Letters for Life: Hebrews
“And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another” (Rom 15:14).
Exhorting or admonishing others can be difficult, if not downright uncomfortable. But this is especially the case when spiritual disaster is at issue. When we are made to watch a brother or sister walk dangerously close to the edge of apostasy, that narrow and crumbling rim where the line between life and death is but separated by a hair, we often reel with bewilderment and uncertainty, unsure of what to say or do. Might we simply love them, or pray for them, or plead with them, or brow beat them? Should we warn them? And if so, how? Should we encourage them? If so, how?
These are all admittedly difficult questions, and while the circumstances surrounding each particular case will affect the details, there are, perhaps, a few constants. And the book of Hebrews helps us discern them.
Hebrews as a Model (Background)
If Hebrews is anything, it is a letter of admonition (13:22) designed to call back to Christ those who are flirting with apostasy.
Determining the exact circumstances surrounding the epistle is challenging, but if I had to land on one particular explanation, I would say that there were probably some Jewish Christians facing persecution under the tyrannical reign of Nero. Christianity had either been deemed illegal by the state, or was at least seriously frowned upon. By way of contrast, Judaism offered potential solace, as one could practice the religious rites with relative freedom and peace. In the face of persecution, therefore, Hebrew Christians were tempted to return to the Law and the old covenant ordinances. Basically, the thought process might have been something like this: “Hey, the old way of doing things was good, so why not return to it? I mean, really, Christ is great and all, but I’m not exactly a fan of all the persecution associated with His Name. Let’s fall back to the former way of doing things. It can’t be that bad, right?”
When the author of Hebrews learned that these Jewish Christians were thinking about turning away from Christ, he quickly dispatched a letter, admonishing them of the dangers of such a move, as such an action would prove to be nothing less than forsaking the Lord.
Hebrews as a Model (The Approach)
So how does the author handle the Hebrew saints? Let’s make a few observations.
Observation #1: Hard Words
Hebrews isn’t a wimpy letter. From beginning to end, the epistle is filled with strong language; potent warnings outlining the dire consequences of turning away from Christ. Note the following passages (2:1-3; 3:12; 4:1; 6:4-6; 10:19-26; 10-36-38; 12:25). This shows us how important it is to warn those who are standing too close to the cliff edge of apostasy. As would be the case with a vial of deadly poison, we must speak clearly and plainly about the consequences of drinking it. “You will die, if you drink that.” In the same way, “You will die eternally, if you forsake Christ.”
The tendency here is to quickly become lost in a theological debate. Some will put on their Arminian hats; others will flash their badges of Calvinism. And as a result, the focus will shift from the warnings to larger questions like, “Can genuine Christians lose their salvation?” But note this: The author of Hebrews, whether a Calvinist or an Arminian (and I say Calvinist), warns all the same. He warns them! Think about it. He tells them in no uncertain terms, “If you turn away from Christ, then you will be damned.” To miss this is no small thing. Hebrews shows us the importance of warning those who need to be warned.
Simple answer: God uses the warnings to correct His sheep. They are part of the means of preservation.
Here I can do no better than to quote Spurgeon. Addressing the sixth chapter of Hebrews, he writes,
“First, then, we answer the question, WHO ARE THE PEOPLE HERE SPOKEN OF? If you read Dr. Gill, Dr. Owen, and almost all the eminent Calvinistic writers, they all of them assert that these persons are not Christians. They say, that enough is said here to represent a man who is a Christian externally, but not enough to give the portrait of a true believer. Now, it strikes me they would not have said this if they had not had some doctrine to uphold; for a child, reading this passage, would say, that the persons intended by it must be Christians. If the Holy Spirit intended to describe Christians, I do not see that he could have used more explicit terms than there are here. How can a man be said to be enlightened, and to taste of the heavenly gift, and to be made partaker of the Holy Ghost, without being a child of God? With all deference to these learned doctors, and I admire and love them all, I humbly conceive that they allowed their judgments to be a little warped when they said that; and I think I shall be able to show that none but true believers are here described.”
Spurgeon then goes on to respond to the objection that the warnings are unnecessary if believers can’t fall away. He argues that the warnings are a means by which believers are preserved until the end. He says,
“But,’ says one, ‘You say they cannot fall away.’ What is the use of putting this ‘if’ in, like a bugbear to frighten children, or like a ghost that can have no existence? My learned friend, ‘Who art thou that repliest against God?’ If God has put it in, he has put it in for wise reasons and for excellent purposes. Let me show you why. First, O Christian, it is put in to keep thee from falling away. God preserves his children from falling away; but he keeps them by the use of means; and one of these is, the terrors of the law, showing them what would happen if they were to fall away. There is a deep precipice: what is the best way to keep any one from going down there? Why, to tell him that if he did he would inevitably be dashed to pieces. In some old castle there is a deep cellar, where there is a vast amount of fixed air and gas, which would kill anybody who went down. What does the guide say? ‘If you go down you will never come up alive.’ Who thinks of going down? The very fact of the guide telling us what the consequences would be, keeps us from it. Our friend puts away from us a cup of arsenic; he does not want us to drink it, but he says, ‘If you drink it, it will kill you.’ Does he suppose for a moment that we should drink it. No; he tells us the consequences, and he is sure we will not do it. So God says, ‘My child, if you fall over this precipice you will be dashed to pieces.’ What does the child do? He says, ‘Father, keep me; hold thou me up, and I shall be safe.’ It leads the believer to greater dependence on God, to a holy fear and caution, because he knows that if he were to fall away he could not be renewed, and he stands far away from that great gulf, because he know that if he were to fall into it there would be no salvation for him.”
Let us not forget the place of warnings.
Observation #2: Encouragement
It is certainly worth observing how the writer to the Hebrews doesn’t simply blast his readers with warnings, but is careful to include words of encouragement and assurance. After two of the more potent warnings, he quickly voices his hope and confidence that they are not like those who shrink back unto destruction. Note the following (6:9-11; 10:22, 39). This is instructive and deserves some reflection during your quiet time. Let us not merely warn, but warn with accompanying warmth. Love can do no other.
Observation #3: Seriousness, Sobriety, and Solemnity
There are times to joke around, and there are times when it is entirely inappropriate. And if Hebrews is any indication, serious confrontation is no friend of jocularity. Let us, therefore, be careful not to write light-heartedly or without due sobriety, as if the issue of apostasy were a trivial matter. Think of it like a movie score. Can anyone imagine playing a carnival tune in Schindler’s List? The right tone must accompany our warnings. Therefore think long and hard about your email, or letter, or meeting.
Observation #4: The All-Sufficiency of Christ
Christ is superior to the angels (Chapters 1 and 2). Christ is superior to Moses (Chapters 3 and 4). Christ is superior to the Aaronic priesthood (Chapters 4 through 7). Christ is the superior sacrifice (Chapters 8 through 10). The author to the Hebrews continually contrasts the Old Covenant with that of Christ (and the New Covenant), urging time and time again that the Old Covenant was but a shadow of what was to come, and is therefore inferior to Christ, who is the sum and substance of all that was prefigured.
What is the writer to the Hebrews doing? He is showing how Christ is greater and better. Or, to say it a bit differently, he confronts their problem with the all-sufficiency of Christ. He helps them to see how they are mistaken. He deepens their perspective. And he unleashes a veritable tsunami of Christocentric truth on them; challenging them in ways they had not previously imagined (As an aside , sometimes it’s good to take people out into the deep waters of theology in order for them to realize that they don’t have it all figured out (See 5:11-14)). I would think, therefore, that our admonitions and warnings should be tailor made for the ailing saint. Show them how Christ is the answer, while also showing them the inadequacy of their sin (specifically). Don’t address them in the abstract. Address them.
Hebrews as a Model (A Few Other Things to Keep in Mind)
We need to keep in mind that rebukes and admonitions must come from those who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. In other words, if you don’t know what it means to walk by faith, and do in fact walk by faith, and model holiness, then you should probably keep your mouth shut, so far as admonitions are concerned. Reflect on 13:7, 17-19, 22-23. Were Timothy and the author of Hebrews unacquainted with the troubles of the day?
Lastly, keep in mind that the NT epistles are different from one another. Warnings don’t abound, for example, in Ephesians or Philippians. Why is that? Well, the circumstances didn’t warrant it. The saints didn’t need a hard word. This is a simple observation, but it is one that can be easily overlooked. We don’t need to be continually on the war path, so to speak, warning saints with sharp words. It is true that most of the NT epistles do in fact contain potent warnings, but they’re not like Hebrews. Hebrews is structured with warnings in the main. They’re part of the warp and woof of the epistle. In this respect, let us be careful not to toss grenades where grenades don’t need to be tossed. Reserve them for dire situations.
 Unless of course you’re like one of those know-it-alls who love to dispense their wisdom to the inferior and ignorant masses around them. In that case, admonishing comes quite easily.