[In doing class preparation, I realized this lesson would likely take only 45 of the 55 minutes we now have. And so I added about 30 minutes worth of new material.]
A very long time ago, when I was a teenager, I remember showing up for Sunday school class with the other teens. One of the deacons entered the class and said, “Well, I tried to run, but the elders caught me and insisted that I teach this class. So what do you want to study? I’ll teach any book of the Bible that you’re interested in–except Romans and Hebrews.” He winced, to make his point. “I don’t understand anything those books are saying! If you want to study those, you’ll have to get a better teacher than me!”
In my experience, we in the Churches of Christ don’t spend much time in Hebrews. I’m glad that Romans has come back into fashion. It’s the book we usually use to teach lessons on grace. It’s a thorough grounding but raises a whole bunch of really difficult issues.
On the other hand, I find Hebrews relatively straightforward. Now, I didn’t use to. In fact, it used to be completely opaque. I later learned that I couldn’t understand it because I was reading it with false assumptions–lots of false assumptions. You see, Hebrews is about as un-traditional-Church of Christ as any New Testament book can be. I’ll explain why.
Hebrews is a long book. We’re not going to exhaust its teachings in this one lesson. But we are going to trace two ideas as the author builds his case for the superiority of Christian salvation: “perfect forever” and “once for all.”
Before we get into the book, we need to spend a minute on the Law of Moses, as Hebrews constantly refers back to the temple and the animal sacrifices that took place there.
In the tabernacle, and later in Solomon’s temple, was a the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place (or in Hebrew the Kodesh Hakodashim). This is where the Ark of Covenant was placed.
The temple, on top of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, was surrounded by the cries of animals, trumpets, songs, incense, and praise to God. It was a busy, loud, smelly, bustling place. The fathers of families mingled with the priests in offering the sacrifices, sacrificing and cleaning the animals, brought alive to the altar.
In Lev. 1, the sacrifice of a bull or lamb is described. The worshipper participates by doing the killing and working with the priest to burn the animal on the altar. “He” in the passage is the worshipper. The blood is sprinkled on the altar. The sacrifice had to be a male animal without any blemish. The offering is for “atonement.” Lev. 1:4.
But only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). As we discussed in our earlier lessons regarding the Holy Spirit, the Holy of Holies is where the Glory of God dwelt. And this where the high priest offered blood on the Day of Atonement for the sins of the people. Lev. 16 lays out the ritual and is a very worthwhile read.
The curtain (or veil) that blocked the entrance to the Holy of Holies was torn when Jesus was crucified, evidencing God’s opening of this Most Holy Place to all who’d be saved through Jesus. The tearing of the veil also means that God himself is no longer hidden from his people. After all, this is where God dwelt.
Because the “mercy seat” was above the ark of the covenant, we can now approach the “throne of grace” with confidence.
(Lev 16:2 KJV) And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.
(Heb 4:16) Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
“Once for all” and “perfect forever”
With this background in mind, let’s consider the “once for all” and “perfect forever” themes of Hebrews.
The ideas are introduced at the end of chapter 7 and the author finalizes his argument in chapter 10:
(Heb. 7:27-28) Unlike the other high priests, [Christ] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
The author contrasts Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice with the constantly repeated sacrifices of the priests at the Jewish temple, required by the Law of Moses. Moreover, Jesus’ sacrifice made him “perfect forever.” No further sacrifice will ever be required of Jesus.
This passage builds on the argument made just before–
(Heb. 7:23-25) Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Unlike the Levitical priests, Jesus will never die. This allows him to “save completely” Christians. His intercession for us is as unending as his life!
Now, we see that “forever” means for as long as Jesus lives. When he makes his followers “perfect forever,” that means for just as long as Jesus lives!
(Heb. 9:11-12) When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.
Again, the author makes the point that Jesus’ redemptive work is “once for all” resulting in eternal redemption–not a great different thought from being made perfect forever or completely saved.
(Heb. 9:25-28) Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. 26 Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, 28 so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
Again, the point is emphasized that the Mosaic covenant is inferior because it provided only a temporary salvation. After the priest performed his sacrificial ritual, the sinner was forgiven–but only until he sinned again. The forgiveness was brief and temporary. However, the forgiveness we receive from Jesus is continuous and unending. We are made perfect forever.
(Heb. 10:1-4) The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The author is setting up a further contrast. The Mosaic covenant does not really make the worshipers in God’s eyes. Nor does it cleanse them once for all.
(Heb. 10:9-10) Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first [covenant] to establish the second [covenant]. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Therefore, when we come into contact with Jesus’ sacrifice when we are first saved, we are immediately made holy–once for all. There is no need for additional forgiveness. Our first forgiveness is all we need!
(Heb. 10:12-14) But when this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Here’s the gospel in a nutshell. Jesus offered one sacrifice which resulted in the forgiveness of all those “being made holy” forever. Forever! Perfect forever. Just as Jesus himself was made perfect forever by his obedient sacrifice, so are his followers.
We, of course, aren’t really perfect, but we are counted as perfect. However, this assumes that we are yielding to God’s efforts to make us holy in fact.
(Heb. 10:15-18) The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” 17 Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” 18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.
The author then reminds us to the lesson taught back in Hebrews 8. God himself will write his laws in our hearts and on our minds. The ancient Jews studied God’s law diligently, but the weakness of the flesh led to a false understanding. And so God decided to take matters into his own hands through his Spirit.
Now, pay particular attention to verse 18. Because our sins have already been forgiven, there is no further sacrifice. The sacrificing is all over! We never need another, but then, another will never be available. Jesus is not going to suffer a second crucifixion.
(Heb. 10:19-22) Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.
The result of having been saved once for all and made perfect forever is that we can have confidence and full assurance of our salvation, so long as we remain true to the faith that brought us into salvation in the first place. Indeed, we no longer need even feel guilty.
In dramatic contrast to the repeated assurances of being made perfect forever, the writer concludes the discussion with one of the direst warnings in all of scripture —
(Heb. 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
This is the scariest passage in the Bible. It’s the antithesis of verse 18, which we just discussed. We need no further sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus which cleanses us at our baptism is once for all–but just once.
Just so, if we throw away our salvation, “no sacrifice for sins is left.” When the author says in verse 27 “only” judgment and raging fire, he means “only.” There’s no going back! There can be no second baptism. There is no second sacrifice available.
This is so awful, that Martin Luther questioned the inspiration of Hebrews. But the horror of the verse depends entirely on how you look at it. Consider–
* We find ourselves in this state only if we deliberately continue to sin. We all continue to sin, of course. We all occasionally deliberately sin (even if we are often ashamed to admit it!). But we should never, ever deliberately continue to sin.
* This is the exact opposite of being penitent. To become saved in the first place, we must repent. To stay saved, we must continue in our penitence. If we surrender our penitence, then we are lost. In more practical terms, if we no longer make Jesus Lord, that is, if we do what we want regardless of what Jesus wants, we are lost–and irredeemably so!
* On the other hand, this does not happen easily. The author isn’t discussing the occasional weak moment or even the infrequent deeply serious sin. He is discussing the entire tenor of our lives.
Surprisingly, the passage become clearer in light of this controversial passage —
(Heb. 6:4-6) It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
The author tells us why it’s so very important that we not fall away: if we fall away, we’ll never repent and so never be restored to grace!
However, if someone has left the fellowship of the church, sinned greatly, and eventually repented, then he cannot have fallen away, because it’s impossible for those who’ve fallen away to repent.
God, of course, is anxious to forgive those who repent. The problem isn’t God’s hard heart, it’s the hard heart of the fallen. God has done all he can for this person–given him God’s word, forgiven him, sacrificed his Son, filled him with the Spirit–and if such a person falls away, God is all out of solutions.
(1 Tim 4:2) Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.
(2 Pet 2:20-22) If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.”
How can it better never to have been saved? At least you’d have heard the gospel. Not everyone is so fortunate!
These passages perplex us because we start with false assumptions. You see, we think we fall away every time we sin or sin badly. Or sin so badly we need to “go forward.” We don’t. We’re looking at it all wrong. In fact, we have it very nearly upside down.
Heb. 6:4-6 says that for those who’ve fallen away, it’s impossible for them to repent. Well, if someone repents, it wasn’t impossible. And if it wasn’t impossible, he never fell away.
Therefore, as we should have expected, the lesson is quite the opposite. We can certainly fall away, but it’s far more difficult and unlikely than we sometimes think.
On the other hand, it’s far easier than we sometimes think. Consider –
(Heb 12:15) See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
“Bitter root” is a perplexing metaphor until we discover that it’s a reference back to the Law of Moses –
(Deu 29:18-20) Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison. 19 When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20 The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
The horrific danger is relying on grace to think you’re “safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This is the sin that makes us fall away. It’s the sin of pride, of being self-willed, of putting our own desires ahead of God’s, of not really submitting to the Lordship of Jesus.
And here’s the lesson for today: falling away is both hard and easy. We can mess up and still be saved. If we should forgive our brothers 70 x 7, God will do even more!
But the minute we decide to go our own way, we start down a very dangerous path. It’s not dangerous because we can go beyond the reach of God’s mercy. It’s dangerous because we can become insensitive to our own sin.
(2 Pet 2:20) If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.
(Mark 4:18-19) Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
(Heb 3:13) But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
The danger is not mere sin — it’s the deceit that sin brings, the hardening of the heart that I can be safe while going my own way. It the fact that the further we get away from Jesus, the harder it is to realize how sinful we are. The less in tune with the Spirit we are, the less we hear the Spirit. Therefore, the farther we are from Jesus, the easier it is to go even farther.
As we turn away, we get caught up in the self-deception, the entanglement of sin. Our consciences become seared — not that we no longer care about others. We don’t become sociopaths. Rather, we just prefer our choices to Jesus’s. When they coincide, we’re pleased to obey. But when we want something else, the something else wins.
This is why, just before the awful warning of Heb. 10:26 ff, the writer says,
(Heb 10:23-25) Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Don’t swerve! Stay on the path! Help each other! Meet!
V. 25 isn’t a law that we must meet three times a week. It’s an impassioned plea to meet so we may all encourage each other, to stay true to the Lordship of Jesus, and to remind each other to get busy helping others. You see, the best way — the very best way — to escape the deceitful of sin is to do good deeds, because this takes us out of our selfish selves into genuine love. It’s a very safe place to be.
I heard a tape about shepherds the other day. The sheep huddle close to the shepherd and follow precisely the path he walks. But the goats always want to walk a different path. They seem to think they can always catch up later … that there are other safe paths. And this explains why in Matt. 25 Jesus describes the Judgment as the separation of the sheep from the goats.