21. Hebrews 10:26-39 - Warning and Reassurance

One more warning passage (verses 26-31)

After more exhortations, the author gives one more strong warning passage to emphasize how important it is for the readers to be doing these things. He describes the alternative: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (verses 26-27; using words from Isaiah 26:11 and Zephaniah 1:18).

Does this mean that if we sin after our conversion, then we are doomed? No, all Christians sin after their conversion. Some of these sins are inadvertent, unintended, or accidental, but other sins are committed in moments of weakness, even when we know they are sins. Are they “deliberate” sins that doom us to destruction? No, that is not what the passage is talking about.

The sin under discussion is that of deliberately turning our back on Jesus. If we know that Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins and the High Priest who gives us access to God, and yet we still turn away, the author warns us that there is salvation nowhere else. There is no sacrifice for sins, no other way to be accepted by God, except for what Jesus has already done. If we reject him, we will be afraid of God’s judgment, afraid of the fire that eliminates God’s enemies. They don’t need to be afraid of that fire, but they are. They will be conscious of their sins, yet they have refused the only cleansing that God provides.

Fire is a cleansing agent. As Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3, everyone’s work will be tested by fire (1 Corinthians 3:13). Whatever can burn will burn, and the solid stones and metals will remain in place. This corresponds with the fact that all the bad will be removed from our lives and minds, and only the good will remain. People who love righteousness look forward to that kind of cleansing, because wrong ways of thinking are enemies of our happiness, and we want God to remove those problems from us. But those who like sin will be afraid of any such cleansing. The judge is Jesus Christ. He will love them, but they will be embarrassed and want to hide from him. They will be afraid of the judgment, and afraid of the fire that cleanses.

If people reject Jesus, will they be able to come back? We hope so — their lack of faith does not change the fact that Jesus is the Savior of all peoples. Even while they were his enemies, he died for them, and the sooner they accept that and are thankful for that, they happier they will be. They need not fear, because with Jesus everyone can have confidence to approach the throne of grace. The author is doing his best to encourage them to make the right response.

Then, as he does in several places in this letter, the author makes a comparison with the old covenant:

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. [See Deuteronomy 17:2-6 for an example.] How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (verses 28-29)

The “deliberate sin” is a rejection of Jesus, just as in Deuteronomy it was idolatry. Such people know what God has done for them, and yet still reject him. The author reasons that, since we have a better covenant, it is a greater offense to reject the covenant with Jesus. But he does not directly state this — he puts it in the form of a question. Do they deserve punishment? Yes, but we all do. Did Jesus pay for their sins and sanctify them? Yes, he did. Because of Jesus, none of us will be punished in the way that we deserve. Does the author believe that the people who reject Jesus will be punished, or is it simply that they suffer the natural consequences of their own lack of faith and their own fears? It’s hard for us to know, because he puts it as a question, and the question is designed to get people to think, not to state a doctrine.

He implies that rejecting Jesus is comparable to trampling him underfoot. Even though the people were sanctified by the death of Jesus (they were part of the elect), they would (if they rejected his sacrifice) be insulting the Holy Spirit. The purpose throughout this passage is that the readers will not fall away, that they will realize how insulting, how sacrilegious it would be to abandon the faith, to abandon the Christian meetings as if the sacrifice of Christ was nothing more than the death of a despised criminal. He gave his life for them, and they acted as if they didn’t care.

The author reminds them that God discerns between good and evil, between faithfulness and betrayal: “For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ [Deuteronomy 32:35], and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’ [Deuteronomy 32:36]. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (verses 30-31).

Or he could also rightly say, “It is a wonderfully comforting thing to be in the hands of the living God.” Our hope is that we will be in his loving embrace. His presence is a wonderfully good thing for those who love him, for those who know that Jesus has qualified them to be with God forevermore. But for those who are afraid, who have rejected the Mediator God has provided, the presence of God will be a dreadful experience. They will, strangely, be frightened of the one who loves them. Jesus has sanctified them, and yet they have rejected the only source of sanctification. They are God’s people, and he will judge them — he will repay them according to the way they have responded to Jesus (Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6; and the overall emphasis of Hebrews).

A word of reassurance (verses 32-39)

In the ancient world, speakers were advised to give encouragements after warnings, and the author of Hebrews does this, too, with a reminder that the readers had responded well in the past:

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. (verses 32-35)

This passage is one of our few clues about the situation of the readers. Many years earlier, shortly after the readers had accepted the gospel, they endured a time of persecution. They were ridiculed for their faith in Jesus, some were beaten, some were jailed, and their houses were looted. But they did not give up on Jesus then, so the author encourages them that they should not give up on him now. They had faith that God would reward them and replace their material things with better things in the resurrection. Were their previous sacrifices all for nothing? No, the author says. You had faith then; you can exercise the same faith now, because the promises of reward are still good. Do not throw away your hopes for the future.

What should they do? “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (verse 36). In other words, this is the path with the payoff. The real reward is the presence of God, of being in his family forever, of sharing in his joy forever. If we are faithful to him, he will be faithful to us. (Actually, he is faithful even if we are not, but the point is that we need to desire for and believe in what he is giving, and not give up on it.)

Then he supports his words with some biblical exhortations: “For, ‘In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay’ And, ‘But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back” (verse 37, quoting from the Greek version of Habakkuk 2:3-4). The Hebrew version would also be appropriate:

The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (Habakkuk 2:3-4, NIV).

Although God’s promises might sometimes seem to “linger,” they will come right on time—they will not turn out to be false. Therefore, righteous people should not give up their faith. We will live because God is faithful to us; we should therefore be faithful to him and reflect his faithfulness in the way we live. This is a relationship of love between a Father and his children. Although we can contribute nothing that God needs, and not even our best actions are perfect, he is faithful to us because he has committed himself to be our God and Father. He is pleased when we have faith; he is disappointed when we shrink back. (The apostle Paul also uses this passage from Habakkuk to emphasize our need to have faith in Jesus – see Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11.)

The author concludes this chapter with a word of confidence: “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (verse 39). This is speaking optimistically; it is not proof that the author knows for a fact that everyone who reads his letter will stay faithful. He writes because he is concerned about them, and he does not warn about outcomes that were irrelevant to his readers. The warnings are real — and so are the promises and rewards. He is putting his words together in the best possible way to try to get the readers to respond positively, but he does not have an infallible knowledge of what they will do. He encourages them in the most positive way that he can. And with this mention of faith, he prepares for the next chapter, often called the faith chapter.

Michael Morrison, PhD