeed genuine. He reminds them of their past in which they have evidenced the integrity of their faith by standing firm under pressure, and encourages them to do so again now, because that is what true faith does. The present pressure is pushing them to throw away their confidence in Jesus Christ and to place their confidence in their performance of ritual law. They have needed to be reminded of the greatness of Christ and his salvation, and the ineffectiveness and 'shadow' nature of the old rituals. They have needed to be confronted with the terrible implications of turning back from this to that. But having brought all of this strongly to their minds, the writer now tells them: 'But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved' (10:39).
From here to the end of the letter there is only one further strong warning/exhortation passage, which we will look at later.