If there is one thing that we learn from the book of Hebrews, it is that good Christian people can become not-so-good Christian people. What I mean is that a Christian might not always be steadily progressing in his faith. Not only can he have a lull in his faith, but a Christian can experience a degree of backsliding.
Just because we believe in the perseverance of the saints, doesn’t mean that everyone will live the high and holy Christian life. The belief that “Once saved/always saved,” doesn’t mean that people won’t fall into a time of sin or see the Spirit’s activity withdrawn.
[A Christian] may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalence of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
Yes, a true Christian will persevere to the end, but the road he travels might have a serious detour. And it may be that he looks more like an unbeliever for a time.
The book of Hebrews is dealing with these kinds of people. Or at least, it is dealing with people who are tottering on it. We can certainly say they are questioning the faith. They are at least halfway out the door.
But what do we do with someone who is backslidden? How do you get them back on tract? It probably isn’t easy, but there is only one way to do it. It is by pointing them to the truth. It is by putting Christ before them and challenging them to remember how essential faith in Christ is.
That’s what the author of this book has been doing, and we shouldn’t be surprised that this is what he does in our passage today. He seeks to rekindle their faith by pointing them both to how vital Christ had been to them in their past and how He is a vital part of their future.
Our passage begins with a little nostalgia. In order to boost their faith the author has them reminisce about their past. He takes them back to what I might call “the glory days” of their faith.
Sometimes when we get together with old friends we’ll reminisce about our glory days, won’t we? We’ll think back to our high school sports or to those days of yesteryear where we lived the high life. That’s what he does in verses 32-34.
I. Recall the “glory days” of old [32-34]
Look at verse 32. He begins by saying, “recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” And then in verses 33 and 34 he lists some of the things they endured. They were publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, they were put in prison, and they had their property stolen.
Now these are some rather significant things that they went through. These people had banded together and they were undergoing some heavy persecution. And his point is, “What in the world possessed you to endure all that?” I mean, if you are going to bail on Christ, wouldn’t you have done it a long time ago—before all that happened?
What caused them to persevere through all those trials? I think the answer is found in the latter half of verse 34. It says that they knew they had “a better possession and an abiding one.”
The thing that was most dear to them was Christ. They possessed Christ and through him they possessed eternal life. And they knew that everything else was just fleetings. Nothing could compare because this one thing had a value far beyond anything else in this world—even an eternal value.
Now I want to show you something. I don’t normally use visual aids, but I want you to see how this passage is structured. I think it will help you see what the author is trying to communicate. The Jews often employ a literary device called chiasm to make their points. A chiasm is when you put words or thoughts in parallel so that your main point is in the middle. So, you could say, the center of the discourse becomes the heart and soul of the message.
The book of Hebrews employs chiasm a lot, and it is used in this passage.
We’ll begin by looking at verses 19-26, a passage we looked at a few weeks ago. It begins and ends by talking about sacrifice. Then it puts the words “drawing near” in parallel. Then there are two lines that focus on the corporate unity of the Hebrew people. And right in the middle is this phrase, which almost seems like it has no real relation to the surrounding thoughts, “He who promised is faithful.”
Then the passage goes on to the middle portion of the selection (verses 28-30). And in this portion you have that sobering warning: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved if you trample the Son of God underfoot.”
Then the passage concludes with the passage that we are looking at today, verses 31-39. And it contains another chiasm. So what you have here is a triple chiasm. But look at it: On the outside portions you have the idea of fearful judgment put in parallel. Then it puts in parallel the “former days” of verse 32 and the future days in verse 37. Next you have the idea of “enduring.” After that, you have the idea of rewards lined up (verse 35 mentions rewards explicitly and verses 33-34 list several good works that lead to rewards—which we’ll talk about in a moment).
But look what is in the middle: “You knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
Now think about what he’s trying to say here. He’s structured things this way for emphasis. Here in the middle of the passage you have this strong warning about a punishment; the severity of which needs to be taken to heart.
But how do you escape this punishment? This is a serious thing! What can we do to avoid it? The answer is embedded in the outskirts of the text: Jesus Christ is faithful, He is the possession that abides and offers eternal life.
So, as the author encourages these wayward Christians look back on the “glory days” of their faith—the time of their lives which was characterized by boldness and immense zeal, it is almost as if he is sending them something of a subliminal message to remind them why they should continue to believe in Christ. He’s the only way of salvation. The only way they can escape God’s wrath and curse is by continuing to believe in Christ.
I believe that he is simply reminding us why our zeal should continue to be so vibrant. What is it that means the most to us? What is it that has the highest priority in our lives? It is Christ. And this is why he should mean so much to us.
But not only does the author tell them to remember the glory days. He also points them to the Day of Glory; that is, the return of Christ.
II. Remember the day of glory to come [35-39]
That’s what’s dealt with in the next part of the passage. You can look at verse 37 and see that the author begins to direct their attention, not so much to the past, but to the future—to the day when Christ would come again.
He uses a quote from the book of Habakkuk and he says, “Yet in a little while and the coming one will come.” This was a Messianic text and it was understood as referring to the glorious “day of the Lord;” the day when their Savior would finally appear.
But as talks about the coming of Christ, he mentions two specific things about it. He wants them to remember that when the day of glory comes, Christ is going to reward his people and judge his enemies
A. Christ will come to reward
The idea of rewards is brought out in verses 35-36. Look at verse 35. He says “Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.”
Confidence here is basically synonymous with faith. To trust something is to be confident it won’t fail you, right? You trust your chair this morning. You are confident it isn’t going to break, right?
But he’s saying this confidence shouldn’t be thrown away. They had great faith and they did great things through that faith. They shouldn’t throw that away because it has a great reward.
Verse 36 reiterates this to some degree. He says that “You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” What is promised? Well, primarily it is eternal life. But God also promises further rewards.
Throughout scripture God promises to reward the works that we do through faith. For instance, in the last of the beatitudes, which deals with persecution, Jesus says, “Great is your reward in heaven.” He hints at the fact that those who are persecuted for their faith and endure it have something unique to look forward to when they enter into eternity.
Jesus also tells the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. In that passage he talks about the two faithful servants who took their talent and brought back double the amount to their master. Jesus says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” And then he says that each servant is rewarded in direct proportion to his work.
One of the best passages that talks about our heavenly rewards comes from 1 Corinthians 3. You may remember that he talks about the one whose work’s are burned up and he enters heaven, as though escaping through the flames. In that context he’s talking about those who are doing ministry. And he says if someone builds on the apostle’s foundation, he will receive a reward. And the one who doesn’t, he’s the guy who escapes through the flames. So you have one guy who just barely makes it into heaven. But then you have another guy who not only gets into heaven, but he gets to enjoy more because he has been given rewards as well.
And in this passage in Hebrews 10 we are reminded that there is a reward for persevering faith. When Christ comes again God will not only grant us eternal life, but there will be many other perks that accompany it. We will experience even more blessing because he promises to reward our perseverance.
But the rewards Christ gives are not the only things that the author points too. On the day of Glory, Christ will not only reward his people, he will also judge his enemies.
B. Christ will come to judge
Look at verses 38-39. He’s still quoting from Habakkuk here, but he talks about the one who “shrinks back.” To shrink back is the opposite of drawing near. Remember we talked about that a few weeks ago. We said we are to draw near to God and develop a heartfelt relationship with Christ. Well this is the opposite.
If you are shrinking back, you are one not developing that relationship. And what does it say about that guy who shrinks back? It says, “My soul has no pleasure in him.”
Now what do you think God does with those things with which he has no pleasure? Well, what do you do with things in which you have no pleasure? You throw them out, don’t you? That’s what God does too. He throws them away to be burned in hell.
He even says there, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed.” There is the imagery of hell. It is destruction and death.
Now there are some people who take this kind of language and say that it refers to a kind of annihilation. Their reasoning is simple enough. They say, “If someone is destroyed, it means they cease to exist.” If you destroy a building, that building ceases to exist, right?
But you have to read this in light of the rest of Scripture. There are many passages that tell us that God’s judgment is anything but annihilation. Rather it is eternal conscious torment. There are images like, “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is a picture of enduring pain. Jesus compares hell to “the worm that does not die.”
So things like this need to be read in the light of passages like that. And when the author talks about being “destroyed” he’s simply noting one definitive aspect of God’s judgment. He’s focusing in on the pain that accompanies the judgment. When Christ judges, it feels like you are being destroyed.
The language he employs is for the purpose of awakening his audience and getting them to see the importance of putting their faith in Christ.
And if you couple that with the idea of rewards that he has just talked about, you have a fine argument of why these backsliders ought to cease their backsliding. With Christ we have everything to gain and without him we have everything to lose. Sure, we may get a house over our heads and a shirt on our back—we might have some temporal, material goods. But Christ gives us things of eternal and enduring value.
This, of course, brings us to the end of the text. And we would be remiss if we did not note how this chapter ends. The backslider needs to hear the very last words of the chapter: “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” The Old King James says that “we are of those who believe to the saving of the soul.”
Here we are reminded of the grace that God offers to the backslider. Backsliding can be a difficult thing from which to recover. There is an added degree of difficulty because of the guilt that one experiences by it. He has shame that other Christians don’t necessarily have, and he might not feel that he may be welcomed back.
But here we are reminded that the God does welcome him back. Even though his faith has wavered or even though he might have turned from Christ for a while—perhaps even being involved in some rather grievous sins, his hope of salvation is not lost. The Lord still offers him life and salvation. We are reminded here that our God is gracious. And no matter how wretched he may be, the prodigal son will be welcomed back when he returns.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.