The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The author of Hebrews is now wrapping up this central core section of the letter, and he is doing so by once again focusing on the superior sacrifice that Jesus brought to establish a superior covenant with superior promises. Again, he states that the Law is merely a shadow of a reality to come, stating again that its sacrifices cannot take away sin. In fact, he seems to have found three ways to restate this in just a few short sentences here. I’ve never actually gone through these chapters and counted the number of times he’s made this same point… why? It might just be that this point takes a lot of repetition before it really sinks in. The Law was not sufficient to complete God’s purposes, so it has been replaced by a better system, a perfect one, that takes our sins away entirely, after all, the Law was but an illustration of what was to come, and what was to come was the reality of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’
After the restatement of the Law’s inadequacy in the first 4 verses, this quotation from Psalm 40 shows the attitude of Christ, the real sacrifice, who gave up His life as the sacrifice that would end the problem of sin once for all.
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Acting as commentator, the author restates another of his themes: The first covenant was set aside to make room for the second, and by that second covenant, the New Covenant, we have been made holy by the removal of our sins in Christ.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
You’ve probably noticed that the mere fact of the repetition of the old sacrifices has been used by the author to make the point that they could never take away sins; our author here again, uses this fact of the repetition of the same sacrifices, day after day, year after year, as proof enough that this system is finished. Jesus, after making His sacrifice has sat down on high and awaits His enemies being made His footstool which is some interesting imagery, for sure. His enemies are defeated, and upon His return, their activities will cease once and for all time, becoming as a footstool for His feet, and thus our author is showing us that the old system is over for good.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
Once again, we see the verses from Jeremiah 31 foretelling of the New Covenant that was to come, and now has come, and notice the final sentence, the author’s summation of these chapters. Sin has been forgiven, and further sacrifices are no longer necessary: The Old Covenant is over.
When the same things are repeated over and over again, it is incumbent upon us to take notice of them. This repetition isn’t simply poor writing style, if anything, the letter to the Hebrews of Rome is one of the best written of all the New Testament books; some of the phrasing is nothing less than brilliant. No, the repetition is a literary device to underscore these points, to highlight them; the author really wants the people to remember them, and hopefully we will remember.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, 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 and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
After the wonderful news of the last couple of chapters, the author is moving us toward another series of warnings, and his transition in these verses is as inspiring as any appeal in the entire New Testament. We have a confidence gained from the previous discussion of the superior high priest who has brought us a superior sacrifice to bring about a superior covenant based on superior promises, and as a result we can ourselves enter the Most Holy Place.
Imagine how this would have sounded to the original recipients… Remember, they were Jewish Christians living in Rome at the time of Nero’s terrible persecution, tempted to give it all up to avoid the Emperor’s wrath, but after reading these chapters and now coming to this incredible assertion… how can they turn their backs on Jesus?
Yes, we have an entirely new way, a way right into the holy presence of God, a way that their ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and it is here now… and yes, here it comes: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” How could they let all of this go? They have in their hands the keys to the Kingdom, what could Nero do to them to make this worth giving up? Then the author takes the next step, a very dangerous one… Not only should they hold on, they should seek out ways to encourage others, and as if this weren’t enough, they should not give up meeting together.
Let’s stop and consider this point. It was dangerous enough to simply be a Christian in those days, but meeting together was infinitely more dangerous than that. A group of believers in worship can bring attention, can be noticed. It can result in somebody reporting that they saw you with the others; guilt by association could result. Some had apparently quit meeting for these reasons, but our author urges them to continue, to persist no matter the cost, for what they had in Christ was so worth it. Even more as the Day approaches…
The Day, as we saw earlier, refers to Jesus’ coming again, and as we know, He didn’t come in their lifetimes. We can also reasonably infer that we are about 2,000 years closer to His return in our day, yet we still don’t know when His return will happen. Most of you who read this are not in places where there is persecution. For us this should be so easy, it shouldn’t even be an issue, and yet more and more have forsaken the assembling of the believers together. Even among those who have not forsaken it, how much do we really encourage others?
Since I can only answer for myself, I guess we’ll leave that as a rhetorical question…
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. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 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? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Our author gets off to a very candid start in this paragraph, coming right to the point of his warning. You will recall no doubt, that this letter was written to Jewish Christians in Rome during the persecution of Nero for the purpose of encouraging them to hold firmly their faith through a time of severe trial, and this is not the first such warning in this letter. (see Hebrews 8:1 ff.)
I would call your attention to the word “we” in verse 26; “If we deliberately keep on sinning…” Surely the word “we” does not mean the same thing as the word “they.” Thus, in a context of a letter written to encourage Christians, “we” is not referring to those who are not in Christ, and to suggest otherwise requires the suspension of the rules of context, grammar and vocabulary. If we would go further and suggest that “after we have received the knowledge of the truth” would refer to an unbeliever, saying that to receive the knowledge of the truth is not to have accepted it and been born again, because they knew but didn’t believe, would also seem to be a contention in utter disregard of the rules of context, grammar and vocabulary; a parsing of words worthy of a politician. Must I really comment on the words “enemies of God”?
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? Can you think of any context in the New Testament that asserts that an unbeliever is sanctified by the blood of the Covenant? Take a look at the next verse, v. 30, and consider what it means to know God: Didn’t Jesus have something to say about that in John 8:55? Notice here that “we” are they who “know” him. Who is this “we” again- unbelievers? Hardly.
Look, I know I’m laying it on more thickly than I normally do here, and I’m doing so for a reason: If we want to merrily go on down the road with the idea that these warnings are for “them” and not “us” then how can we learn from those warnings? What is the point of giving these warnings to Christians, if they apply only to non-Christians? What would be the purpose of these warnings, if we have nothing that we can lose- the whole letter would be almost meaningless to the people it was written to.
Are these warnings uncomfortable? Yes, they are, and yes, they should be. Would I rather not think about them? Yes, but how could I learn and grow if I only did what I want and only thought about the fun stuff? Can you see why I keep saying that Hebrews is often quoted and seldom taught? It gets messy!
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 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. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
Remember the context; Hebrews 10:19-39 is the section context in this letter written to Jewish Christians in Rome during the persecution of Nero to encourage them to hold on to their faith in severe trial, and following right after a section on the superiority of the New Covenant.
The author refers to an earlier persecution, a time of trial almost as difficult as the present one, when these Christians had come through with their faith intact, and then he urges them to continue to hold on through the present crisis promising them a rich reward. We might ask ourselves what this reward is to be, is he referring to a temporal reward or an eternal one? In context, it must be an eternal one- why? Because that is the reward that has been under discussion leading up to this section; there has been nothing in the text to tell us differently, thus that context remains in place. If we attempt to impose a different meaning here, then we might satisfy our doctrinal need to reinterpret this section, but we will have the wrong application for the text.
You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,
“In just a little while,
he who is coming will come
and will not delay.”
“But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.”
But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
Verse 36 keeps the last three verses of the chapter in context as an exhortation; this is critical to our understanding of 37-39. Verse 37 tells us that Jesus is surely coming soon (so hang in there, hold on to your faith). Verse 38 tells us that the righteous will hold on to their faith, and yet some will shrink back and lose out, and verse 39 encourages us all to continue in our faith and not shrink back, for to shrink back will result in our destruction. Notice that “destruction” is contrasted with “saved.” We are only left with one last question: What is destruction?
But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
It would seem entirely consistent with the context of this passage within the letter to the Hebrews, and within the New Testament, that our author is telling us that we could lose everything we have in Christ.
This chapter falls at the high point of the letter. We’ve seen that our superior high priest has brought a superior sacrifice to establish a superior covenant based on superior promises. We’ve seen that the old Law is gone, and that the New has come, and that the New is the reality that was only illustrated by the Old. We have learned that we can enter the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God with confidence, and we have been warned to hold on to what we have in Christ, even in very difficult times, because what we have is so great and so wonderful that nothing can compare with it.
This is a message of love and encouragement, not a threat or a warning about a God who wants to zap you! Some have suggested that this passage is too harsh, others have suggested that it must be adapted to fit a doctrine: Why? Too harsh- Really? Would we have God hide things from us and then fall away out of ignorance? That would be the actions of a God looking for a “gotcha” moment, not a God of love. Doctrinal traditions… would we really rather use this for an argument to be “right” about something that may or may not be right, when it is a message of encouragement? Really?
All we have in the passage is a message that our hope is awesome, so hang on to your faith come what may, and you will be in an amazing place for all eternity… this strikes me as wonderful! You know why? Because I can do it, and so can you. This is not a burden, at least not until we make it one. This isn’t negative; it’s positive… until we make it negative… and it certainly isn’t complicated until we impose our doctrines upon it and make it complicated… so why do that?
Here’s a challenge for you, just for fun: Forget everything you’ve heard and everything you’ve read, including what you’ve read here. Then go back and read chapter 10 over again, verses 1-39. Don’t think about anything it doesn’t say… and then see if you haven’t just read the most amazing and encouraging thing ever!