We don't know who wrote the book of Hebrews and so I will just refer to him as the "author." But we do know some things about the church that he's writing to. We know that the church was primarily composed of Jewish converts. And they were Jewish converts who were being persecuted for their new faith. We also know that these Jewish Christians were considering apostatizing. They were considering leaving Christianity and going back to Judaism, allowing for this time of persecution to pass; and they were actually thinking that they could then return to Christianity.
And the author's solution throughout the book of Hebrews is basically twofold.
A. Teacher: superiority/pre-eminence of Christ
First of all as a teacher, he is teaching them of the superiority and of the pre-eminence of Christ. What he wants to do is for the people in the church to see who Christ is in all his glory and all of his magnificence; because if they can see that, they won't even consider leaving him and worshipping something that is much less than him.
B. Pastor: interspersed – warning passages – must "persevere"
But the author is not only a teacher, he is a pastor and interspersed throughout some very difficult theology at times are these warning passages. These passages were, as a pastor, telling these people who are considering apostasy that they must persevere. They must not drift away from their faith in Jesus Christ in order to avoid persecution. And so you have in the book of Hebrews one of the strongest declarations of the biblical doctrine of perseverance. Perseverance is throughout the New Testament, but probably in Hebrews is taught and preached the strongest.
The doctrine of perseverance teaches that God, first and foremost, will continue to empower his true children for obedience. In other words, the doctrine of perseverance is first and foremost concerned with God; that he will persevere with his children; that he will continue to enable their faith; that he will continue to give them the desires of holiness; that he will continue to give them the strength to grow. In other words, he will continue to assure us that we are in fact his children. But the other half of the doctrine of perseverance is that God's true children will continue to live in obedience; that God's true children must move toward maturity. That's the biblical doctrine of perseverance; that God will persevere; that he will continue to enable you and me to want and to be able to grow; and that you and I who are God's true children, will continue to grow, must continue to grow into Christian maturity.
Hebrews is going to step on almost everyone's toes, one time or another.
The book of Hebrews is going to step on almost everyone's toes. If it doesn't step on your toes, you may not have read far enough in the book. Sooner or later, it's going to get you. And yet we believe that all of Scripture is true, right? Not only the easy parts, but also the hard parts. And we believe that Scripture doesn't contradict itself. So let me gently warn you up front that if the book of Hebrews does not fit your theology, guess who's wrong? You are. Hebrews isn't wrong. There's a tendency, I think, in many people, myself included, that sometimes we will hear a passage and it will grate on us; and our tendency is to say, "Well, I believe this." And what we are really saying is, "I don't believe it. I choose to ignore these verses because it's easier for me to believe these verses." That's going to be the gut reaction of some of us when we read the book of Hebrews. But the challenge this morning is to think like Scripture thinks and to believe that all of it is true and that none of it contradicts. So if the book of Hebrews grates on you, then that's just God's way of saying you need to adjust your theology.
II. Summarized at the very beginning (1:1-3)
The book of Hebrews starts in 1:1 by giving the summary, the core message that the author wants to get across. Let me read it: "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son." In other words, while the revelation of God through the prophets is true, the revelation that comes through God the Son is clear and more powerful. Then he goes on to tell us who this Son of God is: "…whom [God] appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he [God through Jesus] created the world. [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God, [Jesus is] the exact imprint of [God's] nature, [Jesus] upholds the universe by the word of his power. [Jesus has made] purification for [our] sins [on the cross]. [Jesus has] sat down at the right hand of Majesty on high, [at a position of unrivaled power in reality] having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs." “Jesus has been given the name that is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Yahweh [that he is God] to the glory of God the Father”, Philippians 2.
You see how the author is starting? He wants to parade before us all the magnificence and all the wonder and all the glory of who this Jesus is. And the implicit question is, "If this is who we serve, the radiance, the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature; if we are worshipping Yahweh, why would you want to apostatize and worship anything else?” Why would you want to drift away from your original commitment, your original confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ to anything else? It just doesn't make any sense. That's how the author of Hebrews starts and summarizes his arguments.
III. Greater than the angels
Then he starts walking through and he starts, first of all, by comparing Jesus to the angels. He's saying Jesus is greater than the angels and he goes through the discussion. Then you get to chapter 2:1 and we have the first of the many warning passages. This is a very gentle, in fact the most gentle, passage in all of Hebrews. The author says, "Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it." Therefore, because of Jesus' pre-eminence over the angels and over everything else, because of who he is, we must pay much closer attention to the gospel, the gospel that we heard at the conversion; the gospel that we've continued to hold to since the time of our conversion, lest we suffer the fate of drifting away from the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must pay attention to our faith.
It's interesting the phrase, "drift away". Rarely it seems to me that people bolt from Christianity, other than perhaps some emotionally earth-shattering kind of an experience. Rarely do people who have responded to the gospel message bolt away from it at a later time. They drift away, don't they? They drift away one sin at a time. They drift away one unresolved conflict at a time. They drift away one act of self-centered arrogance at a time.
Just think of the issue of unresolved conflicts and what happens. When a conflict is unresolved, it gets bitter and it gets deeper and it deadens part of your soul; and then there's yet another conflict that comes that is not resolved; and it's conflict with your pastor or conflict with your elders or your Sunday School teachers or your brothers and sisters in the church; and these unresolved conflicts start to pile up one on top of another and what happens? We don't get closer to God, do we? We drift away one sin at a time.
IV. Superior to Moses (3:12-14)
Second warning – 3:6b, 12-14
The argument of Hebrews continues starting in chapter 3.The author is arguing that Jesus is superior to Moses and he's going through the discussion of Jesus' superiority and then in chapter 3:6 you see the author's second warning to his church and he's been talking about how you and I are God's house; that we as members of the church, as the children of God, are knit together into the house of God; and Jesus is faithful over God's house, that's you and me. And then the author says, "And we [the church] are his house [we are part of the church, we are members of God's family, we are children of God and brothers and sisters] if [and that is the dominant word in the book of Hebrews] if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope."
He goes on and quotes an Old Testament passage and then in verse 12 he says, "Take care, brothers, “[It's an important word. Hebrews is not an evangelistic tract for non-Christians. These verses are given to the church, the people who claim to have responded to the message of grace in the cross and claimed to be children of God. This is not an evangelistic tract to non-Christians]. "Take care brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end." Now, the author of Hebrews is not saying anything that Jesus hasn't already said. Jesus said that he who perseveres to the end will be saved, Matthew 10:22. The author is telling us that we must hold fast to the confidence we had in Christ when we were first saved; and it's that same confidence in Christ that keeps us from drifting away to an unbelieving heart that is hardened by sin.
Verse 14 is a phenomenally important verse in this whole issue of perseverance and assurance of our salvation. On the one hand it's saying there is assurance for our salvation. We can be fully assured that we are children of God, fully assured that we have salvation, fully assured of our destiny in Christ.
I know that there are some people that teach that you can't have assurance; and it's simply not biblical. This verse is saying you can have assurance that you share in Christ, and what is that assurance? What is the assurance that you hang on to especially during difficult times? That you know that you are a Christian, you know you're a child of God and you know that you're going to end up in heaven. Your assurance is your perseverance. Do you see that in the verse? "For we share in Christ, [this is how I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am a child of God] if I hold [to my] original confidence [The confidence I had in Jesus Christ at the foot of the cross. And I'm going to hold that confidence] firm to the [very] end [of my life]." That is my assurance that I am a Christian because I am persevering in my faith.
But notice, (and this is true all the way through the book of Hebrews and he's worded it this way intentionally because it keeps coming up) in the assurance there is also an implicit warning. And the warning is if we, to use his language, "fall away from Christ", if we are "hardened by sin," if we "do not hold to our original confidence" then we have absolutely no assurance that we're on our way to heaven. There is no assurance of salvation if our initial profession of faith is not followed by a life of faith. There isn't; and you can't say it any more clearly than he says it in verse 14. It doesn't matter how good you've been. It doesn't matter what happened in years following your conversion, the question in Hebrews is, "What is your life now?", and the only assurance there is, is if you are continuing in your perseverance. Understand please, that the author is not talking about the sins that plague the life of true believers. We all sin, right? We all sin. The author is not talking about a sin here and a sin there.
I remember one of my favorite students when I was teaching in college. When I first met him he was a theological basket case. He was one of those people who had been taught that if he sinned and died before he had a chance to confess, he'd go to hell. It was lose your salvation, get it back, lose your salvation, get it back, back and forth, back and forth. That's not at all what's going on here. The author is talking about people whose life is characterized by sin. He's talking about people who no longer show the fruits of the spirit. He's talking about people who are living in clear violation of the clear teaching of Scripture. And he's saying those people, because they are not persevering, have zero assurance that they are a child of God and that they are going to go to heaven.
By the way, there's this whole question of whether you can or can't lose your salvation or whether if somebody appears to become a Christian and then backslides, if they were ever a Christian to begin with. Take that whole argument and throw it away. Because Wesleyans and Calvinists agree, both sides of the theological spectrum agree on this point, that if a person's life is pointing them to hell, that that's exactly where they're going. Wesleyans and Calvinists agree that if somebody lives a life of sin, not only can they not have any assurance, but most likely they're headed towards hell. And it doesn't matter whether they've lost their salvation or they never were a Christian to begin with, they're going to end up in the same place and it's hell. Who makes the final judgment on all these things? Who makes the judgment call? God makes the judgment call. I say this because so often we get tangled up in this controversy and if we could just take a fraction of the energy we expend on this theological debate and rather understand that people who are living lives of sin are most likely going to hell, and put it towards evangelism, I think the church would be a little better off. And I love theological debate.
So understand, there is assurance that you and I are children of God and that we're going to heaven and our assurance is our perseverance; but the warning is that if there is no perseverance, if our lives are no longer characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, if we're living in clear violation of the clear teaching of the text, then we have absolutely no assurance that we are children of God and that we are going to heaven. Jesus is superior to Moses.
V. Greater than the High Priest (4:14)
He then continues in chapter 4 starting at verse 14 and argues that Jesus is greater, superior to, even the High Priest. As he goes through this whole discussion, he gets back to the whole topic of full assurance. And I want to keep emphasizing that because I want this to be balanced. He says you can have full assurance that you are saved and he gives us two indications of why we can be fully assured of our salvation.
You and I can have "full assurance" of our salvation – 6:11-12
The first is in chapter 6:11-12. There he writes, "And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." One of the ways in which you and I can be fully assured of our salvation is our earnestness. He's just saying the same thing all over again, but with different words. It is our earnestness; it is our intense desire for sanctification that forms part of our assurance. When you have the desire to do what is right; when you find that you have the ability to do what is right, where do you think this kind of earnestness comes from? Do you think that it comes from yourself? No. Do you think it comes from Satan? Last time I checked, no! Well, who's left? God. The fact that you and I are earnest in our growth toward holiness, that we are earnest in our holiness, is an indication that it is God who is at work in you, giving you the desire and then the ability to accomplish this desire, Philippians 2.
VII. Third warning passage (5:11)
But even in this assurance there's an implicit warning. This author can really be annoying at times. "Just give me some assurance and move on." He says, "No. I'm not going to do that. I'll give you the assurance, but here's the warning: If there is no earnestness, there can be no assurance."
VIII. Second reason of full assurance
The discussion continues and he comes to a second reason that you and I can be fully assured of our faith and it's in chapter 7:25, "Consequently, [God] is able to save to the uttermost [completely and totally for all time] those who draw near to God through [Jesus] since [Jesus] always lives to make intercession for them." He is bringing back a topic that he has already discussed back in 4:14-16. It says that Jesus is our High Priest. He understands what we have gone through and he is always interceding before the throne of mercy and grace for the sake of his children.
What the author is saying is that "Yes, we have this subjective assurance, this understanding of our earnestness, but we also have an objective assurance of our salvation; and our objective assurance is the work of Christ, that ultimately I am absolutely, completely and totally convinced that I'm going to heaven because I'm completely and absolutely and totally convinced that Jesus' death on the cross paid the penalty for my sins. But more than that; my Redeemer lives and he's constantly interceding for me in all my weaknesses and in all my failings. He's still standing before the Father and he says, "Don't be too hard on Bill. Don't be too hard on him. I know what he's going through. I went through the same kind of things. He's weak. He's fragile. His frame is dust. Don't forget that, Father." And the Father says, "I won't." He is always interceding for me.
That's an accomplished, ongoing fact and my assurance and my salvation is based on the fact that God loved the world. He gave his Son, that those who believe will not perish but will have, will possess, with full assurance, their own salvation. Our assurance is based subjectively on the understanding that we are earnest for our perfection. For those of you who are earnest in your growth toward holiness, this is a subjective thing we can hang onto and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world except for the concrete realization that God accomplished something on the cross and Jesus is constantly interceding for me and for you before the throne of grace and mercy. Therefore, I am absolutely sure of where I am going.
Perseverance is first and foremost about God's perseverance. This point is missed all over the place except in the really good theologies and anyone who happens to read their Bible. Perseverance is first and foremost about God, because I can't do it. I simply cannot work out my salvation without God giving me the desire and then the ability to do it. It's impossible. I will fail every single time. If I do not have the sustaining grace of God with every word I say and every step I take, then I will fail. I don't need anyone to argue that with me, I'm fully convinced of that truth.
I also understand that God is not going to give up on me, and God is going to continue to enable me to not give up on him. That's biblical perseverance. And yet, in that statement of the marvelous truth of assurance there is a warning. This kind of assurance of salvation is only for those who draw near to God. The author is going to say this same thing in chapter 9:28 where he says, "So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many [his coming in the incarnation] will appear a second time [his second coming] not to deal with sin but to save those "who have made a profession of faith and have enjoyed the joys of this world. NO! …. “To save those who are eagerly waiting for me." Salvation is for those who draw near to God. Salvation is for those who are eagerly waiting for him. You know I believe that we are saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves; it is a gift of God, not as a result of works lest anyone boast. That is not in question. But, Hebrews is very clear that God is going to come and save those who are drawing near to him. He is going to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Paul even says in Romans that eternal life is the result of our sanctification. And I'm a Protestant and proud of it. So even in our full assurance there is warning.
IX. Encouragement – what the Christian life is supposed to look like
The author continues and he gets into chapter 10 and there is this marvelous passage starting at verse 19, a passage of encouragement; a passage of showing what the Christian life is supposed to look like. This is a great passage. "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh [That is the author's way of saying, because Jesus died on the cross, you can go directly into the presence of God. Go through the torn curtain in the temple, directly into his presence.] and since we have a great [high] priest over the house of God, [and we are the house of God] let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering [it's the confession we make when we become children of God] for he who promised is faithful. [Perseverance is more about God than about us.] And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day [the Day of Judgment] drawing near." What a life, isn't that? What a life. That's what life is supposed to look like, hanging onto God for all he's worth and encouraging one another to do the same.
But this author simply cannot give assurance without balancing himself and so he continues, "For if we go on sinning deliberately [life of sin, the absence of the fruits of the Spirit] after receiving the knowledge of the truth, [you've responded to the gospel message and yet you've gone on living in sin] there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." In other words, the only sacrifice there is, is Christ and if you spurn Christ on the cross by living in disobedience, who's going to save you? Buddha? Doesn't work that way.
Here is what waits for people who have made a profession of faith and yet live in deliberate sin. Hear the word of the Lord. What remains is "a fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries." You want to know the penalty for not persevering? There it is. It's called hell. "Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [Old Testament Law] How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one [He's talking to someone in the church, he's talking about the person who has responded to the gospel but is living in sin] who has spurned the Son of God, [he] has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace." See, if you make a profession of faith and go on living in sin, it doesn't mean you have a smaller house in the millennial kingdom; that's not what's at stake here. If you live in sin, you've spurned God; you've profaned the cross and you've really ticked off the Spirit of grace. For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay. And again, 'The Lord will judge his people.'" Wow! His people. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Now, you want some hell, fire and brimstone? There it is, one of the hottest passages in Scripture.
X. What's the point?
What's the point? What's going on in the book of Hebrews? I think there are several basic things that he's saying.
A. Jesus is pre-eminent over all – greatest joy, deepest delight
Jesus is pre-eminent over all. He is our greatest joy, our deepest delight. He is greater than all the world has to offer and if you and I could fully grasp that concept, then the problems of the church that the book of Hebrews is written to, would simply go away because there is nothing to compare to the glory of God. And yet we so often drift away, don't we? One sin at a time and we begin to desire the things of this world and not the things of God. So let's pay really close attention to our faith, Hebrews 2:1.
Jesus is pre-eminent. It's not a fear, but there's this realization that when I stand before Jesus, my overwhelming sense is, if only I had known; if I had only fully understood the glory of my God. How different I would have lived my life? That's the main point of the book of Hebrews.
B. We can have full assurance that we truly are God's children
The second point is that we can have full assurance. We can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are God's children and this message is not just in the book of Hebrews, it's all over the New Testament. We can have full assurance because of the power of God. In John 10:27 and following verses Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." That includes you. I believe that it is linguistic gymnastics to say, "Well, anyone but me." That's not what the text is saying. No one can snatch them out of my hand. Why? "My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all [including you] and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand." Part of my assurance lies in the very power of God to hold me as his sheep, to give me to his Son and have his Son give me eternal life and raise me up on the last day. My assurance is in the power of God.
My assurance is in the work of God's Spirit. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1 and a few other places that God's Spirit is our seal; he is our guarantee of the inheritance that we know for sure that we're going to inherit.
I have full assurance that I am a child of God because of my obedience, 1 John 2:3-6, "By this we know that we have come to know him, [this is how you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have come to know Jesus Christ; that you are one of his children] if we keep his commandments. Whoever says 'I know him' but doesn't keep his commandments is a liar,[wow, that's not very sensitive] and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which [Jesus] walked." Hallelujah! Our confidence is in our obedience and that means our confidence also lies in the fact that we're not living in sin. That's the flip side of that coin. 1 John 3:6, "No one who abides in him [no one who is a child of God] keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. In case you're wondering, I come down on that side of the theological camp that says if somebody appears to respond to the gospel, then falls away. I believe they never were a Christian to begin with, because of verses like this. These people have never seen him and they don't know him despite appearances.
For those of us who are continuing to walk in our Christian walk, have no fear. The last thing I want to see is you all go out of here, those of you who are striving and yet still have your favorites sins and you're still working with this and there are still things to go -yes, none of us are perfect I don't want you to leave here in fear that somehow your salvation is being stripped away from you or something like that. I want you to go in the full assurance and the joy and the conviction that yes, when I sin there's forgiveness. God is faithful and just and if we confess our sins he will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But we go earnest for our holiness; moving towards maturity; forgetting what lies behind but looking forward to the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. In that kind of person there is no fear because perfect love casts out fear and there's joy and there's victory and yes, we still sin and we still get forgiven and we're still moving forward. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
XI. But what about those who are not living out their profession of faith
But what about those who are not living out their profession of faith? What about those who are not earnest? What about those who are not holding firm to their first confidence but are rather drifting away? How do you and I respond to them? Let me give you my opinion.
You have to distinguish between the kinds of sin that all Christians have to deal with and those who are moving into a lifestyle of sin. And in my opinion, my advice is, if you see someone in the latter, I think we have to assume that their faith is not real. We have to assume that these people are on the way to hell.
The worst thing that we can do is to give someone false assurance. The worst thing we can say to someone who has made a profession of faith and then has not lived like it for years, the worst thing that we can say to him is, "Well that's okay. You made a profession of faith and so you have your 'get out of hell free' card; and it's okay." I can't find that anywhere in the Bible. I especially can't find it in the book of Hebrews. I am unfortunately convinced that there are going to be many people in hell who have been told they were going to heaven, who were preached an incomplete gospel. As I've said before, I hope that there is a place for all pastors to stand by the judgment seat and watch the people under their care walk by so that they can see the fruits of true gospel preaching and live their life accordingly. We cannot give people false assurance.
There are so many warning passages in the book of Hebrews. There are warning passages everywhere. One of the more powerful ones is from the mouth of Paul. Paul says Jesus has reconciled us; he's brought us to peace with God "if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard." (Colossians 1:23) I mean, it's all over the place.
A. If someone not sure about their salvation
If someone is not sure about their salvation, if someone is struggling with the things of God, if someone has tasted the world and likes it and they are perhaps saying, "I'll deal with this Christian stuff later, perhaps much later." Here's the question I would urge you to ask them, "Is your life worth the risk? Is it worth it? Is the world so good that it's worth an eternity in hell?” Because apart from perseverance, there can be no assurance; and so for people who have apparently responded to the claims of Christ and then have moved into a life of sin, what they're doing is gambling their eternity. They're gambling their eternity. And you've got to ask them, "Do you have any idea how long hell is? Do you have any idea how long eternity is apart from the presence of God? Do you have any idea at all that you cannot trust your soul to what may have been a fleeting emotional religious experience?" You and I must not give false assurance to anyone. If someone is not sure about their salvation, - and they can be sure, the fact that they're not sure is significant - perhaps it’s the result of really bad preaching. But for those people, we cannot give them false assurance; we must call them to recommit or to commit their lives.
My younger brother professes that he was not a Christian. He walked out of the house when he was 16 years old, thumbing his nose at his parents and his parents’ God. "I don't want anything to do with you." And when he was 22 years old he was sitting in an empty apartment saying, "Okay God. Life sucks. This is not worth living. There's got to be more. If you're there, make yourself real. Help me understand." David appeared to be a Christian his whole life, like me, he didn't want to go to church. Big deal, we were kids. So you look at David and you ask him, did he recommit or did he come into his life? What is the pattern? Commit your life to God. Recommit your life if that's what's appropriate. And then say as we say, "Here is my heart; cleanse every part." And encourage these people to live in God's sustaining grace, to taste and see that the Lord is good. That in fact, God is tastier than anything the world has to offer. Then encourage them to come, so that by the body of Christ, by the brothers and sisters in God's house, that we can encourage them and they can encourage us. And together we will never again drift away. It's not how you start; it's how you finish.