In the first 10 chapters of the book of Hebrews, the author has been establishing the superiority of Jesus and his sacrifice on our behalf to justly pay for all of our sins so that we can be reconciled with a perfect, and uncompromisingly holy God. Beginning in verse 22 of chapter 10, the author now describes how we ought to see the world and live our lives in light of what Jesus has done for us. In verses 23-25 he says that we should hold firmly to our faith and express it to others, encouraging each other as we commit to living in community with other believers, and as we look forward in anticipation to “the Day”, an expression which refers to the future judgment of Yahweh, in which evil is punished and wrongs are made right. (See Obadiah 1:15-17, where “The Day” Of Yahweh involves justice, and setting wrong things right.)
The author warns of an alternative path to holding firm to our trust in Jesus. It's a path that leads to “sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth”. The Greek word translated “deliberately” here means “voluntarily, willfully, of one's own accord. To sin willfully as opposed to sins committed inconsiderately, and from ignorance or from weakness.” (Thayer's Lexicon)
This seems to paint a picture, not of someone who simply gives in to temptation but who sins in purposeful rebellion, as an intentional act of defiance toward God. For this kind of person, there “no longer remains a sacrifice for sins”.
Some would argue that this means that Jesus' sacrifice is no longer applied to these believers and therefore they lose their gift of eternal life. But the language is not near so specific here, and we see elsewhere in scripture that eternal life is a permanent, irrevocable gift. (John 5:24, Romans 6:23, Romans 11:29, 2 Timothy 2:13)
Still, for believers who become hardened and defiant toward God there is a “fearful expectation of judgment” and a “fury of fire that will consume the adversaries”. As believers, although we are forever free from God's condemnation, we are still under his judgment.
2 Corinthians 5:10- For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
The author of Hebrews also talks about the loss of reward for believers in this situation. He describes the fruit of their lives being a waste that is burned up rather than rewarded with blessing. (Hebrews 6:7-8) A similar idea is taught in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, also using the imagery of fire.
So whether or not the author is grouping these defiant believers with the “adversaries” of God, the same intense evaluation will be focused on them, and they will suffer consequences just as surely as God's enemies will. But what will those consequences be?
The author doesn't spell out the consequences for believers who willingly become antagonistic toward God. But he points out that setting aside the Law God gave to Moses was worthy of the death penalty(Deuteronomy17, 18:20, 35:30 to name a few examples). This punishment was not eternal condemnation, but a shortened physical life.
Rebelling believers under the New Covenant of Christ suffer more intense consequences. So what would be worse than a shortened physical life right now? One possibility is the loss of some future eternal rewards. This seems a logical conclusion given the author's recurring references to obedience coming with reward. (Hebrews 6:7-8, 6:10-12, 10:35) A lack of obedience results in a lack of reward. And a rebelling believer who is ultimately unrepentant may even lose all potential rewards, despite keeping the gift of eternal life. (See 1 Corinthians 3:10-15)
If we feel a little uncomfortable at this point, and find ourselves asking “could this be describing me”, I think that's a good place to be now and then. It's important to frequently take a hard look at ourselves. But we shouldn't misunderstand these “warning passages” in a way that makes us paranoid. The author clarifies, both here and in Hebrews 6:4-8, what kind of person these warnings refer to. Someone who:
1. Was a genuine believer at some point (6:4-5)
2. Has stopped turning away from sins. (6:6)
3. Feels contempt toward Jesus (6:6)
4. Is not partnering with God to produce worthwhile fruit (6:8)
5. Bitterly neglects having anything to do with Jesus. (10:29, “spurned the Son of God”)
6. Considers the blood of Jesus to be either unclean, evil or insignificant (10:29 “profaned the blood of the covenant”)
7. Insulted the Holy Spirit (10:29 “outraged the Spirit Of Grace”)
This is a description, not of a believer who is in a season of doubt or failing moral behavior, but someone who, for whatever reason, has become hardened and hateful toward Yahweh. This person may not even think of themselves as a believer anymore, and may take up an entirely different worldview to live by.
Despite their irrational kicking and screaming, they are still rescued because of that moment in the past where they chose to trust Jesus to rescue and save them from the penalty of their sins. But they have entered a state that, if not turned away from, results in a tragic loss of reward.
Given the vagueness of scripture on the nature of these rewards, it may not seem like a big deal to lose them. But as the author points out here, the consequences of loss are a sure thing, based in the promises of God to fairly, and justly judge his people. It's a fearful state to be in, because while not clearly defined, it's a fate worse than death.
Because of these severe potential consequences, the author pleads with his original audience, who were probably experiencing suffering that was tempting them to turn away from Yahweh. He urges them to remember the dedication of their faith early on and the perspective they had while experiencing suffering then. They dealt with public contempt and affliction, or struggled with being associated with those who were hated. They watched their possessions become stolen but held on to their confidence in a better possession in the future.
The author urges them, and us, to renew this kind of confidence in what God has for us, because this kind of confidence results in reward as we make the choice to endure!
The author paraphrases the Septuagint translation of Habakkuk 2:3-4. His point being that the return of Jesus will come very soon. As so many have observed, time flies by and our lives are over in what seems like a blink. Jesus is also on schedule and won't delay. So in the meantime we should live “righteously” (according to God's standards), which is done by trusting, and placing our hope in, Yahweh.
If we “shrink back” from that kind of life, we will proportionately miss out on the “pleasure”(in this context, “rewards”) of Yahweh.
The author speaks confidently of his readers, insisting that we who are reading this (whom he might conclude are therefore desiring to trust in Yahweh) are not among those who shrink back and experience loss or ruin (the meaning of the Greek word translated “destroyed” here), but are rather those who trust in Yahweh and preserve their “souls”.
The Greek word for “souls” here refers to “the vital force which animates the body”. It's not that we need to maintain our faith in order to preserve our eternal life with God. Rather, by continuing to place our faith in Yahweh we avoid loss of future eternal reward and a state of ruin and self-destruction in this life.
As Geeks, we often define ourselves by our obsession with and dedication to particular forms of entertainment. And because of this it's easy to see pleasure as a goal in life. In America we're even entitled to “the pursuit of happiness”, whatever that means. So we can look at our lives and see a lack of pleasure (or the presence of discomfort and suffering) as something that shouldn't happen, that we should flee from at all cost. We think of God as failing us when life goes “wrong” in our estimation of things.
I'm addicted to comfort and when things don't go as I planned I can really have it out with God. And a quick scan of the Psalms tells us there's room for that kind of wrestling and questioning in our relationship with God. But I don't ever want to stay in that place and become cold and bitter toward God.
In my personal life I've seen the self-destruction that takes place in believers who shut themselves off from other believers, and who become antagonistic toward God. That's a place I don't ever want to find myself.
Jesus didn't promise an easy life, he promised a troubled one. But he faced the worst that life had and overcame it. He also promised to be with us and promised reward for those who choose to grow in trusting him.