As he did in chapter 6, so the author of Hebrews follows his warning in chapter 10 with a reassurance to his people: no, you aren’t going to fall away from God, you aren’t going to abandon Christ. You need to take this seriously, he tells them, you need to understand the consequences of rejecting Christ—he is the only hope of salvation, and if you turn your back on him, there is no other way to God—but you and I, he says, “we aren’t the people who shrink back and are destroyed; we’re among the people who have faith and preserve their souls.”
We might compare Hebrews’ warning to standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. There’s a railing there, you don’t need to be afraid that you’re going to fall in and die—but you need to understand that if you climb over the railing to look over the edge, you may very well fall in, and if you do fall in, you’re going to die. As long as you understand that and take that seriously, you’ll be fine. The purpose of the warning there is to give us a proper fear of the canyon; and the purpose of the warning in Hebrews is to give us a proper fear of the Lord, which the Bible says is the beginning of wisdom. We don’t need to be afraid that God wants to hurt us, or enjoys punishing us, or isn’t really good or wise or faithful; but we need to understand that he is God and we aren’t, and that choosing to be his enemy would be a really bad idea.
As such, Hebrews combines this reassurance with one last section of argument; and where the book up to this point has been pretty deep water in a lot of places and has taken some time and effort for us to understand, here it really gets very clear, very simple—not that the water’s necessarily that much shallower, but it’s very clear, you can see all the way to the bottom. The point the author is making through this next part of the book is a very basic one. He’s told his readers they’ve been given a great gift in Christ, and he’s made it clear to them that Jesus is the only way—but they’re under a lot of pressure to go back to Judaism, it’s not easy for them to stand firm and keep the faith, an they have to be wondering if it’s worth taking the heat, even with everything he’s said to this point; and so he tells them, yes, it’s worth it. As hard as the world can try to make it, keeping the faith is worth it, and more than worth it.
Interestingly, the author starts by telling them they should already know this from their own experience. He doesn’t appeal to the Old Testament here—we’ll get to that next week—nor does he go back to the deep theological arguments; instead, he just says, “Remember.” Remember your own story. Remember when you first came to faith in Christ—the world gave you a hard ride. They insulted you because of Christ, they persecuted you, they made you the butt of their jokes, they convicted you of crimes you hadn’t committed and confiscated your property—and when they moved on to give your friends in the church the same treatment, you stood with those friends and supported them, even when they were thrown in jail. You didn’t lose heart then, he says; instead, you rejoiced, because you understood that you were suffering because of Christ, who suffered for you so that you might have life. You had that confidence in Christ then; don’t throw it away now. Be patient, stand firm, hang in there, and hold fast to Christ—you will not regret it.
Now, that can be hard counsel, those days, weeks, months, when we just don’t see it; but Hebrews says—and he’s working from the Greek version1 here, which is why it looks different—remember the prophet. Remember Habakkuk, who called out to God to ask, “How long, O Lord, will you let evil and violence continue?” And what did God say in response? God said, “My deliverer is coming; it may seem slow, but he’s coming, and he won’t delay. But my righteous one will live by faith.”
The righteous will live by faith. Paul picked that verse up in Romans 1; Martin Luther found it there and started the Reformation. For Paul in Romans, and for Luther, the emphasis is on living by faith as opposed to living by the law, and that’s in view here, too; but more than that, it’s about living by faith that God will provide, that he will vindicate us, that he will get us where we need to go, that he will make everything right, as opposed to living by faith in ourselves and what we can see and touch and hold and put in the bank.
Just look how he defines faith: faith is the assurance of the things for which we hope, and the conviction that even though we don’t see them, they’re really there and truly real. That first word, “assurance,” is an interesting one, because it was the word that was used of the title deed to a piece of property; Hebrews doesn’t develop that image, but it helps us see just how strong this word is. Where the world often thinks of faith as something irrational, a blind insistence that things are better than they look—even a willful refusal to accept reality—Hebrews says no: faith is our God-given assurance that he will keep his promise and give us all good things, because that faith is in fact the first of those good things; it’s the title deed that tells us for sure that the whole house is ours.
And this, Hebrews says, is what the ancients were commended for. We don’t tend to get this; we tend to think of Old Testament religion as being all about law, earning salvation by doing this and not doing that, but it’s really not true. The law had its purpose before Christ came, but as Hebrews points out—and as Paul says many times in his letters—the people of the Old Testament weren’t saved by law any more than we were; they lived by faith in God, and depended on his grace and mercy, just as much as we do.
In fact, as strange as it may sound to us, they actually had to live by faith in God even more than we do, because they had not yet seen how God would keep his great promises to them; they hadn’t seen Jesus, because he hadn’t come yet. They just had to trust that somehow, someway, God would do what he’d said he was going to do. Those who lost faith went off to worship the gods of the nations around them; those who stayed faithful to worship God and God alone did so not because it was what “worked” or because it was obviously the practical thing to do, but because they believed God. That’s what God wanted from them; that’s what he wants from all of us.
Living by faith isn’t easy; it means, as Michael Card put it, to be guided by a hand we cannot hold, and to trust in a way we cannot see, and that’s not comfortable. It means looking beyond the measurables—not basing our decisions on what we can afford or what seems practical or what we know will work, but on prayer, listening for God’s leading, and the desire to do what will please him. It means taking risks, knowing that if God doesn’t come through, we’re going to fail. And it means setting out against the prevailing winds of our culture, being willing to challenge people and tell them what they don’t want to hear—graciously, yes, lovingly, yes, but without compromise and without apology—even when we know they’re going to judge us harshly for it.
This is not a blueprint for an easy, comfortable, “successful” life; often, it’s just the opposite. It defies common sense, because common sense is rooted in conventional wisdom, and living by faith is anything but. But it’s worth it, because this is what Jesus wants from us: to live in such a way that if he doesn’t take care of us, we will fall, to live in such a way that he’s our only hope—because the truth is, he is our only hope. We just need to believe it, and live like we believe it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and more than worth it; there is no better way to live, because there is no foundation more sure than the promise of God, and no better place to be than in his presence.
1 In his NICNT commentary on Hebrews, F. F. Bruce translated the Septuagint of Hab. 2:3-4 this way:
Because the vision is yet for an appointed time,
and it will appear at length and not in vain:
if he is late, wait for him;
because he will surely come, he will not delay.
If he draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him,
but my righteous one will live by faith.