“For if we deliberately continue to sin after we have known and accepted the truth, there is no sacrifice that can atone for our sins. There remains only the terrifying prospect of God’s judgment and the burning indignation that will destroy His enemies. Anyone who violated the Law of Moses was mercilessly killed if two or three persons witnessed his sin. How much more severe do you suppose will be the punishment for one who has trampled under his feet the Son of God, regarded the blood of His covenant as worthless, and mocked His gracious Holy Spirit? For we know the One who has said, ‘Retribution rests with Me and I will pay back,’ and also, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to incur the judgment of the living God.” (paraphrased)
In order to complete the comparison between the old and new covenants, the writer shows the fate of those who reject Christ’s sacrifice. Similar in tone to the warning in 6:4-8, this passage is designed to promote Christian perseverance. Both admonitions are followed by statements of confident hope that no instance of apostasy will occur among them. The passage in chapter six depicts the spiritual condition of one prior to apostatizing, while this passage deals with the punishment awaiting anyone who does.
Although the warning the writer now presents is severe, it does not target those who have never heard the Gospel. Neither does it concern the spiritual condition commonly known as “backsliding.” If he intended to address this, he would have encouraged repentance (Jer. 3:14). But a Believer who defiantly rejects Christ has committed the ultimate offense against God. For this particular sin, reconciliation is utterly impossible. For example, Saul turned away from following the Lord (I Sam. 15:11). Demas forsook the faith because he loved the world (II Tim. 4:10). Throughout the history of the human race, God’s attitude toward apostasy remains unchanged. The decision to serve Jesus for life is a determinate act of the will. No one casually enters – or exits – the Kingdom of God.
To abandon Christ is to abandon spiritual truth and impacts the entire Church. A great era of apostasy will precede the Rapture (II Thess. 2:3). The Holy Spirit specifically tells us some will “defect from the faith, heeding deceptive spirits and doctrines of demons” (I Tim. 4:1-2). Jesus warned that “many will fall away and will betray and hate one another” (Mt. 24:10). Latter-day false prophets will deceive many (v. 11). This is why Peter warns Christians, “It is better never to have known the way of righteousness – than after you have known it – to forsake it” (II Pet. 2:21). “The love of numerous saints will grow cold, but those who persevere till the end will be saved” (Mt. 24:12-13).
Those who cling to the false doctrine of eternal security seek to dull the edge of the pointed warnings against apostasy in this epistle. While some do not deny the truth in such passages, they attempt to judge individual spiritual character based on their own personal doctrinal bias. They assume if one rejects Christ, it proves that individual was never truly converted in the first place. Why would the writer, who is obviously writing to Believers, suddenly turn and address nonbelievers? Those who force Biblical texts into their doctrinal molds actually work against the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word of God.
Some today mistakenly believe such warnings only applied to first-century Jews. If this were true, it follows that the entire epistle was only applicable to its original readers, rather than the millions of Believers throughout the past twenty centuries. Following this logic, the entire New Testament could only apply to the early Church. Peter warns us about reading into a text what is not really there when he refers to those “who wrestle with the Scriptures to their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:16). The writer has already cautioned us concerning failing to listen to God, defection from the faith, hardening our hearts, and falling away. The danger of ignoring such clear warnings is precisely the writer’s point. Had the possibility of apostasy not existed, why the severe admonitions against it? Although the writer is confident his readers will stay true to God, he spells out in detail the consequences of infidelity. The question is not, “Does God have sufficient power to keep us?” but rather, “Who is willing to be kept by His power?” Just as the decision to accept Christ is voluntary, so is the decision to reject Him. God never interferes with one’s free will.
Those tempted to apostatize will:
<> forfeit all hope (v. 26)
<> forsake future happiness (v. 27)
<> face spiritual death (v. 28)
<> foresee greater punishment (v. 29)
<> fear terrible retribution (v. 30-31)
To “willfully” sin (hekousios) means “without coercion.” The specific transgression described is the conscious, predetermined, absolute, and final rejection of Jesus’ sacrifice. Hekousios is the term employed regarding the deliberate and permanent renunciation of the truth that is in Jesus (Eph. 4: 21). No less than fifty times the writer uses the article “we.” He stands alongside his readers to assure them there are no exceptions. For example:
…how shall we escape…(2:3)
…that we may obtain mercy…(4:16)
…we have such a High Priest…(8:1)
…we are sanctified through Christ…(10:10)
…if we sin willfully…(10:26)
…if we turn away from Him…(12:25)
If one who has been born again deliberately returns to a life of perpetual sin, there is no hope, for he has rejected God’s only plan of salvation. Should any of his readers go back to Judaism, they would be returning to a sacrificial system powerless to save them (10:4).
“Receiving the knowledge of the truth” means to fully assimilate the Gospel message and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. “Full knowledge” (epignosis) concerns deep, personal, genuine, sincere spiritual discernment. The language here, as in earlier warnings, proves the readers are not nominal Christians (3:12 & 6:4-8). This warning is even more severe, declaring God’s horrific judgment upon those who contemptuously reject their Savior. Although the process of renouncing Jesus may be gradual, eventually the decision is made to reject Him. The apostate has firmly and eternally shut the door of reconciliation behind him.
This passage in no way infers that sins one commits after conversion cannot be forgiven. Jesus said there is only one sin that can never be atoned for: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The penalty attached to this sin reflects its severity. This determinant and final rejection of Christ has come to be known as “the unpardonable sin” (I Jn. 5:16; Mt. 12:32; Mk. 3:29). Those who renounce God’s only plan of salvation will find there is no other plan available.
“Fearful” is phoberos, from whence we derive the term “phobia.” The word depicts the terrifying prospect of the inevitable judgment that follows apostasy. Although the Christian who finally denies Christ may have ceased to care about future punishment, the concept should strike fear into the heart of any Believer who considers abandoning the faith.
The writer describes this punishment as a “raging and devouring fire”, a concept frequently utilized to describe God’s wrath and eternal judgment. Those who chose to defy His authority received graphic punishments. Rebels and complainers were consumed by fire from the Lord (Num. 11:1). Korah’s associates were destroyed by Jehovah’s fire (Num. 16:35). God rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24). In flaming fire, God will recompense those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ (II Thess. 1:8). In the end, the devil is cast into the unquenchable lake of fire (Mk. 9:44 & Rev. 20:10). Those who disown Christ become His adversaries, for their flagrant and sinful lifestyles mock His vicarious sacrifice.
“Devour” is esthiein and means “to eat up or consume.” Although the exact punishment is not described, its severity is certain. When one has deliberately hardened his heart, no threat of punishment will deter them from the path of sin.
The readers knew that a number of specific sins under the Mosaic Law incurred the death penalty, usually by stoning. These include kidnapping, murder, rebellion, adultery, idolatry, false prophecy, and blasphemy. Upon repentance, specific atonements can be made for each of these sins. Without proper restitution, there remained no refuge, recourse, or reprieve. After due process, the person could be executed (Deut. 17:2-7). The two or three witnesses required to condemn such a person were to be the first to stone the perpetrator (v. 7). This is why Jesus challenged the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, inviting anyone without sin to be the first to pick up a rock (Jn. 8:7).
This passage provides a detailed description of the sin of total repudiation of Jesus Christ. The writer appeals to his reader’s sense of justice concerning how severe the punishment should be for those who blatantly spurn their own Messiah. Because His sacrifice is greater, it stands to reason the penalty for rejecting Him must be correspondingly more severe (Heb. 9:23).
Because saving knowledge involves all three persons of the Godhead, apostasy impacts the Trinity. Such rejection is an affront to:
<> The Father, for He and Christ are one (Jn. 10:30)
<> The Son of God, for His vicarious sacrifice is defamed (Mk. 15:31)
<> The Holy Spirit, for His ministry of grace is very personal (Lk. 11:13)
There are three counts in the indictment of an apostate:
1. In the mind of the Hebrew, to tread something under ones feet, either symbolically or actually, was the greatest of insults. It epitomizes the most severe form of contempt. Flavorless salt is deemed “good for nothing” and is ground underfoot (Mt. 5:13). The despised Jezebel was trampled by horses until little was left of her (II Kgs. 9:33-35). “Trampling under foot” (katapatesas) is a strong expression of scorn and ruthless hatred and here denotes the public rejection of God’s Son. One who “tramples” Christ denounces the effectiveness of His atoning sacrifice and expresses ingratitude for God’s gift of salvation.
2. Blood ratified the Old Covenant as well as the New. Animal blood offered as atonement under the Levitical system was sacred (Lev. 16:19 & 17:11-15). However, to treat lightly the only sacrificial blood with truly effectual saving power is a direct affront to Christ’s high-priestly office. “Counted” (hegeomai) means to judge or consider something after deliberately weighing the facts. The use of this term implies a conscious rejection. Profaning the sanctifying blood of Jesus by regarding it as common human blood is an appalling thought to those who know and love Him. The one who turns his back on Christ infers He deserved to die a criminal’s death. Such a person drives nails into His hands and feet again.
3. Despising or insulting (enubrisas) the Holy Spirit means to treat Him in an arrogant or insolent manner. Enubrisas pictures a total disregard for someone. Because He is a Person, He is capable of being grieved (Eph. 4:30). To treat the Holy Spirit disrespectfully is the sin that can never be forgiven (Lk. 12:10). The apostate despises God’s grace and permanently hardens his heart against God.
The writer is describing the person who absolutely and adamantly rejects Christ as Savior. They open defame God’s Son, profane His blood, become indifferent, and grieve the Holy Spirit. God alone can determine when this line is finally crossed, but their attitude toward Christ will have radically changed.
Those who would return to Judaism go back to an ineffective and outdated sacrificial system. The Lord executed impartial justice in the Old Testament and will do the same in the New Testament. However, because the grace extended in our dispensation is greater, the retribution for apostasy must also be greater. The question the writer now proposes is rhetorical: “What punishment for this horrendous sin could be too severe?”
In the previous verse, apostasy is described. In the next two verses, its punishment is affirmed. The entire passage is designed to prompt soul searching. “We know” reminds his readers that the doctrine of God’s retributive justice is imbedded in their own Scriptures. God will impartially judge and punish those who deserve it. The fact a person had once known and served the Lord will not spare him (Mt. 7:22-23). The writer affirms God is the righteous Judge of all, defending those who are faithful and punishing those who are not (Rom. 12:19). Vindication is God’s prerogative. The double quotation in this verse proves that God will, in due time, impartially judge all who turn against Him (Deut. 32:35-36).
“Fearful” is phoberos—the same term employed earlier concerning the fear of judgment (v. 27). Such a dreadful prospect should serve as a deterrent. David asked to “fall into the hands of God.” However, this was for chastening – not judgment (II Sam. 24:12-14). For one who repents, God’s hand of correction produces positive results (Heb. 12:11). But those who repudiate the Savior have no desire to repent. The anticipation of the judgment awaiting them is dreadful. The God who lives forever will punish apostates forever. Jesus taught us to “fear the One who has the power to cast people into hell”. For the sake of emphasis He adds…..“yes: fear Him” (Lk. 12:5).
QUESTIONS: FOURTH WARNING: DON’T DEFECT
1. According to Deuteronomy 17:6, how many witnesses are required to convict someone?
2. According to Matthew 12:31, what sin did Jesus say is unpardonable?
3. According to Deuteronomy 32:35, what belongs to God?
4. What did Demas love more than Christ? (II Tim.4:10)
5. In the latter days, many will defect from the faith because they listened to whom? (I Tim. 4:1)
6. What did God rain down on Sodom? (Gen. 19:24)
7. According to Revelation 20:10, what will be Satan’s fate?
8. A saving knowledge of Christ involves all three Persons of the Trinity.
True or False?
9. To despise the Holy Spirit means to treat Him in an arrogant or insulting manner.
True or False?
10. List some benefits of the importance of being Spirit-filled (Acts 2:4).
11. List some benefits of listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit.