“For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever wanted to quit something? I remember being asked by a neighbor once to do some yardwork for him while he was out of town. He wanted me to take out some weed grass in his yard. He was going to pay me for it, and I enjoy detailed, tedious work, but it was too much even for me. I got about halfway through and was ready to quit. It was much harder than I expected it to be. Following Jesus is no small task either, and the audience of the author of Hebrews was struggling with it. As a result, he encouraged them to stick with it. Let’s learn from their lesson today.
A couple of weeks ago, as I was offering some background and overview comments on Hebrews for you, I noted that the author offers several different warnings to remain faithful throughout the letter. Each one is a reflection of the argument the author has just finished making in the preceding section. This is the first of those warnings. We will get more specific in unpacking the warning itself tomorrow, Lord willing, but for this morning, I want to reflect with you for just a few minutes on the spirit behind it.
I think the spirit of the author’s aim here is to call followers of Jesus to not back off from following Him. He attaches a whole bunch of language to it, including much more uncomfortable language later in the letter, but at the end of the day, the warning is mostly about calling us to remain faithful to Jesus once we’ve signed up to follow Him. But why make such a big deal about that?
Let’s start with a bit of context. Remember: the author was writing to a group of Jewish background Jesus followers in the mid-first century. These were likely mostly first-generation Jesus followers from the very first generation of Jesus followers. They didn’t have the 2,000 years of history to lean on and keep them generally walking the path of Christ that we do. There wasn’t a church network of tens of thousands of bodies all over the world to lean on for strength and encouragement. There weren’t detailed works of theology helping them to understanding what’s right and what’s not. There wasn’t a Bible they could pull off their shelf and read for inspiration, information, and application. They didn’t have any of that. They had the Law, the teachings of the apostles, their testimony that Jesus rose from the grave, and each other. That’s it. You think following Jesus is challenging today. Try doing it without any kind of a context and in a cultural situation in which everything around you is pointing insistently in the direction of going back to what you knew to be right and proper before you signed up for this nonsense about a God becoming human and rising from the dead. Then again, depending on your community, you may understand that a whole lot better than most folks in my community do.
It was very easy for the author’s original audience to find themselves leaning back into the Law they had always tried to keep before signing up to follow Jesus. And this makes a lot of sense too. The Law provided stability that following Jesus didn’t always bring with it. It had firm, clear walls such that you always knew where you were in relation to God. By comparison, following Jesus can feel a bit scary because all of a sudden, you’re free to do as you please. No legalism required. Things brings a double challenge, though. The first challenge is that your righteousness no longer depends on you. You don’t have any control over it like you did under the Law. Now, sure, you may not have ever actually hit the mark of righteousness under the Law, but at least you could try. Under Jesus, that’s gone. You are totally dependent on Him. And that is the second challenge. The freedom Jesus offers His followers only holds when they remain faithful to Him and His Spirit is flowing through them, shaping their desires such that what they want is in line with what He wants.
Because of the lingering impact of sin in our hearts, that’s a hard position to hold. It takes a long time before we start to relax into that kind of righteousness. As a result, sometimes it feels easier to forgo the assurance of righteousness Jesus provides, and latch onto the righteousness of the Law which although will remain impossible to obtain, nonetheless gives us something to do. And, for a people who were far more familiar with a lifestyle defined by law than we are (although less so than we used to be), relaxing back into legalism and away from faith in Christ was frighteningly easy to do. Thus the warnings.
That’s all for them, though. How about us? Well, for us, the warning passages of Hebrews are challenging. There have been whole books written exploring the question of what we are supposed to do with them. For instance, as we will explore in more detail later in our journey, some of them seem to suggest we can fall in and out of faith like we think about falling in and out of love. But if we can fall in and out of faith, that would seem to suggest we can lose our salvation. As for whether we can regain it once we have lost it, though, the author is less encouraging. Yet if you are convinced by the rest of the New Testament (as I am) that salvation in Christ is something that cannot be lost, what does this mean? The going argument is that folks who lean away from faith and persist in that state, never really had faith in the first place. But that itself becomes an intensely subjective measurement to try to stake out. After all, who am I to claim to know the heart of another person such that I could make the judgment their faith was never genuine in the first place? This becomes one of those debates in which a great deal more humility than we are usually willing to give it is necessary for productive conversation to happen.
Again, we’ll talk more about all of that in due course, but for now, let me suggest one more implication of this for us that may fall a whole lot more in line with the struggles they were having. Given my firm conviction that we cannot lose our salvation once we have it, it is nonetheless far easier than it should be for followers of Jesus to begin living our lives like we don’t have a relationship with Him at all. We may confess a deep faith, but we live like atheists. Now, that doesn’t mean believers are secretly engaging in all kinds of nasty sin (although many followers of Jesus do struggle with some pretty rough stuff). Instead, we can easily find ourselves in a rhythm where we just don’t pay Jesus much attention. We don’t engage with the Scriptures. We’re not really praying with any kind of meaningful focus. We throw up prayers every now and then, but most everybody does that in some kind of way even if they are only speaking to the universe. We don’t think about Jesus much during the day. We don’t talk about Jesus with other people. We certainly don’t share our faith with anyone. We’re not making disciples. We don’t really serve anywhere consistently. We aren’t practicing sacrificial generosity, but instead tend to only give emotionally and sporadically. All of a sudden, we’re living in such a way that no one would have any idea whether we are a follower of Jesus or not. And if no one knows whether or not we’re a follower of Jesus…are we really following Him at all?
Yet for us to proclaim Jesus as our Lord at one point in life and to reach such a place as this is a spiritual travesty. We’re walking away from the life that is truly life. Jesus can’t do through us what He wants to accomplish. And we’re treating Him as something far, far less than He actually is. We’re treating the Son of God as if He were common. Do you know who won’t stand for that very long? His Dad. You start treating my kid poorly, and I’m going to do something about it. Why should we expect any less from God? Walking away from our faith – either intentionally or by neglect – is not something whose consequences we want to experience. Thus the warnings.
If you are following Jesus, keep following Him. It won’t always be easy. In fact, it will often be hard. Really hard. Excruciatingly hard even. But it will eventually be worth it. While there may be points along the journey in which in a moment of weakness you wonder why you started, you’ll never not be glad you did. When things get tough, keep following. When they get confusing, stay on the path. When everything in and around you is screaming for you to go in another direction, push right on forward. There’s life at the end of that road and joy along the journey. Stick with it.