Warnings and Exhortations in Hebrews: Introduction (Part 2)

In our first article, we considered the penman of the letter to the Hebrews, the people to whom it was written and their pedigree in Israel. Next, we will consider their position in Christ and the problems they faced. By way of introducing the series, we will also consider the peril of departure and the purpose and plan of the letter.

Their Position in Christ

That the writer is addressing children of God can be confirmed from several observations. Firstly, note the use of “brethren” throughout (2:11,12,17; 3:1,12; 10:19; 13:22). While “brethren” is often used in Scripture to refer to blood ties or fellow countrymen, its predominant use in the New Testament designates a born-again believer in the family of God (e.g., Rom 1:13). In 2:11, “brethren” are introduced as “sanctified,” having the same human nature and standing as Christ who “sanctifies” (cf. 10:10,14). Their position is confirmed by the ascription “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (3:1). Here, “partakers” is the same as “fellows” in 1:9 and implies a true companion of Christ. Throughout, the writer affirms fellowship with their position by using the plural pronoun “we” or “us.”

It is worthy to note the expression “after ye were illuminated” (10:32; cf. 6:4 “enlightened”). This is from an aorist participle (a completed action) that is best rendered “having been enlightened.” Thus, the writer confirms a once-for-all (cf. 6:4) transaction that took place at conversion. Having been called “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1Pe 2:9), they were to continue in the good of their salvation and to await the receipt of their inheritance in heaven – “a better and an enduring substance” (Heb 10:34). Who else but children of God could be “heirs of salvation” who “inherit the promises” (1:14; 6:12; cf. Rom 8:17)?

In 6:1, we have the exhortation “let us go on unto perfection.” This confirms they have already begun. No true believer established in gospel truth would ever exhort the unsaved to advance from what or where they are. The only message for the unregenerate is to repent and believe the gospel. But they must progress. They must not forsake the gatherings (10:25). They must endure chastening (12:5-11). They are to continue showing “brotherly love” toward fellow believers (13:1). Knowing their salvation, the writer prays to “the God of peace” to “make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ” (13:20,21 KJV).

The Problems They Faced

On account of abandoning Judaism and accepting Jesus Christ, they faced considerable persecution. For them, this meant public reproach, humiliation, physical affliction, imprisonment and pillage (10:32-34). Stemming from these things and being ostracised from family and societal fellowships, their appreciation and apprehension of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ began to be under severe attack.

Consequently, two problems emerged. Firstly, they had not developed in the Christian faith. That they were “dull of hearing,” who “ought to be teachers” marked by discernment and capable of “strong meat” but needing to be taught “again,” suggests they had been saved for some time but had not matured (5:11-14). They should have been far more advanced. Secondly, they had started to look back to the religion of Judaism. Because of persecution, they were in danger of apostasy – of going back on their confession of Christ and returning to the Levitical system. Being spiritually immature and pressured with the temptation to apostatise, they needed help. For these reasons, the letter to the Hebrews was written.

The Peril of Departure

Departure from the Christian faith is a real present-day problem. Despite the finished work of the Lord Jesus, it is tragically possible for a believer to drift, become stagnant or “backslide” in divine things. The condition is precarious and opens the way to barrenness, self-indulgence and the works of the flesh. The way tends only downwards despite how pleasant the journey might seem. By and large, backsliding commences with a failure to enjoy the person and work of the Lord Jesus, and to appropriate spiritual conquest and rest He gives through faith. Departure may also take the form of apostasy – the abandonment of the Christian faith altogether.

The Hebrews were facing the peril of departure. The primary objective of the letter is to exhort them to press on in their faith, lest they depart or, worse, apostatise. Some of the most uplifting encouragements to faith in the NT are found in this letter. Should they take heed, press on and continue, they would give evidence to the reality of their confession. But if they apostatise, their confession would not be real. Their salvation is assumed to be genuine, but only continuance would give evidence of it. Faith must be proved (e.g., 2Co 13:5), and hence, the secondary objective is to issue a series of warnings against departure and to provide the means to test the genuineness of one’s profession.

The Purpose and Plan

The purpose of the letter is to achieve three outcomes. Firstly, it is to renew their appreciation of the person and work of Christ. Secondly, it is to turn their eyes away from the shadows of Christ. Thirdly, it is to warn them against departing from Christ. To achieve these outcomes, the writer adopts a carefully constructed plan. To begin with, the writer presents the superlative glory of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the perfection of His work, both as God and Man (1:1 to 2:18). Through a series of contrasts (3:1 to 10:18), the Lord Jesus Christ is shown to be better than every Levitical office, object and ordinance known to Jews for dealing with the problem of sin and entering into the presence of God. Each contrast is designed to set forth the superiority of Christ, inspiring a closer communion with Him and a greater enjoyment of His present ministry on the throne. Drawing on this foundation, the remaining portion of the letter (10:19 to 13:25) provides incentives, encouragements and exhortations to foster personal application in the realms of faith, hope and love.

Interspersed throughout the letter are thirteen exhortations involving the expression “let us” and five major warning sections where the word “lest” or “if ” is used. The highest forms of encouragement are given to arouse and strengthen faith; however, solemn warnings are issued to caution against the peril of departure and apostasy.

We will consider the warnings using the following headings:

  • Forfeiting so great a salvation (2:1-4)
  • Failing to hear the voice of the Spirit (3:7-4:1)
  • Faltering in ongoing spiritual infancy (5:11-6:12)
  • Forsaking the assembling of ourselves together (10:19-39)
  • Refusing the One who is speaking from heaven (12:25-29)

The exhortations we will consider are:

  • Holding fast, living by faith, going forth and offering fruit (4:14; 10:38; 13:13,15)
  • Labouring to enter rest, laying aside hindrances, looking unto Jesus and loving others continually (4:11; 12:1-2; 13:1-22)