FEARFULLY FALLING INTO GOD’S HANDS: HEBREWS 10:26-31
A paper submitted to Dr. A. Boyd luter
In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for
the course NBST 654
Liberty Theological seminary
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER11, 2012
The sign over the gates of Hell in Dante’s The Divine Comedy:Inferno reads, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here;” when one reads chapter ten, verses twenty-six through thirty-one of the letter to the Hebrews, one gets the same message. In John 10:9 Jesus makes this statement, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Even more relevant to the passage to be discussed would be Jesus’ discussion of the narrowness of the path to righteousness, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:14) If one was to find the way to life, reconciliation, and peace with God, it had to be through the person and work of Jesus the Christ.
The author of Hebrews could also echo Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” If one decides to abandon Jesus the Christ, the one who guarantees reconciliation and forgiveness, there could only be a fearful, definite expectation of fiery judgment. There was a way for his readers to travel that was beyond hope: the way of apostasy and turning back to a now useless Judaism. The argument is to be given in the following manner: 1) that the ones who are in danger of judgment are not sinning Christians but flagrant apostates, 2) that there is greater judgment with rejecting the new covenant in Christ than the old covenant under Moses, and 3) that there is sure judgment for those who repudiate their faith in Christ because there is nowhere else for them to go for repentance and forgiveness. The commentaries used will be Donald Guthrie’s TNTC volume on Hebrews, Donald A. Hagner’s NIBC volume on Hebrews, and Harold W. Attridge’s volume in Hermeneia on Hebrews.
THOSE WHO WILL BE JUDGED: 10:26-27
“For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,” (v. 26) As with any verse in Hebrews that speaks of salvation, this can and should cause a tremble to go through one’s. What does it mean to “willfully persist in sin?” Are those who are caught in addictions and repeated, instilled habits included in this? How does one receive “the knowledge of the truth?” What is this knowledge? How can there not be a sacrifice for sin; is not Christ’s sacrifice enough to cover all sin?
Donald Guthrie points out that, “If we sin deliberately places the emphasis on responsible sin, the kind of sin in which people enter with their eyes wide open.” He goes to draw parallels between this sin and the willful sin that had no forgiveness under the Levitical sacrificial system. Harold Attridge concurs with this thought, “The adverb ‘willingly’…appears emphatically as the opening word. The language derives from the Pentateuchal distinction between willful and inadvertent sins that was widely recognized in post-biblical Judaism.” All three commentators concur that ordinary, even habitual sins are not in view but rather the sin of apostasy. As Donald Hagner assures the reader, “The words if we deliberately keep on sinning do not refer to ordinary sins, but to the most grievous and final sin, apostasy…This is the sin which by its nature puts the offender out of the reach of God’s forgiveness and therefore the sin from which there is no return.”
This is where many individuals run into trouble; they read a verse out of its overall context and make runaway assumptions about what it means. This is also where some knowledge of Greek is useful, as well as understanding the outline and form of the author’s argument. Why would the author tell his readers that they have a High Priest in Jesus the Christ whom they could run to and receive grace and forgiveness, if they were without hope because of their sins? That there is a recurring theme of apostasy throughout the letter gives one significant confidence that this passage also is dealing with those not who sin and desire grace, but those who have renounced grace altogether.
Now dealing with the “knowledge of the truth,” there is little doubt that it is referring to the Gospel and the revelation of Jesus the Christ. Hagner points out that this parallels Hebrews 6:4-5, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” Attridge adds that the phrase, “resembles a fixed expression used in the pastoral epistles for conversion. As in the previous warning passage…traditional language used of conversion and baptism is prominent.” Guthrie also confirms this, “the article with the word truth…makes clear that a definable body of doctrine is in existence which all Christians will know. “ So, the “knowledge of the truth” has to do with the salvation experience, putting one’s faith in the person and work of Christ.
It seems bizarre to people who believe in eternal security that one could decide to be an apostate after experiencing the power of salvation. However, the writer of Hebrews is not the only one who repeatedly warns about evaluating one’s salvation in the New Testament. Jesus’ own parable concerning different soils shows the paradox in the reality of salvation. One can embrace the truth of the Gospel in Jesus Christ and then wither up when persecution and trials come. Whether one believes this is a loss of salvation or simply proof that one was never saved to begin with, the warning for those who believe to continue to persevere is dire indeed.
Why is there no hope for those who apostatize? Guthrie believes sacrifices will have no effect, “Sacrifice there might be, but none of any effectiveness for the removal of sins.” The apostate sinner is out of options, “with resources exhausted, such a person must face the prospect of God’s wrath against sin.” This is true because the old covenant was brought to an end with the coming of Christ, “That act was seen to have abrogated the old cult and thus displaced any other means for reconciliation with God.” Jesus the Christ came to completely fulfill and replace the old covenant sacrifice, therefore there was no Judaism for the readers of Hebrews to return to.
“But a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (v. 27) The only recourse for those who willfully reject their faith in Christ is to embrace two things: 1) “a fearful prospect of judgment” and 2) “a fury of fire.” As Attridge points out, “Those whom this divine wrath consumes, those who ‘stand in opposition’ are those who reject Christ’s sacrifice, the primary enemies who are to be set under his feet.” Christ’s enemies are those who will face his judgment; this really should have caused the readers to perk up, considering they were supposed to be God’s children. Hagner believes that the reference to fire is based on a quote from Isaiah 26:11 in the LXX. Guthrie describes this verse very vividly, “The first, judgment, is expressed in terms of man’s fears…the second, fury, in terms of God’s provision. They complement one another.” In other words, a man’s expectation of judgment is realized when God actually provides that judgment in form of fiery punishment.
There are many who would like to do away with references to divine judgment; they believe they are doing mankind a service in helping them to get over outdated superstition. The problem with this attitude is that it is not helping mankind at all; it is actually harming men to not hear that there is sure and fearful expectation of furious and fiery judgment from God. The author of Hebrews is faithfully performing his function in the Body of Christ by warning his readers not to turn away from the Gospel.
THE SEVERITY OF THEIR JUDGMENT: 10:28-29
“Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (v. 28) The author then brilliantly displays the severity of the punishment in comparison to the punishment for those who willfully opposed the Mosaic law. Guthrie affirms, “This seems to imply a positive refusal to accept the authority of the Mosaic law. For such a man there was no mercy under the old covenant. All he could hope for was death.” Hagner sees the reality of the Mosaic law to be more fully revealed in Christ, “wherein something shown to be true in the era of the Mosaic Law is shown to be all the more true in the era of fulfillment brought by Christ.” According to Attridge, two sins were especially worthy of death without mercy under the Mosaic Law, “The paradigm cases would be blasphemy or idolatry, which break the covenant. For such a sin the penalty in the Torah us clear and severe.” So, if the Mosaic law had such severe penalties for defying it, how do the readers suppose that they will not be punished with more complete and satisfying revelation laid out before them?
Many Christians tend to want to view their faith as more lenient than the Mosaic law, after all it is the age of grace and forgiveness. However, a cursory study of the New Testament should not encourage this viewpoint; the author of Hebrews is not alone in his assumption of judgment for trampling upon the righteousness of Christ. Those who believe in eternal security are especially prone to explain away these warnings and they may do so at their own peril. One’s assurance of salvation must be based on one’s trust and faith in Jesus Christ; any other confidence goes against the warnings and admonitions of the author of Hebrews and the entire corpus of Scripture.
“How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” (v.29) The author of Hebrews gives a pretty colorful literary description of the apostate; three things stand out: 1) they have spurned the Son of God, 2) profaned the blood of the covenant, and 3) outraged the Spirit. If the Mosaic law had strict punishments for those who rejected it, then how much worse is the rejection of the Son of God.
Attridge affirms the special character of this sin, “These clauses do not specify particular sinful actions, but rather characterize, in vivid metaphors, the repudiation of the new covenant.” There is little doubt that the ordinary redeemed sinner would not be found in the kind of horrific denial as the one who throws away their confession of faith in Christ. This is the difference between Peter and Judas; Peter denied Jesus but wept bitterly in repentance, while Judas renounced Jesus and hung himself.
Concerning the spurning of the Son of God, Hagner writes, “Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant–is counted worthless and treated with contempt.” Guthrie points out that this is, “not only a rejection of the Christian position, but also the strongest antagonism against Jesus Christ.” Thus, the apostate mocks and scorns the Son of God who died selflessly to give them life in his name. It is hard to believe that those who have been renewed by the Spirit of God could openly trample and repudiate the name of Jesus, but once again the New Testament seems to make this case in multiple passages.
The profaning of the blood of the covenant should not be seen as a reference to the Eucharist, though the two could be easily similar, “the phrase ‘blood of the covenant’…although similar to the eucharistic blessing of the cup, is in this context not sacramentally focused.” The Greek word for profane means to make something common or ordinary, rather than acknowledge its extraordinary nature and superior quality. As Hagner remarks, “the blood of the covenant is reckoned to be common or unholy–this despite the fact this blood sanctified him.” To see the blood of Jesus as just any other blood is a high insult to the God whose life ran through it. Rejecting the Holy Spirit has severe consequences as Jesus points out in the synoptic gospels. Attridge readily draws similarities, “At this point Hebrews’s warnings offer a distant parallel to the Synoptic sayings about the sin against the Holy Spirit, although the basis for our author’s rigorism is clearly christological.” “The verb,” writes Guthrie, “is yet another word which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament…, which means not only outrage, but insolence. It is an arrogant rejection of the Spirit through whose agency grace…has come to man.” The Holy Spirit is the agent by which the blood of Christ is applied to the believer; he regenerates, redeems, and resurrects the believer in Jesus Christ. Thus, to choose apostasy is to reject the presence of God in one’s life, both here and in the life to come.
THE SURETY OF THEIR JUDGEMENT: 10:30-31
“For we know the one who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.'” (v.30) The author of Hebrews then gives his readers two quotations from the New Testament to add the exclamation mark to his point on the judgment of apostates. Guthrie explains, “Lest some should think that he has overdrawn the prospect of judgment, the writer turns his readers attention to the character of the judge, which is the guarantee that the judgment will be just.” This character of God is also alluded to by Attridge, “it suggests that Christians know the character of God who speaks in scripture and who has acted in Christ and that an essential attribute of this God is a negative attitude toward sin.” Who God is requires him to act justly and condemn sin; since the apostate has chosen to forsake God’s mercy in justice through Jesus Christ, then they are left with a sure, personal judgment.
The quotations are from Deuteronomy 32:35-36 and they highlight God’s zeal to bring justice and righteousness to his people. “That God will avenge himself,” writes Hagner, “against his enemies is, of course, a common theme in the OT and in Judaism.” Guthrie sees this as being as much as much a positive for God’s people as a negative for God’s enemies, “Both together stress the fact that vengeance and judgment belong to the Lord. Vindication of God’s people goes hand in hand with the judgment of his enemies.” The author of Hebrews wants his readers to understand that just as God has justice in store for those who believe, he also will pour out his wrath on those who reject Jesus the Christ.
The salvation of Jesus the Christ, much like the word that proclaims him, is a sharp double-edged sword. While it will cut to pieces those who oppose his people, it will also sever the souls of those who reject it. There was no one time conversion ritual that could assure the readers that they were believers, only their perseverance in the faith was a reasonable ground of confidence in their salvation. If they were not on the side of God’s vindication, then they would die and perish like all of God’s enemies throughout the ages.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (v. 31) Attridge calls this verse, “a lapidary phrase with clear eschatological overtones [that] summarizes and intensifies the message.” This is meant to terrify and to emphasize the surety of God’s wrath against apostates, “Hence in this context, ‘the hands of God’ are against those who through their actions or attitudes have placed themselves outside of his mercy.” Hagner confirms this assessment, “The thought of judgment of the living God is something that can only fill the heart with fear. Yet this is to be the lot of those who repudiate their original faith.” This is the exclamation point of the author of Hebrews’ argument and a fitting, ominous closer to this exhortation.
Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and it is likely that the writer of Hebrews would have approved, though the two contexts for their sermons are completely different. God is a great and awesome vindicator for those who place themselves under his rule and the protection of his covenant, but those who fall on the side of his holy, wrathful justice do not receive any safety or quarter. To fall in the hands of the living, holy God of love and justice is fearful and could not be survived without the work of Jesus Christ.
The author of Hebrews had a stern and vivid warning for his readers: if they walk away from the faith there is a severe and sure judgment in store for them. There is no sacrificial atonement for those who have rejected, dismissed, and spit upon the blood of Jesus the Christ. This is not something that needs to be feared by the believer who is putting their faith and trust in Christ, slowly but surely being conformed to his image. This judgment on apostates is greater by far than someone within the camp of Israel defying the law of Moses. God will not hesitate to bring down his full fury and wrath on those who refuse to embrace the Son. Therefore, for these individuals, it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. To walk away from one’s confession of faith in Christ is to truly abandon all hope.
Attridge, Harold W. Hebrews: a Commentary On the Epistle to the Hebrews. Hermeneia:a Critical and Historical Commentary On the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.
Guthrie, Donald. Hebrews. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009.
Hagner, Donald A. Hebrews. New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody: Paternoster Press, 1995.