Better Things

Speaking of Better Things

 

The transition out of the warning passage in Hebrews 6 is rather obvious, especially if you are reading an ESV or NASB translation.  There you’ll see verse 6:4 say, “in the case of those” contrasted in 6:9 with, “yet in your case” which would seem to indicate that the author’s attention is shifting from a third party back to his immediate audience as he prepares to identify and address specifically their condition.

The phrase translated above “in the case of…” is not present in either of those verses however.  The ESV’s decision to include it may be one of smoothing for readability, but more likely its to highlight the contrast being implied in the two verses.  While maintaining the “in the case of those” in 6:4 the NASB may be more accurate in 6:9 which it renders, “we are convinced of better things concerning you.”  This still conveys the idea of an attention shift from the example held up in Hebrews 6:4-8 to the immediate audience and the forthcoming commendation.

Due to the high level of interpretational uncertainty that many have experienced from this particular warning, highlighting yet another reason that shows a negative example was in mind from verses 6:4-6:6, rather than the possibility of genuine salvation, is a significant step in rightly interpreting the passage.  That said, we turn our attention with the author back to the condition of the audience who has been previously warned about their dullness of hearing and spiritual lethargy.  So as not to leave them totally discouraged, we find in our present passage under consideration a commendation on the evidence of their fruit, corresponding nicely to the parable from 6:7-8.

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The use of “beloved” is important as the author shows his pastoral care and knowledge of not just their “dull of hearing” but of their work and service in the name of God.  Building on this introductory address is the statement, “we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation” further securing the notion that those things previously mentioned in the passage were not dealing with salvation.  These “things” are defined for us in the subsequent verses to  include work, love for the name of God, and service of the saints, all of which points towards a believer’s fruit or evidence of salvation.

Recognition of this evidence is not arbitrary or even unseen, but is rooted in the very justice of God.  Whereas we saw in verse 8 that the ground that does not bear fruit is “worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned“, no doubt reflective on the justice of God, here we see that God’s justice extends to the recognition of the “ground” that bears fruit.  Simply put, justice is getting what one deserves.  In the case of unrighteousness deeds getting what one deserves is punitive, however,  in the case of righteous deeds getting what one deserves is rewarding; both are the result of justice.  For those who have trusted in Christ as Savior, our punishment has been swallowed by the mercy of God in Christ by withholding what we deserve, namely the wrath of God.  Conversely, having been made righteous, justified by the blood of Christ, clothed in His righteousness, enabled by the Spirit to perform the works that God prepared for us beforehand (Eph. 2:10), we may eagerly expect the reward that God has promised, namely eternal life and the blessings that accompany that.

As the pastor-author of Hebrews moves on in his encouragement he aims to prod the church (and by relation us) to continued progress in the faith as seen in vs. 11.  Earnestness, or perhaps intensity, and assurance work somewhat together like hand and glove.  Certainly one can be zealous for the things of God, but be fueled by improper motivation or ignorance of the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:1-3).  But here, proper motivation grounded in a love for God will lead to assurance in salvation.  Conversely, assurance is not alone, pointing simply to a one-time decision or walking of an isle, but can look toward intensity in serving the saints and glorifying the name of God motivated by love and fueled by the Holy Spirit.  Both sides of the coin are necessary and mutually dependent upon one another.

As is pointed out in verse 12, zealousness is in direct contrast with sluggishness, as the author provides the closing bracket to his argument begun in Heb. 5:11, you have become dull of hearing utilizing the same word to enter and exit his warning.

As is so often the case in Hebrews, we are introduced to an idea or concept that is expanded on in greater detail later, such is the case again here.  Before entering a discourse on Melchizedek, begun in Hebrews 5:10, we see the mention of the phrase “those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” whom the readers are supposed to imitate.  As we will see, in the near context this statement has its attention towards Abraham (6:12ff), however we will see it expanded with numerous examples in the Hall of Faith found in chapter 11.

Working through this difficult and divisive chapter of Hebrews we have seen it is not meant to be a battleground for Calvinism vs. Arminianism or eternal security vs. loss of salvation.  Instead, it is for the purpose that we have seen employed in this section, namely to spur on believers to continue in good works through faith and patience, rooted in a love for the name of God, and anchored by hope in the promises of God secured by the High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore we can conclude that these harsh sounding warnings are a divine means of preservation by a loving God for the perseverance of the saints.

Hebrews Warnings_edit

Hebrews Warnings, the Old Testament, and the Challenge of Chapter 6

 

The heart of the third warning passage in Hebrews lies in chapter 6 verses 4-6 and it is undoubtedly one of the more difficult and disputed passages in Scripture.  That being said, clues to its proper interpretation lie not only in the surrounding verses of the passage, but in the way that the author uses the previous and subsequent warnings in his exposition.  The latter will be addressed first before moving on to the context of the surrounding verses, followed by exposition of the 3 verses in question.

As previously stated, this particular warning is the 3rd of 5 warnings.  The first occurs in verses 2:1-4.  Various efforts to identify the components of this, and the other warnings for that matter, have been made and generally involve 1) audience 2) sin 3) exhortation and 4)consequences, however an element often missing is the Old Testament component.

In interpreting the book of Hebrews, it’s important to keep in mind one of the major themes is the argument from the lesser to the greater.  This is particularly true in how the author uses the Old Testament, more specifically elements under the Old Covenant as the lesser, in comparison to Christ as the greater  This is most clearly seen in references to the prophets, angels, Adam, Moses, the Aaronic (High) Priesthood, Melchizedek, the tabernacle of the Wilderness Generation, etc.

However, this same principle seems to generally hold true in the warning passages. Here there is also a principle of lesser to greater that flows from the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, namely the experiences, expectations, and punishments for each respective covenant community.   Bear in mind that this relationship is not 1:1, meaning that the experiences or punishments under the Old Covenant are not equal to those under the New Covenant. Rather, the relationship is one of type (lesser) to antitype (greater). A thematic example of this is the judgment that God so often promises and then ultimately unleashes on the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Their sin is spiritual adultery, yet the punishment is often indicated in terms of physical death, famine, and disease. Conversely, this punishment by way of typology is pointing forward to a far greater punishment, namely eternal damnation, for those who are idolaters at heart.

In Hebrews, particularly the warning passages, the lesser often represents the experiences of the Israelite Wilderness Generation under the mediated Old Covenant who are by external association part of its covenant community. On the other hand, the greater are the experiences of the audience of Hebrews who are by way of external association OR internal membership under the mediated New Covenant.  This will become more clear as we survey the examples below, but let me briefly explain how there are two possibilities under the New Covenant because this is likely the source of confusion for not only the book of Hebrews, the warnings, and typology in general, but also understanding the nature of biblical covenants.

Entrance into the Old Covenant was by way of external sign, namely circumcision. There was a divine expectation of obedience to the law of the covenant, but there was no divine assistance afforded the Old Covenant community to help in their obedience, thus the sacrificial system and very visible, physical punishments for those who “apostatize”. Entrance into the New Covenant is also by way of circumcision, but of the heart not the flesh. So where the Old Covenant was external the New is internal. This internal circumcision of the heart is what’s called regeneration, a new heart, or being born again. With it, God has provided to those in the New Covenant all the divine assistance needed, by way of His indwelling Holy Spirit, for obedience. [Edit: Keep in mind that there were those under the Old Covenant who also received the benefits of the New Covenant by way of prospective faith in Christ.] Not only that, but as we will see in Hebrews He has provided the final sacrifice, namely His Son, toward which all of the Old Covenant sacrifices were pointing. Not only that, but Christ satisfied the demands of the law for us. Not only that, but Christ took the punishment for disobedience that we deserved. It is not difficult to see then how much greater this New Covenant really is, yet how the Old Covenant informs us of this superiority.

However, just as there were those during the ministry of Christ who were interested in seeing signs, wonders, and miracles, but not truly interested in believing in Him, there are those who by way of external association attach themselves like barnacles to the New Covenant community. They may travel through the same waters, share the same experiences, and may even look like they belong on the ship, but they are not part of it. [Edit: Summarily, this is the distinction between the visible/invisible Church] When the warning bell sounds forth from these passages it is a divine grace for both groups. The true hear the warnings and press on to perseverance by the power of the Holy Spirit. The false may have their eyes open to the fraudulence of their profession or they may suffer the punishment for apostasy that is so clearly warned about.

With this in mind, Hebrews 2:1-4 provides the Old Testament example, or better the Old Covenant example, as being the reliable message declared by the angels. Likewise, the just retribution that was received by those who disobeyed or transgressed it.  It’s most likely that this message declared by angels is the Law (Mosaic Covenant), see Deut. 33:2, Acts 7:53, Gal. 3:19.  Obviously, those who transgressed or broke the law of the Old Covenant were punished accordingly.  This is the lesser, as seen so clearly in the comparative statement from verse 3, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation.”  This latter message was not declared by angels, but by the Lord Himself, attested by those who heard, given evidential support by God through signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Keeping this framework before us, we now turn to the second warning, that from Hebrews 3 and 4.  Technically, the warning begins in 3:7, however we see elements of warning and exhortation in 3:1, “consider Jesus” and “hold fast our confidence” before the introduction of the Old Covenant example, namely that of the Wilderness Generation.  They provide for us the lesser example through the rest of God that was offered to them upon entrance into the Promised Land and the judgment that fell on them by way of their physical death preventing them from entrance. Though they received the same good news (gospel) that we have (4:2), their failure was to receive this good news by faith followed by obedience, which the author specifically warns his audience against. The greater punishment is failure to enter the eschatological rest of God as a result of neglecting the same word of good news, not uttered by prophets, but by the Lord Jesus Himself (Heb. 1:1-2).

Before looking at the specific warning passage under our consideration from chapter 6, a brief observation of the final two warnings will be made to see if the Old Testament pattern of examples are present in them as well, those occurring in Hebrews 10 and 12 respectively.  In the former, the Old Covenant example is “anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses”, corresponding well to those examples listed earlier, while the judgment or punishment was that they die “without mercy on the evidence or two or three witness.” Heb. 10:28  Perhaps the clearest evidence of the lesser to the greater argument being employed in these warnings can be seen in the verse that follows this Old Covenant example, “How much more worse punishment do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” Heb. 10:29  Setting aside the truths of the Covenant that Christ mediates is a worse crime and is deserving of the greater punishment, namely falling into the hands of the living God.

Finally, In Hebrews 12 we arrive at the last warning and find a couple of older examples, beginning first with Esau, in verse 16, who sold his birthright and found no chance to repent (more on this later) and secondly those who trembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, bringing up for us again the context of Moses and the Wilderness Generation.  The third example held up before us is that of Mt. Zion, far superior to Sinai, and the mediator of this New Covenant, namely Jesus, is far superior to Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant.  The warning of lesser to greater judgment occurs in Hebrews 12:25, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”

Understanding the way the New Testament uses the Old Testament will go a long way in helping us to interpret especially difficult passages, not to mention those which on the surface appear to be more immediately clear.  As it relates to Hebrews, it more than any other New Testament book (except perhaps Revelation) relies on an implicit understanding of the Old Testament, specifically the time of Moses the mediator of the Old Covenant and the Wilderness Generation.

In each of the warning passages mentioned above, there is an Old Testament example held up as a mirror before the faces of the Hebrew audience that informs them of the danger in hearing the word of God, seeing His miraculous works, even participating in His many benefits, yet it is clear that these associations are unable to overcome their unbelief, hardness of hearts due to sin, and disobedience.  Surely this is a witness for us that a mere association with church, or believers, or even participation in ministry or programs is insufficient for salvation.  God has never been interested in external worship, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hos. 6:6 Keeping these thoughts and interpretive principles before us will allow for a more accurate understanding of the third and most disputed warning of Hebrews and it is towards this warning that we will turn our attention next time.

light

A Great Light

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah 9:2

The Scripture’s great contrast between light and darkness is here on display through the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning, in the near, hope in the midst of the Assyrian invasion, yet in the far, a future greater in hope found in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, which like so much of Old Testament prophecy looks toward the future and sees an amalgamation of events (often called prophetic perspective) this prophecy is set in the midst of the coming judgment on Israel as God-ordained punishment for their apostasy from God. The darkness expresses the hopelessness of the current situation, yet the language of Isaiah, “…have seen a great light” is that of the prophetic perfect, used to express the surety of a future event as though it has already happened. Commenting on this passage Calvin writes,

“He speaks of future events in the past tense, and thus brings them before the immediate view of the people, that in the destruction of the city, in their captivity, and in what appeared to be their utter destruction, they may behold the light of God. It may therefore be summed up in this manner: “Even in darkness, nay, in death itself, there is nevertheless good ground of hope; for the power of God is sufficient to restore life to his people, when they appear to be already dead.”[1]

Certainly, a restoration from the hands of Israel’s captors is in view, yet we must not limit our understanding of this prophecy to the events surrounding Israel and Assyria, particularly since this passage is referenced elsewhere.

Written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel of Matthew 4:15-16 cites this passage from Isaiah 9 in the context of Jesus beginning His earthly ministry

“12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:12-17

This further illumination by the Spirit of God, the Divine Author of Scripture, aids in our understanding of the fullness or fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah, namely that found in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the great light that offers hope in the midst of a darkened world. Turning again to Calvin we read,

“If, therefore, we wish to ascertain the true meaning of this passage, we must bring to our recollection what has been already stated, that the Prophet, when he speaks of bringing back the people from Babylon, does not look to a single age, but includes all the rest, till Christ came and brought the most complete deliverance to his people. The deliverance from Babylon was but a prelude to the restoration of the Church, and was intended to last, not for a few years only, but till Christ should come and bring true salvation, not only to their bodies, but likewise to their souls.”[2]

Christ Himself makes this connection in John 8:12 when He states,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

In John’s Gospel, this statement is buttressed with the truths about Christ being the Light from chapter 1, verses4-5, 9 and chapter 3:19-21. Our Lord’s declaration that He is light has profound biblical meaning. Primarily, it asserts His deity bringing to mind such Old Testament declarations such as Exodus 13:21, where the pillar of fire led the way for the Israelites in the wilderness; Psalm 27:1 “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear”; Micah 7:8; Isaiah 60:20; as well as 1 John 1:5. The declaration of light is a declaration of purity and holiness, in which there is no shadow or defect (James 1:17).  Additionally, several Old Testament passages assert that God’s Word is light (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 6:23) adding to the profundity of John 1:1.

Secondarily, by stating He is light, Christ assumes the role that God had intended for Israel to occupy as a city on a hill whose light was to shine forth to the world, yet because of their disobedience failed to properly fulfill the mission of God. Therefore, God has appointed His True Servant Israel, His Son, to go forth as a light unto the nations bringing salvation to the ends of the world. Isaiah 42:6; 49:6

This advent season, may our eyes be drawn to the Light of the world. May we realize that He alone can shine forth in a world of darkness. This Light alone possesses the light of life. Walking in spiritual darkness, dead in our trespasses and sins is a hopeless and dire situation that leaves us under the wrath of God and destined for the experience of His everlasting judgment. May we look toward the light, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and see Him as our only hope. Surety in a world of darkness and a beacon for all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

 

 

[1] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. VII Isaiah 1-32, Baker 2005, pg. 298.

[2] Calvin, pg. 299

Ephesians 4:15 "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ"