An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
Christ Superior to Moses
There are two great basic truths which run through Scripture, and are enforced on every page: that God is sovereign, and that man is a responsible creature; and it is only as the balance of truth is preserved between these two that we are delivered from error. The Divine sovereignty should not be pressed to the exclusion of human responsibility, nor must human responsibility be so stressed that God’s sovereignty is either ignored or denied. The danger here is no fancied one, as the history of Christendom painfully exhibits. A careful study of the Word, and an honest appropriation of all it contains, is our only safeguard.
We are creatures prone to go to extremes: like the pendulum of a clock in motion, we swing from one side to the other. Nowhere has this tendency been more sadly exemplified than in the teachings of theologians concerning the security of the Christian. On the one hand, there have been those who affirmed, Once saved, always saved; on the other hand, many have insisted that a man may be saved today, but lost tomorrow. And both sides have appealed to the Bible in support of their conflicting contentions! Very unwise and unguarded statements have been made by both parties. Some Calvinists have boldly declared that if a sinner has received Christ as his Savior, no matter what he does afterward, no matter what his subsequent life may be, he cannot perish. Some Arminians have openly denied the efficacy of the finished Work of Christ, and affirmed that when a sinner repents and believes in Christ he is merely put in a salvable state, on probation, and that his own good works and faithfulness will prove the deciding factor as to whether he should spend eternity in Heaven or Hell.
Endless volumes have been written on the subject, but neither side has satisfied the other; and the writer for one, is not at all surprised at this. Party-spirit has run too high, sectarian prejudice has been too strong. Only too often the aim of the contestants has been to silence their opponents, rather than to arrive at the truth. The method followed has frequently been altogether unworthy of the "children of light." One class of passages of Scripture has been pressed into service, while another class of passages has been either ignored or explained away. Is it not a fact that if some Calvinists were honest they would have to acknowledge there are some passages in the Bible which they wish were not there at all? And if some Arminians were equally honest, would they not have to confess that there are passages in Holy Writ which they are quite unable to fit into the creed to which they are committed? Sad, sad indeed, is this. There is nothing in the Word of God of which any Christian needs be afraid, and if there is a single verse in it which conflicts with his creed, so much the worse for his creed.
Now the subject of the Christian’s security, like every other truth of Scripture, has two sides to it: into it there enters both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. It is failure to recognize and reckon upon this which has wrought such havoc and created so much confusion. More than once has the writer heard a renowned Bible-teacher of orthodox reputation say, "I do not believe in the perseverance of saints, but I do believe in the preservation of the Savior." But that is to ignore an important side of the truth. The New Testament has much to say on the perseverance of the saints, and to deny or ignore it is not only to dishonor God, but to damage souls.
There have been those who boldly insisted that, if God has eternally elected a certain man to be saved, that man will be saved, no matter what he does or does not do. Not so does the Word of God teach. Scripture says, "God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth" (2 Thess. 2:13), and if a man does not "believe the truth" he will never be saved. The Lord Jesus declared, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3); therefore, if a sinner, does not "repent," he will not be saved. In like manner, there are those who have said, If a man is now a real Christian, no matter how he may live in the future, no matter how far or how long he may backslide, no matter what sins he may commit, he is sure of Heaven. Put in such a way, this teaching has wrought untold harm, and, at the risk of our own orthodoxy being suspected, we here enter a solemn and vigorous protest against it.
The writer has met many people who profess to be Christians, but whose daily lives differ in nothing from thousands of non-professors all around them. They are rarely, if ever, found at the prayer-meeting, they have no family worship, they seldom read the Scriptures, they will not talk with you about the things of God, their walk is thoroughly worldly; and yet they are quite sure they are bound for heaven! Inquire into the ground of their confidence, and they will tell you that so many years ago they accepted Christ as their Savior, and "once saved always saved" is now their comfort. There are thousands of such people on earth today, who are nevertheless, on the Broad Road, that leadeth to destruction, treading it with a false peace in their hearts and a vain profession on their lips.
It is not difficult to anticipate the thoughts of many who have read the above paragraphs: "We fully agree that there are many in Christendom resting on a false ground of security, many professing the name of Christ, who have never been born again; but this in nowise conflicts with the declaration of Christ that no sheep of His shall ever perish." Quite true. But what we would here point out and seek to press on our readers is this: I have no right to appropriate to myself the blessed and comforting words of the Savior found in John 10:28, 29, unless I answer to the description of His "sheep" found in John 10:27; and I have no warrant for applying His promise to those who give no evidence of being conformed to the characters of those He there has in view. Let no man dare separate what God Himself has there joined together.
The passage begins with, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me." That is the Lord’s own description of those whom He owns as His "sheep." Now if, to the contrary, I am "hearkening" to the seductive voice of this world, if I am "following" a course of self-will, self-seeking, self-gratification, what right have I to regard myself as one of the "sheep" of Christ? None at all. And if, notwithstanding, I do profess to be one of His, then my walk gives the lie to my profession. And any one who comes to me with words of comfort, pressing upon me the promises of God to His people, is only encouraging me in a course of wrong-doing and bolstering me up in a false hope.
It may be replied, "Yet a real Christian may leave his first love." True, and before a church that had done so, the Lord Jesus appeared and said—not, "It will be alright in the end," but—"Repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick" (Rev. 2:5). "But a real Christian may backslide, and in a large measure become worldly again." Then if he does, his need is not to hear about the eternal security of God’s saints, but the eternal and fearful consequences of giving way to an evil heart of unbelief if such a course be continued in. "Yes, but if he is one of God’s people, he will be chastened, and grace will restore him; and therefore I cannot see the need or propriety of giving him to believe there is a danger of his being lost."
Ah, it is not without reason that the Lord Jesus declared, more than once, "he that endureth to the end shall be saved." And let it not be forgotten that in Matthew 13:20, 21. He spoke of some who "but endureth for a while"! Again it may be objected, "Such a pressing of the need of perseverance of God’s elect is uncalled for: if a man be a Christian, he will persevere, and if he persevere then there is no need of urging him to persevere." Not so did the apostles think or act. In Acts 11:22, 23 we read, "they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord." Again, in Acts 13:43 we read, "Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God." Once more, in Acts 14:21, 22 we are told "And when they had preached the Gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God."
According to the views of some, such earnestness on the part of the apostles was quite unnecessary. But the impartial Christian reader will gather from the above passages that the apostles believed in no mechanical salvation, wherein God dealt with men as though they were stocks and stones. No, they preached a salvation that needed to be worked out with "fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12); in a salvation which calls human responsibility into exercise; in a Divine salvation effectuated by the use of the means of grace which God has mercifully provided for us. True we are "kept by the power of God," but the very next words afford us light on how God keeps—"through faith" (1 Pet. 1:5). And not only does faith feed on the promises of God, but it is stirred into healthful exercise and directed by the solemn warnings of Scripture.
A real need then is there for such words as these, "But Christ as a Son over His own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end" (Heb. 3:6). "Oh, blessed word and promise of God, that He will keep us unto the end. But how is it that we are kept? Through faith, through watchfulness, through self-denial, through prayer and fasting, through our constant taking heed unto ourselves according to His Word. ‘Hold fast’ if you desire it to be manifested in that day that you are not merely outward professors, not merely fishes existing in the net, but the true and living disciples of One Master." (Saphir).
"But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (verse 13). "There is need of constant watchfulness on the part of the professors of Christianity, lest under the influence of unbelief they ‘depart from the living God.’ ‘Take heed,’ says the apostle. There is nothing, I am persuaded, in regard to which professors of Christianity fall into more dangerous practical mistakes than this. They suspect everything sooner than the soundness and firmness of their belief. There are many who are supposing themselves believers who have no true faith at all,—and so it would be proved were the hour of trial, which is perhaps nearer than they are aware, to arrive; and almost all who have faith suppose they have it in greater measure than they really have it. There is no prayer that a Christian needs more frequently to present than, ‘Lord, increase my faith’; ‘deliver me from an evil heart of unbelief.’
"All apostasy from God, whether partial or total, originates in unbelief. To have his faith increased—to have more extended, and accurate and impressive views of ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’—ought to be the object of the Christian’s most earnest desire and unremitting exertion. Just in the degree in which we obtain deliverance from the ‘evil heart of unbelief’ are we enabled to cleave to the Lord with full purpose of heart, to follow Him fully, and, in opposition to all the temptations to abandon His cause, to ‘walk in all His commandments and ordinances blameless.’ To prevent so fearful and disastrous a result of apostasy from the living God, the apostle calls on them to strengthen each other’s faith by mutual exhortation, and thus oppose those malignant and deceitful influences which had a tendency to harden them in impenitence and unbelief" (Dr. J. Brown).
To "exhort one another daily" is to call attention to and stir up one another for discharging our mutual duties. But in performing this obligation we are sadly lax: like the disciples upon the mount of transfiguration (Luke 9:32) and in Gethsemane (Luke 22:45), we too are very dull and drowsy and in constant need of both exhortation and incitation. As fellow pilgrims in a hostile country, as members of the same family, we ought to have "care for one another" (1 Cor. 12:25), to "love one another" (John 13:34), to "pray one for another" (James 5:16), to "comfort one another" (1 Thess. 4:18), to "admonish one another" (Rom. 15:14), to "edify one another" (1 Thess. 5:11), to have "peace one with another" (Mark 9:50). Only thus are we really helpful one to another. And, note, the exhorting is to be done "daily," for we must not be weary in well doing. While it is called "Today" warns us that our sojourn in this scene is but brief; the night hastens on when no man can work.
"Lest any of you be hardened" adds force to the duty enjoined. In verse 8 the terrible damage which hardness of heart produces had been pointed out; here it is warned against. The implication is unmistakable: hardness of heart is the consequence of neglecting the means for softening it—"lest." Clay and wax which are naturally hard, melt when brought under a softening power, but when the heat is withdrawn they revert again to their native hardness. The same evil tendency remains in the Christian. The flesh is "weak," our heart "deceitful"; only by the daily use of means and through fellowship with the godly are we preserved. Oftentimes the failure of a Christian is to be charged against his brethren as much as to his own unfaithfulness. How often when we perceive a saint giving way to hardness of heart we go about mentioning it to others, instead of faithfully and tenderly exhorting the offending one!
"Through the deceitfulness of sin." Here is the cause of the evil warned against and upon which we need to be constantly upon our guard. It is the manifold deceits of sin which prevail over men so much. The reference here is to the corruption of our nature, with which we are born, and which we ever carry about with us. It is that which, in Scripture, is designated the "flesh," the lustings of which are ever contrary to the Spirit. God’s Word speaks of "deceitful lusts" (Ephesians 4:22), the "deceitfulness of riches" (Matt. 13:22), for their innate depravity causes men to prefer material wealth to vital godliness and heavenly happiness. So we read of the "deceivableness of unrighteousness" (2 Thess. 2:10); philosophy (the proud reasoning of that carnal mind which is enmity against God) is termed "vain deceit" (Col. 2:8); and the lascivious practices of formal professors are called "their own deceivings" (2 Pet. 2:13). This is one of the principal characteristics of sin: it deceives. "All the devices of sin are as fair baits whereby dangerous hooks are covered over to entice silly fish to snap at them, so as they are taken and made a prey to the fisher" (Dr. Gouge).
This deceitfulness of sin should serve as a strong inducement to make us doubly watchful against it, and that because of our foolish disposition and proneness of nature to yield to every temptation. Sin presents itself in another dress than its own. It lyingly offers fair advantages. It insensibly bewitches our mind. It accommodates itself to each individual’s particular temperament and circumstances. It clothes its hideousness by assuming an attractive garb. It deludes us into a false estimate of ourselves. One great reason why God has mercifully given us His Word is to expose the real character of sin. By the deceitfulness of sin the heart is hardened. "To be hardened is to become insensible to the claims of Jesus Christ, so that they do not make their appropriate impression on the mind, in producing attention, faith, and obedience. He is hardened who is careless, unbelieving, impenitent, disobedient" (Dr. J. Brown).
In the light of the whole context the specific reference in the exhortation of verse 13 constitutes a solemn caution against apostasy. What we particularly need to daily exhort one another about is to cleave fast to Christ, lest something else supplant Him in our affections. The whole trend of our sinful natures is to depart from the living God, to grasp at the shadows and miss the substance. This was the peculiar danger of the Hebrews. Sin was trying to deceive them. It was seeking to draw them back to Judaism as the one true and Divinely-appointed religion. To guard against the insidious appeals being made, the apostle urges them to "exhort one another daily," that is, promptly and frequently. The importance of taking heed to this injunction is placed in its strongest light by what immediately follows.
"For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end" (verse 14). These words complete the exhortation commenced at verse 12. They are added as a motive to enforce the dissuasion from apostasy (verse 12), and also the warning against that which occasions it (verse 13). The contents of this verse are similar in their force to that which was before us in verse 6: in both instances it is profession which is being put to the proof. There are two classes on which such exhortations have no effect: the irreligious who are dead in trespasses and sins, and have no interest in such matters; and the self-righteous religionist, who, though equally dead spiritually, yet has an intellectual interest. Many a professing Christian, who is infected by the Laodicean spirit of the day, will shrug his shoulders, saying, Such warnings do not concern me, there is no danger of a real child of God apostatizing. Such people fail to get the good of these Divine warnings, their conscience never being reached. But where there is a heart which is right with God, there is always self-distrust, and such an one is kept in the place of dependency through taking heed to the solemn admonitions of the Spirit. It is these very warnings against departure from God which curb the regenerate.
"Persistency in our confidence in Christ unto the end is a matter of great endeavor and diligence, and that unto all believers. It is true that our persistency in Christ doth not, as to the issue and event, depend absolutely on our own diligence. The unalterableness of union with Christ, on the account of the faithfulness of the covenant of grace, is that which doth and shall eventually secure it. But yet our own diligent endeavor is such an indispensable means for that end as that without it, it will never be brought about. Hence are many warnings given us in this and other epistles, that we should take heed of apostasy and falling away; and these cautions and warnings are given unto all true believers, that they may know how indispensably necessary, from the appointment of God, and the nature of the thing itself, is their watchful diligence and endeavor unto their abiding in Christ" (Dr. John Owen).
But it should be pointed out that these solemn warnings of Scripture ought not to be pressed upon weak Christians, who though anxious to walk acceptably before God, are lacking in assurance. "Observe here—for Satan, and our own conscience when it has not been set free often make use of this epistle—that doubting Christians are not here contemplated, or persons who have not yet gained entire confidence in God: to those who are in this condition its exhortations and warnings have no application. These exhortations are to preserve the Christian in a confidence which he has, and to persevere, not to tranquillise fears and doubts. This use of the epistle to sanction such doubts is but a device of the enemy. Only I would add here that, although the full knowledge of grace (which in such a case the soul has assuredly not yet attained) is the only thing that can deliver and set it free from its fears, yet it is very important in this case practically to maintain a good conscience, in order not to furnish the enemy with a special means of attack" (J.N.D.).
For the right understanding of this verse it is of first importance that we should note carefully the tense of the verb in the first clause: it is not "we shall be made partakers of Christ if"—that would completely overthrow the gospel of God’s grace, deny the efficacy of the finished Work of Christ, and make assurance of our acceptance before God impossible before death. No, what the Spirit here says is, "We are made partakers of Christ," and in the Greek it is expressed even more decisively: "For partakers we have become of the Christ." The word "partakers" here is the same as in Hebrews 3:1, "partakers of the heavenly calling," and at the end of Hebrews 1:9 is rendered, "fellows." Perhaps, "companions" would be a better rendering. It means that we are so "joined unto the Lord," as to be "one spirit" with Him (1 Cor. 6:17). It is to be so united to Christ that we are "members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones" (Ephesians 5:30). It is to be made by grace, "joint-heirs" with Him (Rom. 8:17). The word "made partakers of Christ" shows there was a time when Christians were not so. They were not so born naturally; it was a privilege conferred upon them when they "received" Him as their Savior (John 1:12).
"If we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end." This does not express a condition of our remaining partakers of Christ in the sense of its being a contingency. "What is the one thing which the Christian desires? What is the one great thing which he does? What is the one great secret which he is always endeavoring to find out with greater clearness and grasp with firmer intensity? Is it not this: ‘my Beloved is mine, and I am His’? The inmost desire of our heart and the exhortation of the Word coincide. To the end we must persevere; and it is therefore with great joy and alacrity that we receive the solemn exhortations: ‘He that endureth unto the end shall be saved’; ‘No man, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ We desire to hear constantly the voice which saith from His Heavenly throne, ‘To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My kingdom, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne’" (Saphir).
To hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end is to furnish evidence of the genuineness of our profession, it is to make it manifest both to ourselves and others that we have been made "partakers of Christ." Difficulties in the path are presupposed, severe trials are to be expected: how else could faith show itself? Buffetings and testings do but provide occasions for the manifestation of faith, they are also the means of its exercise and growth. The Greek word for "confidence" here is not the same as in verse 6: there the "confidence" spoken of is to make a bold and free confession of our faith; here, it is a deep and settled assurance of Christ’s excellency and sufficiency, which supports our hearts. The one is external, the other is internal. To "hold fast the beginning of our confidence" signifies to "continue in the faith, grounded and settled" (Col. 1:23). It is to say with Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." (Job 13:15).
"Firm unto the end." This is the test. At the beginning of our Christian course, our confidence in Christ was full and firm. We knew that He was a mighty Savior, and we were fully persuaded that He was able to keep that which we have committed unto Him against that day. But the roughness of the way, the darkness of the night, the fierceness of the storm into which, sooner or later, we are plunged, tends to shake our confidence, and perhaps (much to our sorrow now) we cried, "Lord, carest Thou not"? Yet, if we were really "partakers of Christ" though we fell, yet were we not utterly cast down. We turned to the Word, and there we found help, light, comfort. In it we discovered that the very afflictions we have experienced were what God had told us would be our portion for "we are appointed thereunto" (1 Thess. 3:3). In it we learned that God’s chastenings of us proceeded from His love (Heb. 12). And now, though we have proved by painful experience to have less and less confidence in ourselves, in our friends, and even in our brethren, yet, by grace, our confidence in the Lord has grown and become more intelligent. Thus do we obtain experimental verification of that word, "Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof" (Ecclesiastes 7:8).
"While it is said, Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation" (verse 15). The apostle continues to make practical application of the solemn passage he had been quoting from Psalm 95, pressing upon them certain details from it. That which is central in this verse is its directions for cleaving fast to Christ. Two things are to be observed: the duty to be performed, positively to "hear His voice," negatively not to "harden their hearts." This duty is to be performed promptly, "Today," and is to be persevered in—"whilst it is said today" i.e. to the end Of our earthly pilgrimage. The opportunity which grace grants us is to be eagerly redeemed, the improvement of it is to be made as long as the season of opportunity is ours. The admonition is again pointed by the warning of Israel’s failure of old. Thus the sins of others before us are to be laid to heart, that we may avoid them.
"When we hear God’s voice—and, oh, how deafly and sweetly does He speak to us in the person of His Son Jesus, the Word incarnate, who died for us on Golgotha!—the heart must respond.... By this expression is meant the center of our spiritual existence, that center out of which thoughts and affections proceed, out of which are the issues of life, that mysterious fount which God only can know and fathom. Oh that Christ may dwell there! God’s voice is to soften the heart. This is the purpose of the divine word—to make our hearts tender. Alas, by nature we are hard-hearted: and what we call good and soft-hearted is not so in reality and in God’s sight When we receive God’s word in the heart, when we acknowledge our sin, when we adore God’s mercy, when we desire God’s fellowship, when we see Jesus, who came to save us, to wash our feet and shed His blood, for our salvation, the heart becomes soft and tender. For repentance, faith, prayer, patience, hope of heaven, all these things make the heart tender: tender towards God, tender towards our fellow-men" (Saphir).
"For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses" (verse 16). The apostle here begins to describe the kind of persons who sinned in the provocation, amplification being given in what follows. His purpose in making mention of these persons was to more fully evidence the need for Christian watchfulness against hardness of heart, even because those who of old yielded thereto provoked God to their ruin. The opening "for" gives point to what has preceded. The unspeakably solemn fact to which He here refers is that out of six hundred thousand men who left Egypt, but two of them were cut off in the wilderness, Caleb and Joshua.
The Greek word "provoke" occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but the Sept. employs it in Psalm 78:17, 40; 106:7, 33; Jeremiah 44:8, etc. They "vexed" Him (Isa. 63:10), and this because of their contempt of His word. Hereby they showed they were not of God, see John 8:47, 1 John 4:6. Should any unsaved man or woman read these lines, we would say, Beware of provoking God by thine obstinacy. To them that believe not, the gospel becomes "a savor of death unto death."
"But with whom was He grieved forty years"? (verse 17). This being put in the form of a question was designed to stir up the conscience of the reader, cf. Matthew 21:28, James 4:5, etc. "Was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcasses fell in the wilderness"? (verse 17). "He doth not say ‘they died,’ but their ‘carcasses fell,’ which intimates contempt and indignation. God sometimes will make men who have been wickedly exemplary in sin, righteously exemplary in their punishment. To what end is this reported? It is that we may take heed that we ‘fall not after the same example of unbelief’ (Heb. 4:11). There is then an example in the fall and punishment of unbelievers" (Dr. John Owen).
"And to whom sware He that they should not enter into His rest, but to them that believeth not"? (verse 18). Having reminded the Hebrews in the previous verse that sin was the cause of Israel’s destruction of old, he now specifies the character of that sin, Unbelief. The order is terribly significant: they harkened not to God’s voice; in consequence, their hearts were hardened; unbelief was the result; destruction, the issue. How unspeakably solemn! The Greek word here rendered "believed not" may, with equal propriety, be rendered "obeyed not"; it is so translated in Romans 2:8; 10:21. It amounts to the same thing, differing only according to the angle of view-point: looked at from the mind or heart, it is "unbelief"; looked at from the will, it is "disobedience." In either case it is the sure consequence of refusal to heed God’s voice.
"So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief" (verse 19). "The apostle does not single out the sin of making and worshipping the golden calf; he does not bring before us the flagrant transgressions into which they fell at Beth-peor. Many much more striking and to our mind more fearful sins could have been pointed out, but God thinks the one sin greater than all is unbelief. We are saved by faith; we are lost through unbelief. The heart is purified by faith; the heart is hardened by unbelief. Faith brings us nigh to God; unbelief is departure from God" (Saphir). There is no sin so great but it may be pardoned, if the sinner believe; but "he that believeth not shall be damned."
The application of the whole of this passage to the case of the sorely-tried and wavering Hebrews was most pertinent and solemn. Twice over the apostle reminded them (verses 9, 17) that the unbelief of their fathers had been continued for "forty years." Almost that very interval had now elapsed since the Son had died, risen again, and ascended to heaven. In Scripture, forty is the number of probation. The season of Israel’s testing was almost over; in A.D. 70 their final dispersion would occur. And God changeth not. He who had been provoked of old by Israel’s hardness of heart, would destroy again those who persisted in their unbelief. Then let them beware, and heed the solemn warning, "Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God." May God grant us hearts to heed the same admonitory warning.