Why are the warnings in Hebrews so severe?

There is no shortage of warnings in the Bible. God has sent His word to mankind to warn us that we are in peril because of our sin and to alert us that God, the Holy One of Israel, will surely judge and will condemn the unrighteous. And so, in each genre of the Bible and in many places in each genre, the Bible issues warnings so that men will turn from their sin and repent.

THE WARNINGS IN HEBREWS

But while there are many warnings in the Bible, there are some warnings that are particularly striking and daunting, that pierce like an arrow and slam into us like a cutlass. The warnings in the book of Hebrews are of this variety. There are multiple warnings in Hebrews and each succeeding warning seems to be more unsettling than the last. In chapter 2 we are warned not to drift away from so great a salvation (2:1, 3). Chapter 3 tells us about the dangers of an evil, unbelieving heart (3:12). Chapter 4 urges us not to come short of God’s rest (4:1). In the well-known passage in chapter 6 we read of the impossibility of renewing to repentance those who have heard the word of God and then have fallen away (6:4-8). Then in chapter 10 we have perhaps the most frightening, as we read that, if we sin willfully after we have claimed faith in Christ, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment” (10:26-27). This passage (10:26-31) is punctuated with the warning, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31).

WHY SO SEVERE?

Why does the author of Hebrews dramatically and repeatedly warn his readers in such alarming terms? What is it about the purpose of the epistle that warrants these strident warnings? As I have studied the book of Hebrews, I have reached the conclusion that the reason for these devastating warnings has to do with the particular people the author is trying to reach.

When you design an alarm system for a facility that stores explosive chemicals, politeness is not a design criterion. Rather, the alarms are designed to be as loud and irritating and irresistible as possible so that, if there ever appears any threat of an explosion, the people in the facility will be alerted and will evacuate and get away immediately.

If you were going on an African safari into lion country, your weapon of choice would not be a small caliber handgun. You are going after a target animal that requires potent weapons which assure a kill when they encounter the target. Best be sure that the first bullet does the job, for you may not get a second.

Likewise, the author of Hebrews has as his purpose to alarm and warn a specific type of person in the congregation, and he is determined to achieve his purpose. The last thing he wants to do is issue a so-called warning that falls short of arousing and that fails to alarm. There is nothing more pathetic than warning people who are in terrible danger with an alarm that is not capable of alerting or alarming. It is like a fire alarm that is mistaken for the music of an ice cream truck. People perish in the flames because of the incompetence of the one who issues the alarm. The author of Hebrews will not be accused of issuing such a warning.

WHO IS THE AUTHOR TRYING TO ALARM? THE MOST ELUSIVE

This epistle is intended to rouse to awareness that most elusive and stubborn of all unbelievers, the person who is comfortable with Christian words and Christian practices, who regularly attends church services, who writes checks to his church and who is generally a decent, polite fellow, but who has never been born again, who has never been personally delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. These startling warnings are for those who are merely going through the motions and who are simply doing the external works of Christianity, thinking that these are all that the Lord requires. The author’s warnings are severe and drastic because he is attempting to rouse the external “Christian.” The external, nominal “Christian” is not born again and so is not saved and has not been set free by Jesus, but they wrongly believe they are, based on their religious performance. He would, in fact, be insulted and offended if anyone were to suggest to him that his external, formal Christianity was somehow not good enough to get him into heaven. Even this person’s own pastor would be treading on thin ice if the pastor suggested to this “fine Christian man” that his walk needed to show the fruit of repentance and should display greater holiness in order to display genuine faith.

“If you were accused of being a biblical Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

The author of Hebrews must make these warnings severe and harsh and drastic so that the nominal church-goer, still dead in their sins, might be shaken from their slumber and stirred to consciousness, and might be frightened into genuine repentance. The alarm must be loud and piercing and prolonged because of the spiritual stupor of the religious once-born. The one who has been dutifully plodding through the external motions of Christianity for a long time has been lulled into a spiritual coma (confirm in Hebrews 6:4-6). A loud, piercing, prolonged alarm is needed to rouse them and, alas, even that alarm rarely rouses. The one in the coma assumes the alarm is for someone else and that their listless church experience is the real deal. So, the author of Hebrews makes his warnings harsh and direct because his intent is to rouse those who are still dead but think they are alive. (See the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6.)

By these strident warnings, the author also does an immense service to the pastor who is duty-bound to preach these warning passages to those in his own congregation whom he suspects to have fallen short of salvation. These severe and stunning passages allow the pastor to preach with great boldness without stretching the text too far. The brave pastor can thus declare the warnings that lie plainly in the text and then apply the warnings to his flock without being accused of reading into the passage his own pleadings and opinions.

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

So, preach boldly, my friend, with the full sanctioning of the Scriptures.

SDG                 rmb                 8/7/2021                     #428

Why all the warnings? (Hebrews 3:12-14)

False assurance is a dangerous thing. The person possessing false assurance is confident that they are prepared to face a certain challenge or threat when, in fact, their defenses are inadequate, and their preparation is incomplete. This is like the fair-skinned sunbather on the Florida beach with SPF 5 sunscreen that they are confident is SPF 50. Or this is like the rock climber with the 100-foot rope rappelling down the 130-foot cliff which the climber is confident is only 80 feet tall. Or this is like someone who has been attending a local church for a little while and has joined in the singing and has listened to the sermons and has done whatever they saw the other people in the church doing; this is like that person having the false assurance that, because they behave like a true believer and go through the same motions, they possess the same salvation and are safe from God’s judgment. In these instances of false assurance, the person must be warned about their error before bad consequences result. So, we can see that false assurance is a dangerous thing.

The author of “Hebrews” is acutely aware of the disastrous consequences of a false confidence of salvation. He warns those who may possess a false profession, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (10:31),” and “our God is a consuming fire (12:29).” In fact, one of the dominant themes in this New Testament epistle is the author’s warning to those who are religious and unconverted. “Pay close attention lest you drift away.” “Do not neglect this great salvation.” “Do not fall away from the living God.” “Hold fast!” “Have faith, not unbelief.” “Strive to enter God’s rest.” “If you fall away, it is impossible to restore you.” “Do not be a person who shrinks back.” The author repeatedly urges the pretenders and all the falsely assured to fully embrace Jesus Christ and loudly proclaim Him as Lord to rightly be assured of true salvation.

WARNINGS IN HEBREWS 3:12-14

Consider one of the author’s warnings in Hebrews 3:12-14:

Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.

But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.

The warnings in this passage are strident and the implied consequences dire because it is urgent that the writer gain their attention and alert them to their peril. He does not mince words when he warns them of an “evil, unbelieving heart” and tells them they “will fall away from the living God.” Without encouragement, they are in danger of being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” You are truly partakers of Christ only “if you hold fast your assurance (your faith) firm until the end.” Implicit and explicit warnings follow one after the other as the writer speaks to this fellowship.

WHY ALL THE WARNINGS?

Why so many warnings? The warnings evidence a heartfelt pastoral concern. The writer-preacher is concerned that some in his congregation are in danger of falling short of salvation, that they have not really embraced Christ in faith, but rather are just going through their old religious motions in a new way. These people must be warned that following Christ is radically different from the old Jewish traditions and practices, and that those who fall short of or drift away from genuine faith in Jesus will eternally perish. Having heard the message about Jesus Christ, you must embrace that message. To go through the new Christian “rituals” without embracing Christ and without being born again is to engage in useless religious works.

THE TASK OF WARNING THE RELIGIOUS

This task of warning people of the peril of religion is never an easy one because most people are quite comfortable with the religion they have been given. Religion gives its adherents a false sense of assurance. Just so, until recently, this Jewish (Hebrew) community was contentedly practicing their religion of external works, moral lifestyle, and traditional practices. All Jews were accepted as full members of the religious community based on their adherence to the external works. (This is the way all religions work.) The community was close-knit because they all maintained the same age-old practices. The old wine was good enough (Luke 5:39). There was no talk of salvation or of repentance or of faith in the Messiah. All was routine and peaceful. And, unfortunately, all were peacefully perishing without a Savior.

But now, the religious landscape has seismically changed. Now the gospel of salvation has been proclaimed. Now Jesus is preached as the Messiah, the Christ. Now the religious community of the Hebrews is being replaced by the faith community of the followers of the Messiah. The traditions of the elders and the fathers are no longer good enough because the works of the Law cannot justify anyone (Romans 3:20). Now we must repent from dead works (Hebrews 6:1) and place our faith in Jesus. Now unity and fellowship in the Jesus community is based on a common faith in Jesus the Messiah.

WHAT ABOUT A THIRD OPTION?

In addition to the old Jewish religion based on external works and traditions, and the new movement of faith in Jesus the Messiah, what we see happening in the book of “Hebrews” is the emergence of a third option. It is this third option that is the reason for all the writer’s warnings. The preacher’s concern is that some in this congregation have exchanged the external works of Judaism for “the external works” of the faith community without embracing Jesus the Messiah by faith. These people emulate the external “religious works” of genuine believers without the new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) of genuine believers. They mistakenly think that this new Jesus movement is just another religion, and, like Judaism, a person can be an accepted and respected member of this new community merely by doing the appropriate works and going through the expected motions. The writer-preacher directs his most urgent exhortations at these people in the hopes that they will forsake this deceptive and disastrous way of thinking and come all the way to full faith in Christ.

APPLICATION FOR OUR OWN TIME

The beauty of the Scriptures is that they are always contemporary, and they apply to our world and our situations. Just so, we must take seriously the warning about this “third option,” which is the circumstance where members of our church fellowship may be falsely assured of their salvation because they are relying on “religious works” or even “Christian works.” In the case of the Hebrews, the people emulated the external “religious works” of genuine believers without the new heart (Ezekiel 36:26) of genuine believers. This is a real concern today, particularly in American churches where religious traditions can replace genuine faith. In churches where conversions are not celebrated (Is that because they do not occur?) and where forms are prominent, the church can gradually become a homogeneous gathering of people united based on shared traditions and externals, rather than being united based on a shared experience of conversion and a fervent faith in the Lord Jesus. I believe that when the writer-preacher of the book of “Hebrews” wrote his warnings, he had specific people in the congregation in mind. He was, thus, compelled to warn them of the peril of religious motions without saving faith. Just so, the concerned pastor today would be well-served to preach these same warnings with vigor to his congregation in the hopes of stirring up faith in those who are comfortably unconverted.

SDG                 rmb                 3/5/2021