Ignoring the context, Hebrews 10 has been interpreted to teach the possibility of losing one’s salvation. No sacrifice for sins? Fiery judgment? What and who are threatened in this text?
The Audience Addressed
A number of details in the chapter point to a genuine Christian audience for the warning given. First, the author includes himself within the warning (“if we sin willfully,” v26). Second, they “received the knowledge of the truth” (v26). The similar phrase in 1 Timothy 2:4 seems to equate this with salvation. Third, the blood of Christ “sanctified” them (v29). The use of the word “sanctified” in verses 10 and 14 also points to an audience comprised of genuine believers. Fourth, verse 30 says, “the Lord shall judge His people.” Fifth, they were “illuminated” (v32), implying a conversion experience. Sixth, they had endured persecution for their faith in Christ (vv32-34). Seventh, the writer says in verse 34 that “a better and an enduring substance” was awaiting them “in heaven.” Eighth, verse 35 also describes a “reward” reserved for them. Finally, verse 19 tells us that the writer’s “brethren” had access “into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,” something not available to unbelievers.
The Sin Described
What sin committed by believers is the author describing? We must point out that the sin was willful. It was not done in ignorance, but deliberately. It was also continual. The verb is a present tense participle and rendered as: “if we go on sinning deliberately” (ESV). The sin was also shameful, in that it involved trampling “under foot the Son of God” and treating “the blood of the covenant” (v29) as “common” (Darby). It is possible that the writer is referring again (as he did in the previous warning passages) to the sin of returning to Judaism after embracing Christ as personal Savior. Perhaps many or all that returned thought they could do so quietly and without significant consequences. If so, the writer is about to show them how wrong they were.
This sin was willful; a definite choice was made to go back. Those who returned did not do so unknowingly, but deliberately. Their sin was continual; it involved regular attendance, offering of sacrifices and keeping of rituals within Judaism. Verse 29 tells us their sin was shameful. Believers who had trusted alone in Christ as the final and only sacrifice for sins were now declaring the exact opposite by their actions. By engaging in temple sacrifices once more, they were demonstrating to those around them that Christ’s blood, the very blood which “sanctified” them at conversion, must have been “common,” and they were certainly taking God’s grace for granted. By doing this, the writer warns them that “there no longer remains any sacrifice for sins” (v26, Darby). Does not the blood of Jesus Christ “cleanse us from all sin” (1John 1:7)? Yes, but the writer is making an excellent point. This same chapter has plainly declared that Christ’s sacrifice was the last sacrifice for sins (vv10, 12, 14). To go back to a system of sacrifices leaves no basis for cleansing between God and the sinning believer. How can they ask for cleansing from daily sin when the basis for that cleansing is the sacrifice they are now trampling upon? They therefore cannot be in a right relationship with God if they go back to Judaism. In fact, if they go back, they can expect frightening consequences.
The Judgment Expected
Those who believe this text is teaching the loss of a believer’s salvation should note that the word “eternal,” used often in Hebrews (5:9; 6:2; 9:12,14-15; 13:20) is never found in connection with judgment in this book, nor is it used within the warning passages.
In chapter 6, it was pointed out that one consequence of returning to Judaism would be failure to “go on to maturity” (6:1). Now, something more serious is introduced. For a number of reasons, it appears that the judgment threatened in this warning is physical death. First, the only other NT passage that speaks of judgment due to a mistreatment of the blood of the covenant is 1 Corinthians 11:25-34. The behavior in Corinth resulted in physical illness and death (v30). Second, verse 28 speaks about those who experienced physical death under Moses’ law. Why would we make the assumption that it is eternal death referred to in verse 29? Just because the punishment is more severe does not necessarily mean it is eternal. Third, fire “devouring” (v29) is more consistent with physical punishment than eternal punishment, for this would imply annihilation.
It is also possible that the writer is foretelling a particular event about to unfold that would involve physical death for those who return to Judaism. Many writers believe the date of this epistle is a few years prior to AD 70. In that year, the future Roman Emperor, Titus, would conquer Jerusalem, burn down the Temple and within a short span of time, kill over one million Jews (according to Josephus). At a time when prophecy was still functioning in the early NT era, it is almost inconceivable that some reference to this coming catastrophe would not be alluded to in a letter addressed to Hebrews. The Messiah Himself predicted it (Luke 19:41-44;21:20-24).
There are a few clues within the epistle that may point to this coming event. First, the writer refers to them seeing “the day approaching” (v25). Ominous signs were already visible to the readers. Second, the coming fire was meant to devour “the adversaries” (v27), a reference to the unbelieving nation. The writer makes a distinction between his audience (which includes himself – “we,” v26) and these adversaries. But if these Jewish believers went back to the Temple, they could only expect to share in its coming demise. Third, they are exhorted to go “outside the camp” (13:13), a possible hint to get away from the city of Jerusalem and the coming catastrophe. If they remain there, the “sorer punishment” (v29) may be that which is detailed by Josephus (starvation, mothers eating their children, mass crucifixions, etc.). It’s interesting that Eusebius wrote about Christians in Jerusalem who were warned in an “oracle” to leave the city before its destruction.
The Confidence Conveyed
Having said all this, the writer believes his audience will remain faithful to Christ. In verse 38, the words “any man” are not in the original. He is not implying two different companies (saved or lost), but two different responses within the saved company (faithfulness or unfaithfulness). As indicated in chapter 6:9, his confidence in them is clear: “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (v39, ESV).