I would encourage you to read Hebrews 10 before you read this article to get some context for the passage we will be discussing. I’m going to be studying verses 26 through 31. Some of you know I already have a post on this subject, but I’m afraid I made it too long for most people to read.
26 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. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Many people see parallels between this passage and Hebrews 6:4-8. The difference I want you to realize in these two passages it that it seems the author is addressing two different groups of people. In Hebrews 6 he is addressing hebrew christians who are ignorant and need to be taught the supremacy of Jesus Christ. They are continuing to offer animal sacrifices not realizing that those rituals are insulting Christ. Hebrews 10 addresses unbelieving Jews who have realized the message of Jesus but rejected him and in replacement continue to offer animal sacrifices willfully.
So what’s the big deal about animal sacrifices and for that matter, the old covenant rituals? Imagine for a second you leave your wife to go on a missions trip and you bring a photo of her to help you remember her. And let’s imagine that when you found yourself thinking of her you would kiss the photo. Now after a few weeks you return home and finally see your wife. But while she is waiting to kiss you, instead you continue to kiss the photograph.
The purifying rituals of the old testament were there as shadows to point us to Christ and to serve as illustrations of what he would eventually accomplish. But now that Christ has come in person and paid the penalty for our sins it is no longer a romantic thing to continue to perform those rituals. In fact they are like an insult, saying that his sacrifice was insufficient.
Isaiah 66:3-4 “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood;
he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
and their soul delights in their abominations;
4 I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and bring their fears upon them,
This is the warning given in Hebrews 6 and 10. For the christian, it is a warning that those rituals will be burned in the end (they will have no value). In Hebrews 10 the warning is that they are very near destruction for not believing in Christ, perhaps alluding to the destruction of the temple in 70AD.
So what evidence is there as to what this passage means?
First of all the verses leading up to it are talking about how God was not pleased with their sacrifices, that they are insufficient, and how they are no longer necessary. Second the ‘we’ in ‘if we deliberately keep on sinning’ doesn’t have to refer to christians, but can be ‘we people,’ or more specifically ‘we jews,’ since these problems are almost entirely jewish.
He also describes these people as ‘enemies of God,’ comparing them to people who ‘rejected’ the law of moses (the old covenant). He also describes them as people who shrink back and are destroyed, all the while reminding his readers that they have faith and are saved.
What about the part ‘who has insulted the Spirit of grace?’ Other christians I’ve meet have said that if you keep on sinning after you have been forgiven then you are insulting God’s grace. This does not seem accurate, after all, isn’t that what grace is for to begin with? Isn’t the whole point of grace coming from the fact that we will always need forgiveness and none of us could keep the law? To insult God’s grace is to ignore it, call it worthless, and treat it as if it had no value. That’s a picture of what was happening when these pious jews were continuing to offer their animal sacrifices. It was calling Jesus’s death and the resulting grace worthless and unable to save.
Then we see the verse ‘the Lord will judge his people,’ which we might at first define as christians. But since he is quoting from the old testament dealing with jews and since here he is talking to jews it seems ‘his people’ would be referring to jews, God’s chosen people under the first covenant.
Finally the word sin in Hebrews is used a little differently than in other books. When we picture willful sin, we picture someone stealing or lusting deliberately and against all warning. If you read Hebrews 4 take note of how many times the words sin and unbelief are used interchangeably. This is because he is using the Israelites rejecting God in unbelief and not entering the promise land as an illustration for the kind of sin he is referring to throughout Hebrews. He uses this passage for christians to persuade them to enter God’s rest (a rest from their own legalistic works, especially rituals), and to these unbelieving jews, showing that they are not just in danger of insulting Christ, but they are willfully rejecting him and there is a swift judgement approaching.
So when the author is talking about willful sin, it means willful unbelief, with a picture of these unbelieving jews offering their animal sacrifices in the temple. They have received the knowledge of truth, they have heard what Christ did, but they chose to believe he was not their messiah and continue to believe that they need to offer their sacrifices. Not only that, but they are persecuting and persuading jewish christians to do the same, making them feel insecure in what Christ accomplished or at least making life hard on them for believing so.
I believe entering God’s rest is meant to be seen both as a state that you come into when you believe in Christ and as resulting, complimentary action of letting go of faith in the old things. Christians may struggle with the action part. Though they are positionally in God’s rest since they are in Christ, they may not be living through God’s rest as the resulting action. In that case it is due to ignorance: they do not understand that Jesus completed his work and they still think there are things they need to do to maintain their salvation. But if someone does know that Jesus finished his work and yet they disregard that as useless and continually and willfully persist in the old rituals, they prove by their deeds that they do not believe in Him at all.
Hebrews 4:3 “For we which have believed do enter into rest”
Hebrews 6:1 “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works ((useless rituals)) and of faith toward God,”
So how can we take these lessons into today’s world? We may not struggle with the legalistic rituals of the old covenant, but perhaps we have invented ‘rituals’ of our own that are supposed to accomplish something that God already has. Can you think of something in your life that you depend on for forgiveness or being right with God besides Christ crucified and Christ alone? How about confession? How about tithing? How about fasting for more intimacy or your daily quiet time with the purpose being God’s acceptance? Even good things can become rituals depending on how we use them. Are these rituals supposed to make you right with God and somehow if you fail to do them you will be cursed or unforgiven? Could these rituals be insulting Jesus’s finished work and do we need to repent of them and put faith in God?
I want to remind you that there is grace for churches that perform ritualistic works, because they do so in ignorance. The warning we have as christians is that these useless rituals will be worth nothing in the end and will be burned. Hebrews 6 explains this. So as you seek to purify your conscience and faith of these rituals, don’t forget to show grace and gentleness to those who do not understand.