April 27, 1997
The Bible tells us that endurance in the Christian life provides a litmus test for professed faith. The writer of Hebrews, meanwhile, gave a sober consideration of followers of Jesus who apostatized. In this sermon, Alistair Begg investigates what Scripture says about both those who persist and those who fall away. Under the cross of Christ, our partnership and sympathy with one another are vital helps in remaining resilient as we persevere in doing God’s will.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, let me invite you to take your Bibles and turn to the passage that was read for us earlier, in Hebrews chapter 10. Now, before we look at this important passage, let’s pause just for a moment and ask God’s help:
O God our Father, we just pray for your gracious hand and help now, as we open our Bibles. We’re certainly not interested in simply hearing the voice of a man giving his ideas on an ancient book, but it is our conviction that when your Word is truly preached, that your voice is really heard. And so we sit listening for your voice alone. Hear our prayers, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
One of the recurring themes of the letter of Hebrews is the fact that continuance in the Christian life—keeping near and keeping on—is one of the key tests of the reality of our profession of faith. In the same way as few of us in being asked about the reality of a marriage relationship would go in our pockets and produce a legal document—a wedding certificate, if you like—few of us would want in talking about our Christian experience to think about it as some static event that was locked somewhere in the past. With marriage, we would talk about the up-to-date nature of what is going on—the privileges, the joys, perhaps the challenges, the struggles, but nevertheless, we would have things about the relationship to say concerning the last twenty-four hours. And so it is that in Christian faith, our expressions of its reality ought to be directly related to our present-tense experience.
And throughout the letter, in order to make sure that people don’t wander from the track, the writer has been providing a succession of promises and warnings—the promises to be brought to our hearts for our encouragement and the warnings to be heeded so that we don’t end up in By-Path Meadow. The warnings—and some of them are severe, as is the one to which we’re about to turn—should not be misunderstood to teach that genuine believers can fall away and be lost, but rather, just in the same way as accidents are prevented by people obeying the warning signs that are put along the road for our safety, so accidents are prevented in the dangerous journey of Christian testimony to prevent us from falling off the track.
And in order to refresh our memories, because it is some weeks since we’ve been here, I want to remind you of one or two of these warnings. First of all, in Hebrews 2:1. The writer says, “We [need to] pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” “So that we do not drift away.” In other words, there’s the possibility that some who profess faith will drift away. What is the antidote? Pay careful attention. Pay careful attention to what? To what you have heard. What have you heard? You’ve heard the message of the gospel.
Chapter 3 and verse 6, similar emphasis: “We are,” he says, “his house, if”—important word—“we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” If we do not hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast, then, of course, we aren’t his house. That’s what he’s saying. Verse 14: “We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.”
These people started off with a great show of faith, with a great burst of enthusiasm. They were like plants that just seemed to spring right out of the ground, and they were up in no time at all. And people said, “My, this is a marvelous garden! This is a terrific crop. What an amazing response to the witnessing and preaching of the Word of God.” And then you turned around, as it were, and you turned back, and they’d all begun to shrivel, and they’d all begun to die. That’s the parable of the sower, incidentally: some who received the seed instantly bloomed and instantly faded, and their instant fading was an indication of the fact that there had never been a realistic root structure so as to be indicative of genuine faith. The New Testament warns us both by precept and by example that some professing Christians may not persevere in their profession of Christ to the end of their lives. It’s a solemn thought, but it is clearly there on the surface of Scripture.
Verse 2 of chapter 4: “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did,” but in the case of these individuals, we’re told, “the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard [it] did not combine it with faith.” The salutary reminder that it is possible to attend a church like Parkside Church, to listen to the ministry of the Word of God from the servants of the Word of God in this place, and for it to be like water falling on concrete—absolutely impervious to its truth. All kinds of information rattling around in our heads—nothing that has reached our hearts, nothing that had commandeered our wills, and nothing that has changed our lives.
That’s one of the reasons that James says, “Don’t just be hearers of the Word, but be doers also,” as if somehow or another there was an option, like you could just be a hearer, or you could be a hearer plus a doer. That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying it is in the doing of the Word that we reveal the fact that we’re genuine hearers. Because even the pagans can hear the Word, but it’s of no value to them because they don’t combine it with faith. When we combine it with faith, then we do what it says, and it is in the doing of what it says that we give reality to the fact that we have ears to hear what is being proclaimed.
Chapter 6 and verse 8, in a very graphic picture, describing a horticultural scene—an agricultural scene—as being indicative of life, he says, “Land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed,” and “in the end it will be burned.” And he is using that there as a picture of the lives of men and women who in hearing the Word of God do not produce the fruit that God intends but instead produce weeds and thistles and thorns.
Now, this follows all the way through. When you get to 10:25, which is where we left our studies a few weeks ago, you find that he is issuing an exhortation there which needs to be understood in light of all of these warnings. He says, “Let[’s] not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” Why not? Because absenteeism from our gatherings may reveal an absenteeism from the Lord Jesus himself. It’s difficult to say which comes first in the life of a backslider—whether they absent themselves from worship first, and then they drift away from Jesus… I think in most cases they drift away from Jesus, and then they absent themselves from worship. They don’t read their Bibles, they don’t pray, they’re not involved, they don’t witness, they have no personal worship, they have no interest in things, but they keep up the pretenses by showing up at the gathered meetings, and then eventually they drift away from the gatherings, and it becomes apparent to the general public: “Oh, there must be something wrong with Joe, there must be something wrong with Karen,” whatever it is. What is it? Well, it is that they haven’t been heeding the warnings that have been there all the way through, and now, finally, it has become a matter of public and obvious experience.
That is why, you see, when we exhort one another to attend the meals on the Lord’s Day, it may all seem very self-serving on the part of those of us who have been called to the task of preparing the meals, but loved ones, it’s not ultimately about that. It is because God has ordained the means whereby men and women will continue to the end and be saved. And one of the key means that he has ordained to ensure that you and I don’t become castaways is the gathering of his people in the experience of worship and in the study of the Scriptures. And we neglect the means to continuance at our peril.
Now, it is no surprise to me, then, to discover that after this statement in verse 25, he comes to issue one of the most solemn warnings in the whole of his letter. It is akin to what we saw in 6:4–8, which those of you who know the Bible, know theology a little bit, know that these are the “apostasy passages” in Hebrews. These are the passages in Hebrews which describe people who turn their backs on the Lord with such dramatic and decisive expression of their rebellion, and continue in that perspective to the end of their lives, revealing thereby that although they once walked the walk, talked the talk, sang the songs, hung with the crowd, that in point of fact, they were never genuinely belonging to Jesus at all. And so, in the course of things, not because it’s pleasant but because it’s necessary, we find ourselves under the instruction, first of all, of this solemn warning which is contained between verses 26 and 31.
I will try to balance my time in such a way so as to finish on a positive note, not simply because I want to be positive but because the balance of the text here moves in that direction, and I would be doing a disservice to the thought that is expressed if I only got as far as my first point. So you may want to pray to that end, that I’ll keep moving. Some of you are saying, “Well, we pray to that end every week, but our prayers haven’t been getting answered.” Pray harder.
Because, you see—let me go to 39, so at least I was at the end of the chapter, even if I never get there. Look: “We are not … those who shrink back and are destroyed,” but we are “those who believe and are saved.” There’s two groups here. They all start out on the same track, they all say the same things, they all march to the same drumbeat, but some shrink back and are destroyed, and some continue and are saved. The question is, which group are you in? And just in case we’re in the wrong group, he issues a solemn warning. Because, clearly, as you read verse 26 and following, there were those who had not simply neglected the gatherings, but they had drifted from their own particular moorings to the truth of God in Christ—that what may have appeared at first in their lives as an evidence of spasmodic doubting had grown to persistent unbelief and had now expressed itself in a convinced opposition not simply to the followers of Jesus but to Jesus himself.
Now, this is very, very important that we understand what is being written of here. This is, as I said, akin to Hebrews chapter 6. When we studied Hebrews 6:4–8, we noted that the writer was clearly not referring to genuine believers who had failed, who had stumbled, who had temporarily lost interest in the things of Christ. If we’re honest, that experience is something through which all of us will go from time to time. He is not describing that. As Calvin says, “There is a great difference between individual lapses and a universal desertion of this kind.” This is not somebody who woke up one morning and didn’t know whether he wanted to be in the army anymore—who couldn’t decide whether he wanted to put his uniform on and go out in parade, and somebody had to come to him and say, “Hey, you missed; don’t do that again tomorrow,” and he was back again tomorrow. This is not someone who had a temporary lapse; this is someone who was a total deserter. Took the uniform, trashed it, burned it, said, “I have nothing to do with this. I have no interest in this. I’m out of here. I’m gone. It is as if I was never a member of this.” That is what he is describing.
Now, that’s very important, because sensitive souls who at the least indication of the fact that they may be finding themselves in the chapter will apply this to themselves and make themselves psychologically unstable, while those of us who are proud and boastful don’t apply it to ourselves, and we need to be made unstable. It’s one of the challenges of dealing with the apostasy passages. You get all the telephone calls from the people who don’t need to call you, and you get no telephone calls from the people who need to. Such is the perversity of the human mind. “Well, I don’t need that.” Yes, you do. “How do you know?” ’Cause you just said you didn’t need it. So let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls. Let she who has ears hear.
These are individuals, we’re told, who have received a knowledge of the truth, they have recognized to some degree the validity of the gospel, they have embraced it at least intellectually as a formulated system of life and belief, but they have never experienced it as a life-giving force—something that transformed and changed them. And it is of these people that he is speaking.
Once again, Pilgrim’s Progress is probably my biggest help as I study Hebrews, especially in these passages. And if you remember your Pilgrim’s Progress at all, you will remember that one of the characters to whom we’re introduced along the journey—page 176 in this version—is a chap by the name of Temporary. Temporary. And Christian and Hopeful are talking to one another, and Christian says, “Well, then, did you know, about ten years ago, one Temporary in your parts, who was a forward man in religion then?”
Hopeful says, “Know him! yes; he dwelt in Graceless, a town about two miles off of Honesty, and he dwelt next door to a guy by the name of Turnback.”
Christian says, “Right, he dwelt under the same roof with him. Well, that man was much awakened once; I believe that then he had some sight of his sins, and of the wages that were due to sin.”
Hopeful says, “I’m of your mind; for, my house not being above three miles from him, he would oftentimes come to me, and that with many tears. Truly I pitied the man, and was not altogether without hope of him; but one may see it is not everyone that cries, ‘Lord, Lord!’ that shall be saved.”
Christian says, “He told me once that he was resolved to go on a pilgrimage as we go now; but all of a sudden he grew acquainted with one Save-self, and then he became a stranger to me.” And then it goes on to describe the way in which that might happen to an individual—goes on to describe the way in which backsliding takes place. It’s kind of an old-fashioned word; it’s self-explanatory: sliding backwards rather than marching forwards.
Christian says, “I think I know how it happens.”
Hopeful says, “How does it happen?”
He says, “Well, this is how it happens. This is what people do. First, they draw off their thoughts, all that they may, from the remembrance of God, death, and judgment to come.” So they quit thinking about God, life, death, eternity. “Then they cast off by degrees their private duties”—private prayer. They cease to curb their lusts. They don’t sorrow over sin. “Then they shun the company of lively and warm Christians.” They go with the wrong crowd. Then, “they grow cold to public duty, the hearing, and the reading,” and the godly communion of the saints, “and the like.” And then, they “begin to pick holes, as we say, in the coats of some of the godly, and that devilishly, that they may have a seeming color to throw religion.” And “then they begin to adhere to and associate themselves with carnal, and loose, and wanton men.” And “then they give way to carnal and wanton discourses in secret; and glad they are if they can see such things in that they are counted honest, that they may more boldly do it through their example.” And “after this, they begin to play with little sins openly. And then, being hardened, they show themselves as they are. Thus being launched again into the gulf of misery, unless a miracle of grace prevent it, they everlastingly perish in their own deceivings.”
Now, that is heavy-duty. And that is the reason why the Bible, and Hebrews in particular, is replete with these warnings. “We’re not those who shrink back and are destroyed,” he says. “We’re not these individuals.”
What do these individuals do? Well, verse 29 tells us. First of all, they “[trample] the Son of God under foot.” What does that mean, to trample the Son of God underfoot? It’s the same word that is used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount where he talks about salt that has lost its savor. He says it’s good for nothing, but you might as well just go and walk on it. It’s the same word that he uses later on in the same Gospel to describe what the pigs were doing to the pearls. He says, “You don’t cast your pearls before swine, ’cause they’ll just go and get their hooves all over it.” And here, the writer says, that’s what these individuals have done; they have trampled all over Jesus.
It’s the reverse of what Paul is saying in Philippians 3. Remember, in Philippians 3, he says, “There were all these things in my life that used to be so significant to me—all of my religion, and all of my good deeds, and all of the things that I attached significance to.” And he said, “But when I got a sight of who Jesus is and understood why he had come, then I counted all this stuff as garbage for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ.” This individual counts Jesus Christ as garbage for the sake of knowing all this other stuff. That’s what it means to trample him underfoot. So for those of you who are here, and you are stumbling in your Christian life, and you’re saying, “I’d better take care,” of course you should. But I presume you’re not trampling Christ underfoot.
They were profaning, or treating “as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant.” Whatever else that means, it surely means that they were treating the death of Jesus as just being like the death of any man. They were saying, “There’s no significance to the death of Christ. We heard this stuff about his blood being shed, but pfft, we have no interest in that. It has no saving significance for us; it’s as if it was just another person who died.” These individuals had previously been marked by some dedication to God, by some professing of faith in Christ’s blood. They had sat, if you like, at the Lord’s Supper. They had suggested to themselves and to the others around them that the symbol was an expression of reality, but they were in fact the cousins of Judas Iscariot, who was real close and did the right stuff and made the right noises, but he was reprobate. I hope we’re not relying on our attachments to religious stuff, our attendance simply to religious duties.
Now, for those of you who have your Bible open, you will notice that it says that they “treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him.” And that should immediately strike you as a problem. Because you look at that and you say, “Well, if he was sanctified, doesn’t that mean that he was Christian? Can you be sanctified without being a Christian? And if you can’t and he was a Christian, then what we have here is a Christian falling away, and you already told us that Christians don’t fall away. So what are you going to do with that, smarty pants?” Well, I’m going to tell you. You know, I think my responsibility is not simply to feed you but, in some measure, to teach you how to cook. ’Cause I won’t always be here, and you better be able to cook when I’m not here. That’s what my wife told me, anyway.
It’s a solemn warning. It’s a necessary reminder. I want to tell you how my mind works on this. I come to this phrase “that sanctified him,” I go, “Oh, oh, red light flashing! What do I do now?” Well, this is what I do. I say, “Before I come to the troublesome phrase, let me lay down on a sheet of paper all the things that aren’t troublesome about this particular question. Let me lay down what the Bible categorically says about whether a person can be a Christian and fall away from grace. Then I’ll come back to this phrase.”
So what do I know? Well, I know, first of all, that Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice, they follow him, he calls them by name, he gives them eternal life, no one will ever perish, and no one will pluck them out of his hands. So I write that down and said, “Jesus said once you’re in his hand, you’re not coming out.” Categorical statement. Then I’ll read Romans 8—the end of Romans 8: “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ—neither persecution nor trial or nakedness or peril or sword. In all these things we’re more than conquerors.” I write that down. Then I’ll go to Philippians 1: “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” In other words, God is not the author of unfinished business. What he starts, he completes. I’ll go to 1 Peter, and I’ll remind myself that we’ve been born again of a living hope by the resurrection of Christ from the dead; we have an inheritance that is imperishable, kept for us in heaven, and we are guarded, or kept, by God’s power for that day. I’ll go to Paul’s words: “I know whom I have believed, and [I] am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed [to] him against that day.”
And that’s just a start. And I’ll proceed from there, and I will lay down the clear instruction of Scripture as to whether a genuine believer can be lost. And I will conclude, on the clear balance of Scripture, that it is not possible—that what the Bible teaches is that when we have been redeemed by Christ, when we have been brought into the orb of his grace, that he brings to completion the good work that he has begun in us. Then I’ll come back to this phrase. And then I’ll deal with this phrase in light of what I know to be true. And I will know that this phrase cannot overturn the clear and plain instruction of Scripture. Then I will make sense of this phrase in light of the totality of biblical exposition.
And then what will I say? Well, actually, what I’ll do is, I’ll go to my commentaries and I’ll see what other people said, ’cause they’re a lot smarter than me. And I’ll read one guy, and I’ll go, “Goodness gracious, he knows less than me.” I’ll go to another guy and say, “I could never tell anybody that. That’s ridiculous.” I’ll go to another one. I go to the old ones usually—John Brown of Haddington, a good Scotsman from a long time ago. “What do you have to say, John?” So I turn him up, and this is what he says: “I do[n’t] think … Scripture warrants us to say that any man who finally apostatizes is sanctified by the blood of Christ in any sense, except that the legal obstacles in the way of human salvation generally were removed by the atonement.” Mm-hmm! Now, I need a commentary on John Brown to understand this. So I read on a little further, and I find him saying, “I apprehend the word is used impersonally, and that its true meaning is, ‘by which there is sanctification.’” Okay, so what he’s saying is, given the balance of Scripture, the only way we can realistically understand this is for it to read, “He has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant by which there is sanctification.” You say, “But John, that’s not actually what it says! It says, ‘that sanctified him.’” But now you’re beginning to sweat a little bit, because you don’t know what to do.
And then I said to myself, “Well, where is there a reference to somebody getting sanctified who’s not really sanctified, in the Bible?” “Oh,” you say, “First Corinthians 7!” That’s right. Turn to it for a minute. First Corinthians chapter 7. The story is marriage. Two unbelievers get married, one becomes a Christian, and the unbeliever is still in the house. Paul says, “Don’t throw the unbeliever out. It’s important that you’re together. God is interested in your marriage.” First Corinthians 7:14. And then he says this: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.”
What does that mean? That you were “saved” on the basis of attachment? Is that an expression of conversion? I don’t believe so. What is Paul saying? He is saying this: that as a result of the unbeliever living within the framework of a believing spouse, they are, by that believing spouse who walks with Christ, being brought into the sphere of spiritual blessing. There is a sanctifying influence which is brought to bear upon a person who lives within the realm of grace. They are brought, if you like, to the very threshold of the church. They are associated with it, but they are not assimilated by it.
And I can only but assume that it is something along these lines that is being described here in Hebrews chapter 10: that as a result of their attachment to this external way of life, there is a sanctifying influence, an influence which brings them within the very threshold of God’s goodness, in the same way that a person may come and attend communion services here at Parkside Church and testify in some measure to having sensed God’s presence and having sensed something of the reality of Jesus. It’s a sanctifying, if you like, influence upon them.
Now, enough said. You must go on and get your own recipe books out and cook for a while on your own. But I wanted you to know it is a little bit of a problem, and I don’t want you thinking I was trying to skip it. Of course, if you want to, just go ahead and teach that genuine believers can in fact lose their salvation, and then you don’t have a problem with this phrase; you have a problem with all the other verses that I just mentioned to you. So how big of a problem would you like? That’s right, that’s right.
My responsibility is not to preach sermons to you like somebody who’s a genius at mental arithmetic, whereby, when you’re with somebody who’s a genius in a mental arithmetic, he always gets the answer really fast. You don’t know how he does it, but he always gets it. And after a while, you don’t think for yourself, because you know that he will always do the thing: 1.72 times whatever it is. That guy is ultimately a nuisance, ’cause one day you’re gonna be on your own; you won’t be able to add up, you won’t be able to subtract, you won’t be able to multiply. I don’t want to leave you in that condition. I don’t want to preach mental arithmetic sermons whereby you all sit out there and go, “Oh, that was brilliant. See the way he got that answer?” No, I want you to know that some of the struggle’s trying to get to the answer, so that you will also, then, be able to struggle when you read your own Bibles and when you study on your own. This is not Zen Buddhism in here; this is not lucky dip. This demands attention. Demands thought. Demands prayer. Demand looking after your papers. Demands all kind of stuff.
“Trampled the Son of God under foot,” “treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant,” and “insulted the Spirit of grace.” “Insulted the Spirit of grace.” Notice that the Holy Spirit is a person—not a thing, not an influence. You can only insult a person.
Now, what are the implications of such actions? Well, we’re told in verse 26, if you back up, there is “no sacrifice for sins … left.” There is only one efficacious sacrifice for sins, and that is in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus, and therefore, to reject that leaves no possibility of forgiveness. And that is exactly what the person has done: he’s trampled Jesus underfoot, he profaned his blood, he insulted the Spirit of grace; therefore, where is he going to go for forgiveness? Nowhere, ’cause there is no forgiveness. The only place he could go for forgiveness, he said it doesn’t offer forgiveness.
Now, you understand this? This doesn’t mean that if an apostate were to turn in repentance and faith, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross would be of no help to them. Of course it would! And that’s what we want to urge on people, even those who have wandered the furthest and who appear to have turned their backs on everything. We still want to go to them, we still want to win them, we still want to woo them back, and where are we going to bring them? We’re going to bring them to the cross. And we’re going to pray that God will bring them to repentance and faith. And if someone who appears to be apostate returns to that cross in humble, believing trust, then the efficacious dimension of all of it will be applied to their lives. That’s what the Bible says. However, if an apostate, continuing in their apostasy, turns their back on this only possibility of forgiveness and mercy, then the only thing that awaits them is a fearful expectation of judgment.
Verse 27. What is left to such an individual? “A fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Not particularly pleasant, is it? Not the kind of message whereby you make friends and influence people. It’s not the way to build a big congregation who want to come in and talk about their felt needs for happiness and hope and enjoyment and contentment and a good life and a happy time and applying the principles. They come walking in, says, “You know what? If you continue in your condition, you don’t have any prospect of anything except a fearful expectation of judgment and eternal fire.” Boy, those are hard words. Jesus said, “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life”—John 3:36—“but the wrath of God remains on him.” Romans chapter 1: “The wrath of God has been revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of man.”
And nobody believes this—not even Christians. ’Cause if we did, we’d cry. And when we were done crying, we would go. And when we went, we would tell. And we don’t tell ’cause we don’t cry, and we don’t go ’cause we don’t care. Do you believe that to pagan men and women there is “only a fearful expectation of judgment”? That “it is appointed unto men once to die,” and “after this,” then comes “the judgment”? That it is the Bible that sets the whole world in perspective?
What an awesome thing, says the writer, “to fall into the hands of the living God.” And you don’t need to fall into the hands of the living God in a prospect of judgment. You can be welcomed into the arms of the living God. That’s what the Prodigal discovers in chapter 15: made a total hash of his life, turned his back on everything that represented righteousness to him, went away and wasted his substance with riotous living, woke up one morning, said, “I’ve been an idiot”—came to himself, said, “You know, I’ve sinned against heaven and in God’s sight. I’m not even worthy to be called a son. I think I’ll get a job out in the outhouses and just clean stuff up. And I’ll arise, and I’ll go to my father, and I’m just going to tell him this.” And he goes up the road with a fearful expectation of judgment. What an awesome thing to fall into the hands of an angry God! And what does he discover? He discovers that God runs down the street to him and gathers him up in his embrace and kisses him. How can a totally holy God do that to totally ugly sinners? The answer is, in the cross of Jesus Christ. Because there he bore my pain, bore my punishment, bore my sin, bore my condemnation, in order that I need not fall into the fearful expectation of judgment but that I might be gathered up in the welcome of his loving embrace.
Ladies and gentlemen, ultimately, this morning we’re divided into two categories: those who’ve been welcomed into the loving embrace of the arms of God and the cross of Christ, and those who sit yet waiting with a fearful expectation of judgment. I say to those of you who are honest enough to admit yourself in the second category: would you not today, exactly where you are, cry out to God for his mercy and say, “I do not want to live in this condition for one moment longer. And I believe that you have pursued me in the person of your Son, and that you have opened up my eyes to the dreadfulness of my rebellion, and that you are pouring on now the wonder of this good news.”
Now, I said that I’d try and finish, so I must. That is the solemn warning. Enough said. In verses 32–34, he provides a necessary reminder—in the same pattern as in chapter 6. Remember 6:4–8? He lays out this dreadful warning, and he says, “But I am confident of better things in relationship to you chaps.” That’s exactly what he does here. He says, “Remember the earlier days, after you’d become Christians, you received the light. You stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.” Couple of words in here are very important. The word for contest is the word athlesin, which is significant only insofar as we get our English word “athletics” from it. And it has to do with the struggle and the pain and the commitment that is necessary in achievement in an athletic competition.
The second word is the word—one word in Greek—theatrizomenoi, which translates, “in the face of.” And it is a word there that described the Roman arena where people doomed to die were exposed to the gaze and the scan of the crowds. And he says, “Remember, you were publicly exposed to insult and to persecution, and when it wasn’t happening to you, it was happening to other people, and you stood with them.” What a wonderful expression this is! What a wonderful reminder. What he’s saying is, “When you set out on the voyage, remember, it rained. Do you remember, you weren’t hardly out of the harbor, and the clouds darkened, and it just descended on you? But remember, you weathered the storm!” He says, “Remember those things!”
What happened as a result of the adversity these people were facing? Well, it’s right there for you; let me summarize it for you. In verse 33: it deepened their partnership with one another. They “stood side by side.” There’s nothing like adversity to draw a nation together. That’s why, when you hear old people talking sometimes in the mall, they say, “You know, what we need in here is a doggone war, you know. That’d sort the place out.” Now, it’s not a brilliant sentiment, but what they’re saying is, if we understood that we had an enemy out there, then we’d quit all this fighting with one another in here. And that’s what happened. When the battle ensued against them, when the contest became terrific, when they realized that they were all on the same relay team, then they all stood side by side. They deepened in their partnership.
Also, verse 34, they developed in their sympathy: “You sympathize with those in prison. You visited the prisoners, even though the people said, ‘You’re not their friends, are you?’” Because to go and visit the prisoners is to identify with them. That’s why, when we send ambassadors to China, from the perspective of the suffering church, we send them to the wrong place. Because they go, and they have big meetings in big fancy hotels, but where they ought to go is to the prisoners, who are dying in a quest for freedom. But you wouldn’t go there, because if you go there, then what you’re saying is, you sympathize with the prisoners in their cause. And so we should! Don’t we believe in democracy?
Deepened their partnership. Developed their sympathy. Thirdly, demonstrated their resilience: “You … joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property.” And fourthly, determined their priorities. It all made clear that “you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”
Isn’t it true, loved ones, that it is in experiences of pain and suffering and adversity that we make some of our best progress? Some of us in recent days have faced personal tragedy, and the Lord has stood by us. We’ve been knocked down, but we’re not knocked out. Some of us have lost in relationships, lost in love, lost in friendship, lost loved ones from the very sphere of our own earthly pilgrimage, and yet we’ve proved in it all that Christ is most precious. Some of us have been ready to quit, and our brothers and sisters have stood by us and helped us on. Some of us, actually, are here this morning, maybe ready to quit. Maybe I preached this sermon for one person—the one person who walked in the door and said, “You know, I’m gonna give this one last shot. This is my last Sunday.” Because you know yourself; you’ve been making a hash of it. And the temptation has been to say, “I’ve made such a mess of this that I might as well just obliterate it altogether.”
Well, let me finish—not with a solemn warning and a necessary reminder, but to finish with a positive exhortation.
Look at verse 35: “Do[n’t] throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere.” And you say to me, you say, “That’s the very thing I can’t. What I need to do, I don’t do. The good I want to do, I don’t do. The bad I don’t want to do, this I keep on doing. I’m a wretched man!” And the devil comes and says, “That’s right. Forget it, chuck it! It’s a waste of time in any case. Give it up! Those people are crazy, you know.” What are you going to do?
Well, let me say to you: don’t throw away your confidence. You know better than that. Remember when you set out on the voyage? And remember when the storm broke on you? You remember how you weathered the storm? Well, now you’ve got the harbor lights in view. It would be silly to stop the voyage now. Keep near! Keep on!
You see, the perseverance of the saints is actually the perseverance of God. It is because God perseveres in his love towards us that we are enabled to persevere in our love towards him. So the very fact that we manage to continue is an indication of his continuance with us. And he doesn’t quit on his kids!
What do I do, then? Well, do the will of God. What’s the will of God? Well, that you would read your Bible, that you would pray, that you would be in fellowship with God’s people, that you would be ready to give an answer for those who ask a reason for the faith that’s within you. That you would give yourself to holiness rather than to impurity, that you would be thankful in all things, that you would let the joy of the Lord be your strength, that you wouldn’t forsake assembling together, and so on. There’s no mystery in the will of God. The will of God is not some package let down from heaven on the end of a string. It’s a scroll that unrolls from day to day. You just read your Bible; it’s all in here. You don’t have to be a genius.
And frankly, if you could only find one thing you’re supposed to do, most of us are so poor at doing the one thing that if we spend the next six years just trying to do the one thing, that’d be enough to be doing for now, wouldn’t it? Did you ever get a job cleaning up for somebody, says, “What do I do next?” Say, “Never mind next; you didn’t do the first thing.” Some of us in our Christian lives are always wondering what we’re gonna do next. Do the thing you’re supposed to do right now!
“Oh,” you say, “that’s better. I like the finish. I understand it now.” It’s a real warning. Big danger sign. It’s a necessary reminder, ’cause I can look back to better days. And it’s a positive exhortation: “Don’t throw away your confidence. Persevere. Do the will of God. You’ll receive what he has promised.” Because, after all, we are not those who shrink back and are destroyed. We are those who continue and are saved.
May it be so, for his glory and for our good. Amen.
 John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress.
 See Matthew 13:3–23; Mark 4:3–20; Luke 8:5–15.
 James 1:22 (paraphrased).
 John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St Peter, trans. William B. Johnston, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 146.
 See 1 Corinthians 10:12.
 John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress. Dialogue lightly altered.
 See Matthew 5:13.
 Matthew 7:6 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 3:5–8 (paraphrased).
 See John 10:27–28.
 Romans 8:35, 37 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Peter 1:3–5.
 2 Timothy 1:12 (KJV).
 John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Hebrews, ed. David Smith (Edinburgh, 1862), 2:21–22.
 John 3:36 (paraphrased).
 Romans 1:18 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 9:27 (KJV).
 See Luke 15:11–20.
 Hebrews 6:9 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 7:15–24.
 See 1 Peter 3:15.
 See 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
 See Nehemiah 8:10.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.