Advancing and persevering in faith

by Scott Grant

Hebrews 10:19-39

Jesus inspires faith

This faith thing is hard to understand. Those who don't have it don't understand it. Those who have it can't explain it. What is it that gets us into faith, and what is it that keeps us going in faith? At the end of the day, it is Jesus Christ himself. In Hebrews 12:2, the writer of Hebrews will say that Jesus is "the author and perfecter of faith." It is he, through his work as a priest, who inspires faith. The priestly work of Christ encourages us to advance and persevere in faith.

Since Chapter 7, the writer has presented Christ as our priest and has described his work. Hebrews 7:1-10:18 is essentially descriptive. In Hebrews 10:19-39, the text is prescriptive. Based on his description of Christ and his work, the writer offers a prescription of what we should do. It is important for us to soak up descriptive truth. If we have done so appropriately, there will eventually be a desire to respond. We'll want to do something about it. In the passage before us, the writer tells us what to do. Primarily, we are to draw near to God.

The passage is framed by the word "confidence," which appears in verses 19 and 35. The confidence that we have to draw near to God (verse 19) should not be thrown away (verse 35). One who has confidence can draw near to God (verse 22), but one who throws away his confidence shrinks back from God (verse 38).

Moving forward in faith (10:19-25)

Hebrews 10:19-25:

(19) Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, (20) by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, (21) and since we have a great priest over the house of God, (22) let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (23) Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; (24) and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, (25) not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.

Beginning with the words "since therefore," the writer has words of exhortation based on the priesthood of Christ, which he described in 7:1-10:18. He draws two initial implications from his description - namely, two things that we "have": 1) Confidence to enter the holy place. 2) A great priest over the house of God.

We have confidence to enter "the holy place," which is actually a reference to the Most Holy Place, or the Holy of Holies, as it was in Hebrews 9:8 and 24. The Most Holy Place was the inner sanctum of the portable tabernacle and, later, the permanent temple. It was the place where the Lord signified that he dwelt with his people. The writer, though, is talking about the heavenly temple and its Most Holy Place (9:11, 24). The high priest of Israel was the only one who could enter the earthly Most Holy Place, and he could enter it only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The writer, however, says that he and his brothers in the faith - all of them - can enter the better Most Holy Place, the heavenly one, and experience the actual presence of God. Not only can we enter into the actual presence of God, we have "confidence" to do so.

We have this confidence because of Jesus, whose shed blood provides a better sacrifice than the animal sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, one that allows for continual and universal access to the heavenly Most Holy Place. It is a "new and living way" into God's presence that Christ inaugurated, or opened, for us. The way is new in that it allows for an entirely different kind of access (continual and universal) to an entirely different kind of place (heavenly). It is living in that we don't die in God's presence, as would be expected under the Old Covenant, and in that it leads to real life, eternal life (10:38). The way for us was opened through the veil of the heavenly temple, which the writer identifies as the flesh of Jesus. When Jesus died, the veil of the earthly temple that separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was torn (Mark 15:38), symbolizing not only the doom of the temple but access to the heavenly Most Holy Place. The shed blood of Jesus and the broken body of Jesus allow us access to God.

We not only have confidence to enter into God's presence, we have a great priest over the house of God - that is, us (3:6). Now that his sacrificial work as priest is done, Jesus, in his ongoing priestly work, "makes intercession" for us to the Father as our priest that we might "draw near" to God (7:25). Jesus is actually asking the Father that he would draw us near. So his priestly work gives us two things in connection with access to God: It gives us confidence that we can freely and continually enter God's presence, and, as the Father responds to the intercession of Jesus, it gives us encouragement to do so. Jesus has made a way for us to enter God's presence, and he encourages us to do so.

Note that we already "have" confidence, and we already "have" a high priest, who provides for encouragement. We have confidence and encouragement, courtesy of the priestly work of Jesus. These are not things we need to get. We have confidence and encouragement to approach God, whether we know it or not. Confidence and encouragement are based solely on the work of Christ; that means it isn't based on any work of ours. We might think that confidence to approach God is something that needs to be developed. Or we might think that it is based on our goodness. If we are waiting for confidence to develop or if we are depending on some goodness in ourselves to qualify us, we'll never feel confident or good enough.

Based on the priestly work of Christ that gives us confidence and encouragement to enter the heavenly Most Holy Place, the writer now exhorts us to do three things: 1) Draw near to God. 2) Hold fast the confession of our hope. 3) Consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. The second and third exhortations naturally flow out of the first one - drawing near to God.

First, the writer says that we should act on this confidence and encouragement we have; we should draw near to God in worship. ("God" is not specifically mentioned as the one we are to draw near to, but the writer speaks specifically of drawing near to God in Hebrews 4:16 and 7:25, which leads us to believe he is speaking similarly here.) In addition, he says we should draw near in a particular kind of way - with a sincere (literally, "true") heart and in full assurance of faith. We can draw near to God in this manner because we have had "our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water," the effect of Christ's work on the cross. Priests were installed through the sprinkling of blood and the washing with water; then they could approach the presence of the Lord (Exodus 29:4, 21). We are qualified both internally and externally - we are qualified in every way - to draw near to God based on the work of Christ.

What does it mean to have our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience? An evil conscience is one that is influenced by evil. An evil conscience condemns. The blood of Christ tells us that there is no condemnation for those who believe in him (Romans 8:1). Because of an evil conscience, one that whispers condemnation into our hearts, we might be reluctant to approach God. But the blood of Christ overrules our consciences, so to speak, and lets us know that the way is clear for us to draw near to God. We may tend to think that some sort of improvement in thought and behavior would be required on our part to influence our consciences to the point that our hearts would allow us to approach God, but it is only the blood of Christ that cleanses our consciences. In fact, the blood of Christ has already cleansed our consciences. Just as we now already have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place, we already have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. Our bodies have already been washed with pure water.

We are already thoroughly qualified to approach God in the manner suggested. We can and should draw near to God with a true heart. A true heart has nothing to hide, not even its inclination toward evil. A true heart says, "Here I am, God. This is all of me. This is me in all the ugliness of my sin." We can approach God with a true heart because we have "full assurance of faith" that our true heart belongs in God's presence. The sacrifice of Christ gives us faith that our sin - even the ugliest of it - causes God to neither withdraw nor punish. That means we can approach God as a real person. Only a real person - one who says what he thinks - is able to have a real relationship. God is real with us, and the sacrifice of Christ assures us that we can - we must! - be real with God. Intimacy is predicated on reality. Only people who are real with each other have a real relationship. Only people who tell each other what they think are able to form a true bond.

Otherwise, they are not able to know each other. It's the same with an individual and God. Under these circumstances, to fail to draw near to God because of our sin becomes, in itself, sin. The scripture here commands us as followers of Christ to draw near to God to receive his love for us, to seek intimacy with him, to worship and adore him - and to be real with him.

Second, we are to "hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering." Confession concerns belief, and hope concerns the future. The priestly work of Christ pushes us toward God, and in the presence of God we understand more fully that we want to be with him forever. The reason given for holding fast is that "he who promised" - that is, God - "is faithful." God has promised an eternal inheritance in his presence (13:14), and he is faithful to give that which he promised. We therefore have every reason to hold onto this forward-looking hope "without wavering" - without being shaken loose from faith by earthly circumstances.

Third, we are to "consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds." When we draw near to God, we understand something of his love for us, which causes us to look outward (1 John 4:19). How is someone stimulated to love and good deeds? By love and good deeds! We ourselves are stimulated to love and good deeds by the love and good deeds God has shown us. As we love others and show them God's love through our actions, they are stimulated. Love is an inward disposition, and good deeds are actions based on the inward disposition. Just as we have had an internal sprinkling and an external cleansing, we have internal love and act on that love with external actions. Our sprinkled hearts motivate our washed bodies to action, which motivates others to action.

There is a tendency not to do this, of course. There is a tendency to move away from people in general, not toward them. Some people in the writer's day did exactly that. So he tells his readers not to forsake "our own assembling together, as is the habit of some." He doesn't say why some have abandoned assembling together, but it's likely that persecution kept them away (10:32-33).

What keeps us away? What keeps us from "assembling together," moving toward other followers of Christ in various kinds of groups and relationships? Whatever our excuses, they are often just a front for a refusal to invest our lives in people that is borne out of fear - fear that our needs won't be met, fear of rejection, fear of failure or fear of giving up valuable time, for example. Whatever the reason, we should beware that staying away can be habitual; the writer says it is the "habit" of some.

The purpose given for assembling together is that we might "encourage one another." The encouragement is mutual. We encourage, and we get encouraged. The result of such encouragement is the stimulation of one another to love and good deeds. We should encourage each other "all the more, as you see the day drawing near." That day is the day of the Lord, when Christ returns (9:28). Encouragement is especially important in light of Christ's coming, because on that day what will be important is people - people who we have encouraged, and people who have encouraged us.

The second and third commands, to hold fast the confession of our hope and to consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, then, are based on the first one - the commandment to draw near to God, which in itself is made possible and encouraged by the priestly work of Christ. The writer pulls out all stops to get us close to God. He goes to great lengths to show us that the way is clear and that God is calling. If God has cleared the way, the only thing preventing us from drawing near is our own wrong beliefs. Have we kept ourselves distant from God in fear? Have we presented to him a false self? Have we tried to pump ourselves up for him? Have we settled for something other than nearness to God? Have we settled for lesser joy, lesser pleasures? We may not know what keeps us distant from God. We may not know why there seems to be a wall between God and us. There is a certain mystery to intimacy with God. Why it is we have it, why it is we don't have it - who's to say? But it's worth pursuing. It's worth praying and studying and scratching and clawing for it.

David says of God in Psalm 16:11, "In your presence is fulness of joy; in your right hand there are pleasures forever." Fulness of joy! It comes from being in God's presence. Pleasures forever! They come from God. The psalmist in Psalm 42:2 says, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?" The writer of Hebrews answers that question for us. When? Now! Now and any time, draw near. This is living - drawing near to God, holding onto hope, involvement with others that motivates them to move out in love and good deeds.

Judgment for abandoning faith (10:26-31)

Hebrews 10:26-31:

(26) For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, (27) but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. (28) Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. (29) How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (30) For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge His people." (31) It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Verse 26 begins with the word "for," which means that what follows somehow explains what has gone before. The day that is drawing near (verse 25) is not only a day of salvation but a day of judgment. Not only because it is a day of salvation but also because it is a day of judgment, we should draw near to God, cling to hope and stimulate one another to love and good deeds. Some will be judged. But our perseverance in faith ensures that we won't be among them, and our involvement with others helps them and is especially important in light of the judgment that will be incurred for abandoning Christ.

The author, addressing the congregation as a whole with the first-person-plural "we," talks about those who "go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth." The consequences in view here are for those who have been fully exposed to the truth of the gospel. What it means to sin willfully will become clear as we move through these verses.

For those who do sin in this manner, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins." The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ can't be repeated, and the willful sinner has placed himself permanently outside the scope of Christ's sacrifice, so he is left with "a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries." As opposed to one who has "full assurance of faith" (verse 22), this one has no assurance. The writer, in speaking of God's judgment, invokes Isaiah 26:11, where the Lord spoke of judging his enemies. It's quite clear that there is such a thing as the wrath of God, and that those who have made themselves God's enemies will experience it.

The writer then uses rejection of the Mosaic law as a point of comparison. Someone who set aside - or repudiated - the Law of Moses would be put to death, provided that the repudiation was properly attested. The writer does not have a casual transgression in view. The word translated "set aside" could be more strongly translated "declare invalid" or "nullify." It was used in the context of declaring a will invalid (Galatians 3:15). The writer is speaking of outright rejection of the Lord and his law. (Deuteronomy 17:2-7 would be an example of what the writer is talking about.)
That was then. What about now? Someone who could have expected death for repudiation of God under the Old Covenant can expect something worse for repudiation under the New Covenant, which involves God's fullest expression of love and grace.

In verse 29, the writer defines someone who goes on sinning willfully. Already he has hinted that this person has rejected the sacrifice of Christ. Now he says that this person has done three things: 1) Trampled under foot the Son of God. 2) Regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified. 3) Insulted the Spirit of grace. The title "Son of God" implies kingship, and this person "tramples under foot" the king, treating the king with utter disdain and refusing to submit to his rule. The blood of the covenant is Christ's blood, which ratifies God's covenant with his people. This person has considered that blood to be unclean, or of no account whatsoever. Finally, in rejecting God's Son, this person has insulted the Spirit of grace, rejecting the Holy Spirit through whom God longs to express his grace to people.

What, then, can be said about someone who "sins willfully"? It can be said that this person wants no part of Christ, that he has utterly rejected the salvation that God has offered after being fully exposed to that offer. In being exposed to the offer, this person received the knowledge of the truth and was "sanctified" by the blood of Christ. This is not a person who ever believed the gospel; this is someone got a good look at it and then rejected it. Although the writer used the word "sanctify" in describing a believer (10:10, 14), the broad meaning of the word is to be set apart for something. The blood of Christ set apart this person for exposure to the gospel, for apart from the blood of Christ, there is no gospel. The word is used by Paul to describe an unbelieving spouse who is "sanctified" by his or her believing partner (1 Corinthians 7:14). Paul clearly doesn't mean "saved" here, because he says in verse 16, "For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?" He means that an unbelieving spouse is exposed to the gospel and its benefits through the believing spouse. The writer of Hebrews, just as he did in Chapter 6:4-8, is describing someone who has seen the benefits of the gospel and then rejected it. This person has chosen to be God's adversary. This person, therefore, will experience God's judgment, which will involve "severer punishment" than the punishment of death called for in the Law of Moses.

The certainty of this judgment is explained in verse 30. God himself has said, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay" (Deuteronomy 32:35), and, "The Lord will judge his people" (Deuteronomy 32:36). The Lord's people are those who have gathered to the community but, as always, constitute a mixed bag - those who are truly believers and those who aren't (Romans 9:6-7, Matthew 13:24-30). Just as there is a "terrifying" expectation of judgment for those who have rejected Christ, it is "terrifying to fall into the hands of the living God" - it is terrifying to experience God's judgment. God is "living": he is not like dead idols in that he can actually do something about those who oppose him. For those who do, it will be terrifying.

So, there is a warning to be heeded. The evidence for saving faith is persevering faith. Because there will be a terrifying judgment for those who don't persevere, we are motivated to persevere, and we are motivated to encourage others to persevere.

Reward for persevering in faith (10:32-36)

Hebrews 10:32-36:

(32) But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, (33) partly, by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. (34) For you showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one. (35) Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. (36) For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

As a means of exhortation, the writer calls to his readers' minds "the former days" when they endured great suffering. The suffering that the writer wants them to remember came in two forms - that which they incurred directly and that which they incurred by identifying with those who were suffering. In the former days, they suffered great persecution for their faith.

Verse 34 further explains this two-fold suffering, but in reverse order. In identifying with others, they "showed sympathy to the prisoners" who were incarcerated for their faith, no doubt caring for them in practical ways. In incurring direct suffering, they "accepted joyfully the seizure" of their property. This introduces an element of incredulity to their response. It's one thing to endure this kind of treatment; it's quite another to accept it with joy. Somehow, in the former days of their faith, they accepted suffering with joy.

How did they do it? The answer is in the last part of verse 34. They knew they had for themselves "a better possession and an abiding one." The better and abiding possession is their eternal inheritance, the country where they would know, serve and reign with Jesus forever (1:14; 2:5; 5:9; 9:15, 28; 11:16, 35; 13:14). Therefore, they let earthly possessions gladly slip through their fingers. They were even joyful about it. The seizure of their property served only to remind them of the more valuable property they had in their possession - the heavenly land filled with the presence of God that can never be taken away. The writer's description of these people is reminiscent of the parable Jesus told about the man who, motivated by joy, sold everything he had in order to obtain a treasure - the treasure being representative of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:44). Something that allowed them to experience such joy in the midst of otherwise agonizing circumstances must be precious indeed. In asking them to remember, the writer is asking them to remember how much their eternal inheritance meant to them in the past and to recognize in the present how valuable it is.

All this is to tell them that they should not "throw away your confidence." The word "confidence" was used earlier in this passage in connection with access to the presence of God (verse 19). The word here has a broader meaning, as it does in Hebrews 3:6, where the writer said, " ... if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end." Our overall confidence includes the confidence to draw near to God, but it also embraces all of faith. This confidence has a great reward - our eternal inheritance.

The writer recognizes that his readers, though they formerly "endured" suffering, currently need "endurance." They need to endure in their faith, just like they did before, regardless of the circumstances. Endurance includes doing "the will of God," which involves drawing near to him, holding on to faith and stimulating others to love and good deeds. Then, at the end of our lives, or when Christ returns, we will "receive what was promised" - our eternal inheritance.
Perhaps we too would do well to remember the former days, when knowing Christ reigned supreme in our lives, when the prospect of knowing him forever in a new and perfect creation enabled us to endure great suffering. A spiritual slump after initial enlightenment is a common experience. Sometimes, we long for those days again, when Christ was fresh and life was full. We try to find a way to recover the zeal, but our recovery projects fail. Perhaps other concerns have choked our first love, like the "worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things" (Mark 4:19). Perhaps it is time to ask questions like these: "Has anything else given me the joy that Jesus did? Has anything else filled me with hope the way he did? These other things that seem so important - how satisfying are they, really? How long will they last? What kind of reward does anything other than faith in Christ have?"

What is it that gives us endurance? What is it that keeps us holding on to faith? What is it that gives us joy even when suffer loss? It is the better possession, the lasting possession, the great reward, the promise. It is God's promise that we will be with him forever. The promise of a glorious future and everlasting possession, then, frees us from the paralyzing fear of loss in the present - loss of possessions, loss of money, loss of work, loss of reputation, loss of relationship.
C.S. Lewis beautifully illustrates persevering faith in "The Screwtape Letters," where Screwtape, the senior devil, gives this advice to his young nephew: "Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause [the Devil's cause] is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will [God's will], looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." There are times in life when every trace of God's goodness in our lives seems to have vanished - when we have suffered tremendous loss of some kind. What is it that keeps us going? It is the belief that we will receive something infinitely more valuable than whatever it is we just lost. The belief, then, this confidence, should not be thrown away.

Christ is coming to judge, reward (10:37-39)

Hebrews 10:37-39:

(37)For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
(38)But My righteous one shall live by faith;
And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.
(39) But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

The concluding verses in this passage sum up the concepts of judgment for rejection of Christ (10:26-31) and reward for faith in Christ (10:32-35). The writer uses words from Habakuk 2:3-4, when God promised judgment and vindication in connection with the coming of the Babylonians against Judah. In this case, it is only "a very little while" before "he who is coming will come" - that is, Christ (Hebrews 9:28, Matthew 11:3). He is coming to judge, and to reward. If in the writer's framework, Christ was to come in a little while and not delay, when did that happen, or has it happened? In one sense, Christ already came to judge and reward, just as he said he would, in 70 AD. It wasn't the Babylonians this time but the Romans who sacked Jerusalem, executing God's judgment against Israel but vindicating Christ and his followers. That happened shortly after the writer penned Hebrews. But 70 AD doesn't exhaust the day of the Lord, so there's more to come. And even if several hundred years might not be considered "a very little while," the human life span is short, and at the end of it, a man or woman meets Christ. He who is coming comes.
What happens then? If someone is one of God's righteous ones who has faith, he will live.

Literally, the text reads, "But the righteous of mine out of faith will live." A righteous one of God is simply one who belongs to God - he is "the righteous of mine." God's righteous ones are characterized by faith in Christ and the promises of God. On the basis of this faith, they will "live" - they have, and will enter into the fulness of, eternal life. If, on the other hand, someone "shrinks back," or withdraws from faith in Christ and the promises of God, he is not among God's righteous ones. Therefore, God takes no pleasure in him, and his fate is not eternal life but destruction, which is a punishment worse than death (verse 29).

But the writer is confident that "we" - meaning, his readers - will not be among those who shrink back from God but people of enduring faith "to the preserving of the soul." The word "soul" can also be translated "life," and that nuance is consistent with the passage, and with Hebrews as a whole. People who persevere in faith enter into eternal life. He offered similar encouragement in Hebrews 6:9-11 after his similar warning in Hebrews 6:4-8.

Start now

The message, then, is clear: Draw near. The opposite of drawing near is withdrawing, which some insist on doing to the point that they completely reject the gospel and are subject to the wrath of God. But that is not what God wants. He wants us close to him. He wants us with him forever. And he wants us to start getting close to him now. Those who draw near to God receive fulness of joy and pleasures forever.

- SCG, 10-12-97