George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” He forgot to mention that those who do learn from history still have to watch everyone else repeat it. It gets frustrating. No doubt the author of Hebrews felt that way. The Jewish believers to whom he was writing were on the verge of making the same mistakes their ancestors had, and he wanted to warn them about the consequences that would follow. In Heb 10:26-39 he used several Old Testament references to God’s temporal judgment on Israel to show that the results of apostatizing from Christ would lead to a catastrophic temporal judgment.
The Levitical System Was Insufficient
Chapter 10 begins with an explanation of how the Mosaic Law was never meant to be an end in itself, but a pointer to “the good things to come,” i.e., to the cross (v 1). Animal sacrifices could never truly take away sins (vv 1-4). As attractive as Levitical Judaism might have appeared to the Hebrews, the Temple priests could not make atonement for sin. That was accomplished by Jesus, who made “one sacrifice for sins” and now stands in the heavenly Holy of Holies, ministering on behalf of His people in a way the Jewish high priests could only typify. So rather than go back to Judaism, the author urged the Hebrews to draw near to Christ, not forsaking assembling with other believers because the “the Day” was fast approaching (10:22-25). And then we come to the warning.
The Danger of Willful Sin
10:26-27. For indicates the warning follows the truths the author has just explained. But the warning was conditional (if we sin willfully). The if shows they had not yet committed the sin in question and the we shows the author includes himself in the warning, meaning it is directed to believers, regenerate people.
Several commentators suggest the wilful sin is an allusion to the presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:
“But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community. Since they have treated the Lord’s word with contempt and deliberately disobeyed his command, they must be completely cut off and suffer the punishment for their guilt” (Num 15:30-31, NLT, emphasis added).
Willful sin is not something done accidentally or out of ignorance. It is not the kind of sins believers remorsefully struggle with every day. The willful sin is brazen. It is presumptuous, planned, and purposefully done to defy the Lord. If the Hebrews committed the willful sin after they received the knowledge of the truth about the supremacy of Christ over the Mosaic sacrifices, they needed to realize there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. Not only had Christ’s sacrifice replaced the Temple’s animal sacrifices, but not even Christ’s sacrifice would protect them from the temporal judgment that would come upon them. In Numbers, the penalty for the willful sin was physical death (not eternal condemnation). Just so, no sacrifice would protect them from God’s fiery indignation which would devour His adversaries if they rejected Christ (cf. Isa 26:11). This language echoes the warning Zephaniah gave to Judah before Babylon utterly destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, when he wrote:
The great day of the Lord is near
It is near and hastens quickly.
The noise of the day of the Lord is bitter;
There the mighty men shall cry out.
That day is a day of wrath,
A day of trouble and distress,
A day of devastation and desolation,
A day of darkness and gloominess,
A day of clouds and thick darkness…
Neither their silver nor their gold
Shall be able to deliver them
In the day of the Lord’s wrath;
But the whole land shall be devoured
By the fire of His jealousy,
For He will make speedy riddance
Of all those who dwell in the land (Zeph 1:14-15, 18, emphasis added).
Both Zephaniah and the author of Hebrews warned “the day of the Lord” was imminent (cf. Heb 1:2; 2:5; 3:6, 14; 6:11; 9:28; 10:25, 37), that this day would be a time of God’s wrath (cf. Heb 3:11; 4:3), and that God’s judgment was like a devouring fire (cf. Heb 10:27; 12:29). Zephaniah’s prophecy was fulfilled in 586 BC, when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Is it a coincidence that just a few years after Hebrews was written, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70?1
The Danger of Idolatry
10:28-29. What is the wilful sin? The author strongly suggested he had idolatry in mind when he quoted, Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. This is a quote from Deuteronomy, about the penalty for idolatry:
If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones. Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you (Deut 17:2-7, emphasis added).
If a Jew transgressed the Mosaic Covenant and committed idolatry, he was to be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
The author of Hebrews quoted this law because the Hebrews were on the verge of committing idolatry. Except, instead of transgressing the Mosaic Covenant, they were on the verge of transgressing the New Covenant (i.e., they risked counting the blood of the covenant as a common thing). By abandoning the Lamb of God for the blood of animals, the Hebrews would be exchanging the truth of God for a type, which was tantamount to idolatry. Hence, they would fall under a condemnation similar to Deut 17:2-7. The difference is, their punishment would be worse.
The author argues from lesser to greater: if the Hebrews rejected Christ and transgressed the New Covenant, how much worse punishment would they suffer?
Many have assumed the only fate worse than death is suffering in hell. That cannot be the answer here because the author is addressing believers (including himself) and believers are eternally secure (John 3:16; 10:28-29; Rom 5:9-10; Heb 10:10, 14). What, then, is the punishment worse than death?
One option is to take this as a general warning to all believers that if they apostatize God will make them suffer in this life. Apostate believers may be afflicted with things like mental illness, depression, the death of a child, torment by evil spirits, emotional and spiritual ruin, and millennial disinheritance in the life to come.2
The other option is to take this as a specific warning, to a specific community, about an impending day of judgment, when there would be a unique outpouring of God’s wrath. That kind of judgment fell upon Israel in AD 70. The ancient historian Josephus described the siege of Jerusalem in gruesome detail. The Jews at that time endured unimaginable suffering. For example, Josephus tells the story of Mary of Bethezuba who roasted and ate her own child (Josephus, Jewish War, VI). As Steven Ger summarizes,
The severity of this concentrated outpouring of God’s wrath is incontestable. With an estimated first-century Jewish world population of some eight million of whom three million lived in Israel, almost one million Jews were killed in the war against Rome and another ninety-seven thousand led away as slaves. It was, as Josephus recorded, the most catastrophic war that had been waged to date in recorded history.3
Everyone hopes for a quick and painless death. Josephus’s account makes very clear that some punishments are worse than death.
Hence, rather than brazenly abandon their Lord, the Hebrews needed to recognize the dangers of insulting the Spirit of grace (to Pneuma tēs charitos). This is the same term Zechariah used to describe the Spirit’s role before the Second Coming4:
“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace [Pneuma charitos] and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zech 12:10 LXX, emphasis added).
According to Zechariah, in the last days (which the author of Hebrews said he was in, see Heb 1:2; 10:25, 37), the Lord would send “the Spirit of grace” to bring the Jews to repentance for having killed the Messiah. That is what happened to the Hebrews: although most of their countrymen rejected and crucified the Lord, the Holy Spirit had led them to faith. If they later apostatized, they would be insulting the Spirit of grace who had convicted them.
10:30-34. Rebelling against God should not be taken lightly. The Hebrews should have been familiar with stories of God’s righteous judgment. As the author reminded them, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord and, “The Lord will judge His people.” This is a quote from Deut 32:35-36, part of the Song of Moses. It is significant that out of all the verses that describe God’s judgment, the author chose to quote from this song. The early Dispensational Bible teachers took it as a prophecy of Israel’s history up to the time of the Messiah (cf. Rev 15:3). They understood verses 35-36 as describing God’s vengeance on the Gentile nations who will rise up against Israel during the Tribulation. As Arno Gaebelein explained:
God foretells through Moses the future of an apostate people…The call of the Gentiles is anticipated in Moses’ song; salvation came to us Gentiles by their fall. It seems almost as if they are going to perish completely as a nation. But the song changes suddenly. Jehovah will yet arise in their behalf. It will be in a time when their power is gone, when they are helpless and their enemies press down upon them as never before in their long, dark night of suffering and tears. That will happen in the end of this present age, during the predicted time of great trouble, which is to come upon them. Compare verse 39 with Hosea 1:15–6:3. The judgment, which is announced by Moses in verses 40-42 is the judgment which will fall upon Gentile nations in the day when the Lord appears in His glory (emphasis added).5
The general application is that God judges His people and that there can be serious consequences to disobeying Him. But if these verses in the Song of Moses prophetically point to the Time of Jacob’s Trouble, does this warning specifically apply to Jewish believers living after the rapture of the Church? Is it cautioning them that if they apostatized they would suffer severe and lingering judgment during the Tribulation (the same people warned in the Olivet Discourse and Revelation)? Or was the author warning contemporary Church Age believers about perishing during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70? Whichever is the case, the Hebrews should have recognized that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God in judgment.
10:35-36. Of course, if they apostatized, their actions would have eternal consequences too. It would affect their position in the Messianic kingdom. The author urged the Hebrews not to cast away their confidence. Persevering in faith in the midst of trial has great reward in the kingdom. The author of Hebrews already encouraged his readers about becoming companions of the Messiah (e.g. Heb 3:14; cf. Luke 17:11-21), hence, they needed to endure so as to receive the promise of having a rich inheritance there (cf. 2 Pet 1:11).
10:37-39. The Hebrews had suffered for their faith (vv 32-34). They only needed to hang on to their Christian confession for just a little while, because the Lord would return soon and would not tarry. In order to endure the persecution in the meantime, he urged them to remember the words of Habbakuk, i.e., that the just shall live by faith. The prophet contrasted the deliverance of the righteous man versus the condemnation of the unrighteous (Hab 2:5-20). The author was confident the Hebrews would not be among those who draw back to perdition, i.e., apostatize and die under God’s temporal judgment. The author hoped they would be among those who believe and who persevere to the saving of the soul, i.e., to the saving of their physical lives from the judgment to come (cf. Matt 24:9-146).
The warning in Heb 10:26-39 is not about the possibility of believers losing eternal life, but of coming under God’s temporal judgment for the sin of idolatry. Significantly, the warning contains several quotations and allusions to Old Testament passages that speak of a future Tribulation for Israel and the suffering that believers will experience at that time. Although the passage can be interpreted as a general warning about the temporal judgment that any apostate believer might expect to face, the author seems to have been warning a specific group of Jewish believers about experiencing a unique judgment from God if they abandoned Christ and apostatized to Judaism. We should learn from the example of the Hebrews and hold fast to our faith in Christ, knowing that our perseverance will be richly rewarded by our returning Redeemer.
1. Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Messianic Jewish Epistles (San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries, 2005), 144.
2. See Joseph Dillow, Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings (The Woodlands, TX: Grace Theology Press, 2013), 664-65.
3. Steven Ger, The Book of Hebrews: Christ Is Greater (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2009), 180.
4. Terence D. McLean, M.A.D. about Hebrews (Alpha, OH: Discerning the Times Publishing Co., 2010), 147.
5. Arno C. Gaebelein, Gaebelein’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1970, 1989), 186. See also George Williams, The Complete Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1994), 107.
6. Louis A. Barbieri, Jr. “Matthew” in Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1983), 76-77; Hal M. Haller, Jr. “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The Grace New Testament Commentary, Volume 1: Matthew–Acts, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 110.