An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
We have now reached one of the most solemn and fear-inspiring passages to be found not only in this epistle, but in all the Word of God. May the Holy Spirit fit each of our hearts to approach it in that godly trembling which becomes those who have within their own hearts the seeds of apostasy. Let it be duly considered at the outset that the verses which are now to be before us were addressed not to those who made no profession of being genuine Christians, but instead, unto them whom the Spirit of truth owned as "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1). Nevertheless, He now dehorts them from stepping over the brink of that awful precipice which was before them, and faithfully warns of the certain destruction which would follow did they do so. Instead of replying to this with arguments drawn from the eternal security of God’s saints, let us seek grace to honestly face the terrible danger which menaces each of us while we remain in this world of sin, and to use all necessary means to avoid so fearful and fatal a calamity.
In the past, dear reader, there have been thousands who were just as confident that they had been genuinely saved and were truly trusting in the merits of the finished work of Christ to take them safely through to Heaven, as you may be; nevertheless, they are now in the torments of Hell. Their confidence was a carnal one; their "faith," no better than that which the demons have. Their faith was but a natural one which rested on the bare letter of Scripture. It was not a supernatural one, wrought in the heart by God. They were too confident that their faith was a saving one, to thoroughly, searchingly, frequently, test it by the Scriptures, to discover whether or no it was brining forth those fruits which are inseparable from the faith of God’s elect. If they read an article like this, they proudly concluded that it belonged to some one else. So cocksure were they that they were born again so many years ago, they refused to heed the command of 2 Corinthians 13:5 "Prove your own selves." And now it is too late. They wasted their day of opportunity, and the "blackness of darkness" is their portion forever.
In view of this solemn and awful fact, the writer earnestly calls upon himself and each reader to get down before God and sincerely cry, "Search me, O God: reveal me to myself. If I am deceived, undeceive me ere it be eternally too late. Enable me to measure myself faithfully by Thy Word, so that I may discover whether or no my heart has been renewed, whether I have abandoned every course of self-will and truly surrendered to Thee; whether I have so repented that I hate all sin, and fervently long to be free from its power, loathe myself and seek diligently to deny myself; whether my faith is that which overcomes the world (1 John 5:4), or whether it be only a mere notional thing which produces no godly living; whether I am a fruitful branch of the vine, or only a cumberer of the ground; in short, whether I be a new creature in Christ, or only a painted hypocrite." If I have an honest heart, then I am willing, yea anxious to face and know the real truth about myself.
Perhaps some readers are ready to say, I already know the truth about myself: I believe what God’s Word tells me: I am a sinner, with no good thing dwelling in me; my only hope is in Christ. Yes, dear friend, but Christ saves His people from their sins. Christ sends His Holy Spirit into their hearts, so that they are radically changed from what they were previously. The Holy Spirit sheds abroad the love of God in the hearts of those He regenerates, and that love is manifested by a deep desire and sincere determination to please Him who loves me. When Christ saves a soul, He saves not only from Hell, but from the power of sin; He delivers him from the dominion of Satan, and from the love of the world; He delivers him from the fear of man, the lusts of the flesh, the love of self. True He has not yet completed this blessed work. True, the sinful nature is not yet eradicated, but one who is saved has been delivered from the dominion of sin (Rom. 6:14). Salvation is a supernatural thing, which changes the heart, renews the will, transforms the life, so that it is evident to all around that a miracle of grace has been wrought.
Thus, it is not sufficient for me to ask have I repudiated my own righteousness, have I renounced all my good works to fit me for heaven, am I trusting alone to Christ? Many will earnestly and sincerely affirm these things, who yet give no evidence that they have passed from death unto life. Then what more is necessary for me to ascertain whether or no my faith be a truly saving one? This, there are certain things which "accompany salvation" (Heb. 6:9), things which are inseparable from it; and for these I must look, and be sure I have them. A bundle of wood that sends forth neither heat nor smoke, has no fire under it. A tree, which in summer, bears neither fruit nor leaves, is dead. So a faith which does not issue in godly living, in an obedient walk, in spiritual fruit, is not the faith of God’s elect. O my reader, I beg you to diligently and faithfully examine yourself by the light of God’s unerring Word. Claim not to be a child of Abraham, unless you do the works of Abraham (John 8:39).
What is apostasy? It is a making shipwreck of the faith (1 Tim. 1:19). It is the heart’s departure from the living God (Heb. 3:12). It is a returning to and being overcome by the world, after a previous escape from its pollutions through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 2:20). There are various steps which precede it. First, there is a looking back (Luke 9:62), like Lot’s wife, who though she had outwardly left Sodom, yet her heart was still there. Second, there is a drawing back (Heb. 10:38): the requirements of Christ are too exacting to any longer appeal to the heart. Third, there is a turning back (John 6:66): the path of godliness is too narrow to suit the lustings of the flesh. Fourth, there is a falling back, which is fatal: "that they might go and fall backward, and be broken" (Isa. 28:13).
"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some, but exhorting; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (verse 25). This verse forms the transition between the subject of Christian perseverance, treated of in verses 23, 24, and that of apostasy, which is developed in verse 26 and onwards, though it is much more closely related to the latter than to the former. Most of the commentators are astray on this point, through failing to observe the absence of the word "And" at the beginning of it, and because they perceive not the significance of the word "forsake." In reality, the contents of this verse form a faithful warning against apostasy. First, the Hebrews are cautioned against forsaking public worship. Second, it is pointed out that "some" had already done so. Third, they are bidden to exhort one another with increased diligence.
"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together." Before attempting exposition of these words, let us first relieve them of a false application which some seek to make of them today. Just as of old Satan made a wrong use of Psalm 91:11, 12 in his tempting of the Savior (Matthew 4:6), so he does with the verse before us. Few are aware of how often the Devil brings a Scripture before our minds. When a Christian is seeking to be out and out for Christ, the Devil will quote to him "Be not righteous overmuch" (Ecclesiastes 7:16); likewise when a child of God resolves to obey 2 Timothy 3:5 and Hebrews 13:13 and separate from all who do not live godly, the Enemy reminds him of "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together." Romanists used the same text in the early days of the Reformation, and charged Luther and his friends with disobeying this Divine command. But God’s Word does not contradict itself: it does not tell us in one place "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14), and here bid the "sheep" to fraternize with "goats." When rightly understood, this verse affords no handle to those who seek to discourage faithfulness to Christ.
"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together." John Owen rightly pointed out that, "There is a synecdoche (a part put for the whole) in the word ‘assembling,’ and it is put for the whole worship of Christ, because worship was performed in their assemblies; and he that forsakes the assemblies, forsakes the worship of Christ, as some of them did when exposed to danger." What is here dehorted is the total relinquishment of Christianity. It is not "Cease not to attend the assembly," but "forsake not," abandon not the assembling of yourselves together. It is not the sin of sloth or of schism which is here considered, but that of apostasy. If a professing Christian forsook the Christian churches and became a Mohammedan he would disobey this verse; but for one who puts the honor of Christ before everything else, to turn his back upon the so-called churches where He is now so grievously dishonored, is not a failure to comply with its terms.
The Greek word for "Forsake not" is a very strong and emphatic one, being a double compound, and signifies "to abandon in time of danger." It is the word used by the agonizing Redeemer on the Cross, when He cried, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" It was used by Him again when He declared, "Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell, neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption" (Acts 2:27). It is the word employed by Paul in 2 Timothy 4:10, "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world." It is found in only one other place in this epistle, where it is in obvious antithesis from the verse now before us: "He hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Heb. 13:5). Thus it will appear that a total and final abandonment of the public profession of Christianity is what is here warned against.
One may therefore discern how that verse 25 supplies a most appropriate link between verses 23, 24 and verse 26. Verse 25 prescribes another means to enable the wavering Hebrews to remain constant in the Christian faith. If they were to "hold fast the confession of faith without wavering," and if they were to "consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works," then they must not "forsake the assembling" of themselves together. The word for "assembling together" is a double compound, and occurs elsewhere in the New Testament only in 2 Thessalonians 2:1: "our gathering together unto Him," that is unto Christ; this also shows that the "assembling together" here is under one Head, and that the "forsaking" is because He has been turned away from.
To enforce the above caution, the apostle adds, "as the manner of some is." The Greek word for "manner" signifies "custom," and is so translated in Luke 2:42. This supplies additional confirmation that the evil against which the Hebrews were dehorted was no mere occasionally absenting themselves from the Christian churches, but a deliberate, fixed and final departure from them. In John 6:66 we read that "From that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him"; John also wrote of those who "went out from us, but they were not of us" (1 John 2:19); whilst at the close of his labors Paul had to say "All they which are in Asia be turned away from me" (2 Tim. 1:15). So here, some who had made a profession of the Christian faith had now abandoned the same and gone back to Judaism. It was to warn the others against this fatal step that the apostle now wrote as he did—compare 1 Corinthians 10:12, Romans 11:20.
"But exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." Here is the positive side of our verse. This is another of the means appointed by God to confirm Christians in their holy confession. To "exhort one another" is a duty to which all Christians are called; alas, how rarely is it performed these evil days. Yet, from the human side, such failure is hardly to be wondered at. The vast majority of professing Christians wish to be petted and flattered, rather than exhorted and cautioned. Most of them are so hypersensitive that the slightest criticism offends them. One who seeks grace to be faithful and to act in true "love" to those whom he supposes are his brethren and sisters in Christ, has a thankless task before him, so far as man is concerned—he will soon lose nearly all his "friends" (?) and sever the "fellowship" (?) which exists between him and them. But this will only give a little taste of "the fellowship of His sufferings." Hebrews 3:13 is still God’s command!
"And so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." There seems little room for doubt that the first reference here is to the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, which was now very nigh, for this epistle was written within less than eight years before Jerusalem was captured by Titus. That terrible catastrophe had been foretold, again and again, by Israel’s prophets, and was plainly announced by the Lord Jesus in Luke 21. The approach of that dreadful "day" could be plainly seen or perceived by those possessing spiritual discernment: the continued refusal of the Nation to repent of their murder of Christ, and the abandoning of Christianity for an apostate Judaism by such large numbers, clearly presaged the bursting of the storm of God’s judgment. This very fact supplied an additional motive for genuine Christians to remain faithful. The Lord Jesus promised that His followers should be preserved from the destruction of Jerusalem, but only as they attended to His cautions in Luke 21:8, 19, 34, etc., only as they persevered in faith and holiness, Matthew 24:13. The particular motive unto diligence here set before the Hebrews is applicable to other Christians just to the extent that they find themselves in similar circumstances.
"For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins" (verse 26). The general truth here set forth is that, Should those who have been converted and become Christians apostatize from Christ their state would be hopeless. This is presented under the following details. First, because of the nature of this sin, namely, a deliberate and final abandonment of the Christian faith. Second, the ones warned against the committal of it. Third, the terrible aggravation of it did such commit it. Fourth, the unpardonableness of it.
"For if we sin willfully." The causal particle whereby this verse is premised has at least a threefold force. First and more immediately, it points the plain and inevitable conclusion from what has just been said in verse 25: they who "forsake" and abandon the Christian assemblies with all that they stand for, commit a sin for which the sacrifice of Christ avails not. Should it be said that Scripture declares "the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin," the reply is, that it only says "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin," and none of those spoken of throughout that verse (1 John 1:7) ever commit this sin! Moreover, that very same epistle plainly teaches there is a sin for which the blood of Christ does not avail: see 1 John 5:16. Second, and more generally, a reason is here adduced as to why Christians need to heed the exhortations given in verses 22-25: the duties therein prescribed are the means which God has appointed for preserving His people against this unpardonable crime. Third and more remotely, a solemn warning is here given against a wrong use being made of the precious promise recorded in Hebrews 10:17—that blessed declaration is not designed to encourage a course of carelessness and recklessness.
"For if we sin willfully." "The word sin here is plainly used in a somewhat peculiar sense. It is descriptive not of sin generally, but of a particular kind of sin,—apostasy from the faith and profession of the truth, once known and professed. ‘The angels that sinned’ are the apostate angels. The apostasy described is not so much an act of apostasy as a state of apostasy. It is not, ‘If we have sinned, if we have apostatized’; but ‘If we sin, if we apostatize, if we continue in apostasy’" (John Brown). English translators prior to the A.V. read "If we sin willingly," the change being made in 1611, to avoid giving countenance to the supposition that there is no recovery after any voluntary sin. The Greek word will not permit of this change: the only other occurrence of it in 1 Peter 5:2, clearly gives its scope: "Taking the oversight not by constraint, but willingly."
"For if we sin willingly," that is voluntarily, of our own accord, where no constraint is used. The reference is to a definite decision, where an individual deliberately determines to abandon Christ and turn away from God. "In the Jewish law, as is indeed the case everywhere, a distinction is made between sins of oversight, inadvertence, or ignorance (Lev. 4:2, 13, 22; 5:15; Numbers 15:24, 27-29: compare Acts 3:17, 17:30), and sins of presumption, sins that are deliberately and intentionally committed: see Exodus 21:14, Numbers 15:30, Deuteronomy 17:12, Psalm 19:13. The apostle here has reference, evidently, to such a distinction, and means to speak of a decided and deliberate purpose to break away from the restraints and obligations of the Christian religion" (A. Barnes).
"For if we sin willingly," etc. Who are the ones that are here warned against this terrible sin? Who are they that are in danger of committing it? The answer is, all who make a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus. But are genuine Christians in any such danger? Looked at from the standpoint of God’s everlasting covenant, which He made with them in the person of their Sponsor, which covenant is "ordered in all things and sure;"—no. Looked at according to their standing and state in Christ, as those who have been "perfected forever" (Heb. 10:14);—no. But considered as they are in themselves, mutable creatures (as was un-fallen Adam), without any strength of their own;—yes. Viewed as those who still have the sinful nature within them,—yes. Contemplated as those who are yet the objects of Satan’s relentless attacks,—yes. But it may be said, "God sees His people only in Christ." Not so, is the reply. Were that the case, He would never chasten (Heb. 12:5-10) us! God views the Christian both in Christ legally and in this world actually. He addresses us as responsible beings (2 Pet. 1:10) and regulates the manifestations of His love for us according to our conduct (John 14:23).
It is to be carefully noted that the apostle Paul did not say, "If ye sin willingly," but "if we," thus including himself. Two reasons may be suggested for this. First, to soften a little the severity of this terrible warning. He shows there is no respect of persons in this matter: were he to commit this dreadful sin himself, he too would suffer the same un-mitigable doom. Hereby he sets all preachers and teachers a godly example. Such was his general custom: compare the "we" in Hebrews 2:3; 3:6, 14; 12:25; and the "us" in Hebrews 4:1, 11! Second, to emphasize the unvarying outworking of this law: no exceptions are made. The apostle includes himself to show that even he himself could not look to escape the Divine vengeance here denounced, if he fell into the sin here described.
"After that we have received the knowledge of the truth." These words not only serve to identify the ones who are cautioned against apostasy, but are added to emphasize the enormity of the sin. It would not be through ignorance or lack of knowledge, but after being enlightened, they abandoned Christianity. The "Truth" rather than the "Gospel" is here specifically mentioned, so as to heighten the contrast—it is for a lie that Christ is rejected. The word "knowledge" here is a compound and signifies "acknowledgement," and is so rendered in Titus 1:1, Philemon 6. Owen says, "the word is not used any where to express the mere conceptions or notions of the mind about this, but such acknowledgement of it as arises from some sense of its power and excellency." To "receive" this acknowledgement of the truth includes an act of the mind in understanding it, an act of the will in consenting, and an act of the heart in embracing it.
"Wherefore the sin here intended, is plainly a relinquishment and renunciation of the truth of the gospel, and the promises thereof, with all duty thereunto belonging, after we have been convinced of its truth, and avowed its power and excellency. There is no more required but that this be ‘willingly’: not upon a sudden surprisal and temptation, as Peter denied Christ; not on those compulsions and fears which may work a present dissimulation, without an internal rejection of the Gospel; not through darkness, ignorance making an impression for a season on the minds and reasonings of men: which things, though exceedingly evil and dangerous, may befall them who yet contract not the guilt of this crime. But it is required thereunto, that men who thus sin, do it by choice, and of their own accord, from the internal depravity of their own mind, and an evil heart of unbelief to depart from the living God; that they do it by, and with the preference of another way of religion, and a resting therein before or above the Gospel" (John Owen).
The un-pardonableness of this sin is affirmed in the words "there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins." A similar passage, which throws light on our present verse, is found in 1 Samuel 3:14, "And therefore I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice or offering forever." As there were certain sins which, in O.T. times, from their heinousness and the high-handed rebellion of their perpetrators, had no sacrifice allowed them, but "died without mercy" (verse 29); so it is now with those who apostatize from Christ: there is no relief appointed for them, no means for the expiation of their sin. They voluntarily and finally reject the Gospel, forfeit all interest in the sacrifice of Christ.
Ere leaving this verse, let it be said emphatically that there is nothing in it which in anywise conflicts with the blessed truth of the eternal security of God’s saints. The apostle did not here say the Hebrews had apostatized, nor did he affirm they would do so. No, instead, he faithfully points out the sure, dreadful, and eternal consequences did they do so. "For IF we sin willingly." It was to keep them from it that he here sets it down by way of supposition, just as in Romans 8:13 he says, "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die." As to how far a person may go in the taking up of Christianity, and as to what the Spirit may work in him short of actual regeneration, and then that one apostatize, only God knows. And, as to how close a real Christian may come to presumptuous (Ps. 19:13) sinning, and yet remain innocent of "the great transgression," only God can decide. We are only in the place of safety while we maintain the attitude of complete dependency upon the Lord and of unreserved subjection to Him. To indulge the flesh is dangerous; to persist in the course of self-gratification is highly dangerous; and to remain therein unto the end, would be fatal.
"But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries" (verse 27). The positive punishment of apostates is here announced. "When a man under the law had contracted the guilt of any such sin, as was indispensably capital in its punishment, for the legal expiation thereof no sacrifice was appointed or allowed, such as murder, adultery, blasphemy, he had nothing remaining but a fearful expectation of the execution of the sentence of the law against him. And it is evident that in this context, the apostle argues from the less unto the greater; if it was so, that this was the case of him who so sinned against Moses’ law, how much more must it be so with them that sin against the gospel, whose sin is incomparably greater, and the punishment more severe?" (John Owen.)
The Divine punishment which shall be visited upon apostates is first spoken of under the general term "judgment," as in Hebrews 9:27. This signifies that it will be a righteous sentence proportioned unto their awful crime: there will be a full and open trial, with an impartial judicial condemnation of them. The term is also used to express the punishment itself (James 2:13, 2 Peter 2:3): both meanings are probably included here. There is no mean between pardon and damnation. The sure approach of this judgment is referred to as "a certain fearful looking-for of" it. The word "certain" here signifies something which is not fully defined, as in "a certain woman" (Mark 5:25), "a certain nobleman" (John 4:46): it therefore denotes the "judgment" is inexpressible, such as no human heart can conceive or tongue portray. "Fearful" intimates the punishment will be so dreadful that when men come to apprehend it they are filled with horror and dismay. "Looking-for" shows that the apostates already have an earnest of God’s wrath in their consciences even now.
"And fiery indignation," or "fierceness of fire" as in the American R.V., or more literally, "of fire fervor" (Bag. Inter.). This describes more closely the nature of the "judgment" awaiting them. The terms used denote the resistless, tormenting, destroying efficacy of God’s terrible wrath, and emphasizes its dreadful fierceness. God is highly incensed against the apostates, and inconceivably and indescribably dreadful will be His dealings with them: it will express and answer to His infinite justice, holiness, and power. "For, behold, the Lord will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger against the earth, and His rebuke with flames of fire" (Isa. 66:15). No doubt the reference in our verse is to the final judgment at the last day, and the eternal destruction of God’s enemies. A solemn and graphic shadowing forth of this was given by God when His sword and fiery judgment fell upon the Jews in A.D. 70, destroying their church-state by fire and sword.
"Which shall devour the adversaries." There is probably an allusion here to the dreadful fate which overtook Nadab and Abihu, concerning whom it is written "there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them (Lev. 10:2), and also the judgment visited upon Korah, Dathan and Abiram, when "the ground clave asunder that was under them, and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up," so that they went down "alive into the Pit" (Num. 16:30-33). The "adversaries" are those who are actuated by a principle of hostile opposition to Christ and Christianity. They are enemies of God, and God will show Himself to be their Enemy. God’s wrath shall "devour them as to all happiness, all blessedness, all hopes, comfort and relief at once; but it shall not consume their being. This is that which this fire shall ever prey upon them, and never utterly consume them" (John Owen). From such a doom may Divine grace deliver both wrçiter and reader.