It does seem that our American culture is in a moral free fall, and that those who follow Jesus Christ are increasingly falling out of favor with that culture. We will not take time here to give examples of this moral and spiritual decline because each reader could probably quickly construct a long list illustrating the point. The issue we face, as follows of Christ, is our faithfulness to Him in times like these. That, of course, has been the great issue in most all of church history.
In recent months, I have found both insights and encouragement in looking at the Book of Hebrews and the saints to whom it was written. There are differences of opinion on a number of matters in Hebrews, but when we let the words of the text take on their normal meaning, it becomes quite certain that the ones receiving this message were Jewish believers who probably lived in Rome. The members of this house church likely suffered under the edict of Emperor Claudius in 49-50 AD when Jews were expelled from Rome. It would have been a difficult time for them. Hebrews 10:32-34 speaks of their sufferings and persecution, even to the point of having their property seized. But they lived successfully through this time of persecution. When Nero became emperor, the Jews and Christians were allowed back into Rome. After the first few years of his relatively peaceful reign, things changed and it was becoming clear that more intense persecution of believers was on the way. It looked like a repeat, or worse, of what they had previously experienced.
The Setting and Purpose of the Book of Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews was written about this time and was written because it was becoming apparent that these believers were disassociating themselves from other believers in the body of Christ. This was resulting in an increasing level of unfaithfulness to the Lord Jesus. The point of Hebrews is that we must remain faithful to Jesus. If we don’t “hang in there” and we abandon Him and His truth, then there will be significant consequences. The consequence is not the loss of eternal life, as some theologians teach, but rather the loss of significance and the loss of reward in the coming kingdom of Jesus Messiah.
Those “Warning Passages”
Each of the warning passages is addressed to regenerated people (Heb. 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:10-6:20; 10:26-39 and Heb. 12:12-20). The message of Hebrews begins with a powerful word about the glory, superiority and deity of Jesus, who is the One who will fulfill completely the Davidic covenant. He will fulfill God’s OT covenant commitments and He will reign over the “inhabited earth” (Heb. 2:5) which the author says is, in fact, the subject of this discourse (not the matter of justification by faith). Jesus will reign, but at the present moment He is not (Heb. 2:8). He informs the readers that they are to take seriously this inspired word about the future kingdom. This truth came to Jesus and was given to His Apostles. If they drift away from this truth, there will be consequences in the Kingdom of Jesus.
The second warning passage shows what unfaithfulness looks like; it looks like the “Exodus generation” who because of their unbelief and their unfaithfulness lost out on God’s “rest”. The “rest” being spoken of is defined in both Deuteronomy and Joshua as the reward that God gives to those who obediently and faithfully carry out God’s purposes for them. The Exodus generation lost out on the blessings of the Lord, in that they lost their inheritance in the land. The believers reading this message were in danger of losing out on God’s reward for them. (Note: Paul used the Exodus generation in an identical way in 1 Cor. 9:24-10:11 when illustrating the obtaining or the losing of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ). There was still hope for them (Heb. 4:1) but they could not continue on the path they were on. In Heb. 3:14, the offer is made that faithful believers can become one of the “companions” (“partakers with Christ) if we remain faithful to Him. This is an offer to those who remain true and loyal to Jesus in this life. They will be given a place of significance in the next. So, there is much to gain and much to lose in the future kingdom of Christ.
The third warning passage (Heb. 5:10-6:20) is undoubtedly the most misunderstood of the warning passages. The subject is not justification, but rather the subject is falling off of the path to spiritual maturity. They are saved, but to turn back is incur loss; the loss of significance in Messiah’s kingdom. The intensity level of the warnings clearly is increasing. The illustration at the end is most helpful (Heb. 6:7-8). Each one is the “ground” onto which the blessings of God (“rain”) has fallen. They all have experienced God’s blessings (as described in Heb. 6:4-5). The ground can be cultivated with the result that beneficial crops are produced. Or, it can be neglected with the result that thorns and thistles are produced, which are of no value to anyone. This would make the ground “worthless”, which is the same word used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:27 (“disqualified”) in his discussion of the loss of rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Ground which becomes totally overgrown with weeds can only be burned, which destroys the weeds but the ground remains. (“Fire” in Hebrews is used of temporal judgment, not of eternal fire). The worthless weeds are destroyed but the ground remains intact (similar of Paul’s “as of by fire” in the Judgment Seat discussion of 1 Cor. 3:15).
The final two warning passages carry the same emphasis, though the level of intensity is heightened. But these are “enlightened” (i.e., regenerated people) who in Heb. 10:35-39 still have the prospect of reward awaiting them. The point is the same: “hang in there, it will be worth it when Jesus establishes His kingdom on this earth.”
The message then proceeds along, giving illustrations of a large group of OT people who hung on tenaciously to the promises of God (Hebrews 11). They did not experience the fulfillment of God’s promises in this life but they saw them in their future. They remained completely faithful to the Lord in their lifetimes and they will yet receive those promises made by our faithful God. So, be like the folks in Hebrews 11. But, on the other hand, the message uses another OT character of how not to live. Esau is the negative example. Esau, as most of us remember, did the unthinkable thing of swapping his birthright for some stew and bread. He was hungry and the need of the moment was lunch. Esau traded his future inheritance for present fulfillment and comfort. He mortgaged his future for present satisfaction. And that is exactly what believers are not to do.
For Us Today.
As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to Jesus Himself, as well as to those who would follow Him, the message of Hebrews is becoming increasingly relevant. What we are experiencing in America may be something “strange” and new to us, but it is that which believers have experienced in the past, as well as many of God’s children in our present world. We are to remain focused on the Coming King (Heb. 3:1) and daily live loyally to Him. As we have noted before, Jesus does not ask us to become famous, but does insist that we are faithful. So, in spite of what may come our way from the “god of this world” (culture), let us resolve to simply be faithful to what the Lord would have for us today, now. There is much to gain, and there is also much to lose. Hang in there, saint!
(Note: to those interested, you might find help in Dr. Benware’s new little book “Understanding the Book of Hebrews: Jesus Our High Priest and Coming King. A Key Truth for the Christian Walk”, available in the bookstore)