We’ve been talking in the book of Hebrews about the ominous theme of apostasy, of falling away from Jesus Christ. This is not a favorite topic. It is a fearful and perplexing theme. None of us like to think that anyone we know can willfully and consciously and definitively renounce forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
But five warnings occur throughout the book of Hebrews to remind the congregation of the dangers of turning away from Christ back to the Old Testament law. Each warning progresses in intensity.
But what is so wonderful about this preacher—the writer of Hebrews—is that he interweaves encouragements amidst his warnings. In this passage, starting in verse 9, our author is trying to instill confidence in those who were true believers.
It shows that the ultimate purpose of the author is not to drive true believers into doubting their salvation. His purpose is more redemptive than judgmental. He takes up the subject of apostasy to arouse slumbering people out of their lethargy.
He wants them to see where complacency can lead them. So He sets forth the beauty and sufficiency and supremacy of Jesus Christ in his role as compassionate high priest to show that He is ready to give us everything we need to successfully complete the Christian life.
But we have to know that falling away is possible. The writer of Hebrews knew that some in the Christian community he was writing to were in danger of turning away from Jesus Christ and going back to the comfort and safety and familiarity of Judaism.
I believe these were people who were not yet believers, or not true believers, as we’ve been explaining over the last few weeks, but they were nevertheless in very real danger. It is important to realize that apostates do walk among the people of God in all ages, even today.
Our author has been promoting the superior high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:17-18; 3:1; 4:14-16) and did not want them to be “sluggish” (5:11; 6:12) about embracing Jesus as high priest.
As the writer draws this section to a close, we can discern two vital reasons that establish the value of speaking about apostasy. The first is very encouraging; the second singularly motivating.
First, speaking about apostasy exposes the authenticity of true Christianity.
It’s like setting a beautiful diamond against the background of black velvet. The stark contrast of black magnifies the distinctive beauties and radiance in the diamond. When we talk about apostasy biblically and properly, a similar phenomenon occurs—we become more able to distinguish the nature of true conversion. The disparity that exists between a genuine Christian and a spurious, professing Christian, becomes all the more evident.
And it should, because 1 John says that “the children of God and the children of the evil one are obvious.”
That’s the value of studying this theme. All of this talk about apostasy isn’t about the apostates. He says, in verse 9, that their lives speak to the contrary in a very definite way. Hebrews 6:9 says…
9 Though we speak in this way [about the possibility and danger of apostasy], yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.
We’ve noticed all along that this verse shows that the congregation consisted of two kinds of people—“those” people in vv. 4-6 who were almost saved, but were in danger of falling away, and “you,” who are definitely saved.
What “better things” is our author referring to? Well, going back to the agricultural picture in vv. 7-8, where he contrasts the destiny of the true Christian with the apostate, he says, “if it [the land] bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.” That is the eternal destiny of apostates.
In contrast to them, “though we speak in this way,” in such stark, strong terms about the destiny of the apostates, “we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” The “things that belong to salvation” are the blessings mentioned back in verse 7.
Just as you can tell the true nature of a tree by the fruit it bears (Matt. 7:17-18), so you can tell the true nature of land by the crop it bears. Authentic Christianity will make itself obvious; apostates will eventually become obvious as well.
Notice also that our writer addresses this group of people as “beloved,” the same word the Father used of Jesus at his baptism and a word that is used throughout the New Testament of believers in Jesus, and only believers.
So there was definitely a different group of people than our author was describing in vv. 4-6. “Those” people were in danger of apostasizing; “you” will experience the better things, the blessings, of salvation.
So our author is shifting gears and encouraging the true believers. He had been addressing the potential apostates in vv. 4-6 and warning them that although they were close to salvation, unless they persevered to embrace Jesus Christ as their one and only Savior, they were in danger of falling away and would be unable to return to this place in their spiritual lives (impossible to renew them to repentance).
Now he is addressing the believers. But how do we know for sure? Because our author goes on to describe the good fruit that they bear, in verse 10. Going back to verse 9…
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.
You will experience God’s blessing because of these evidences of salvation.
Now, God doesn’t give any of us the authority to become self-proclaimed fruit-inspectors. We have to be careful about trying to determine the legitimacy of other peoples’ salvation by setting up some standard to which all professing Christians must comply. Because Christians grow in different ways and at different rates, we have to be careful to allow for the individual and unique sanctifying graces and timetables of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
But, on the other hand, when a person has been genuinely converted, the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit and the very indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit will be effectual and will work itself out in the life of the new Christian. It cannot be stopped.
Ephesians 2:8-10 reminds us that we are saved by grace, but we are saved for good works.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Paul is not contradicting himself. He is not saying in verses 8 and 9 that you are saved by faith (believing in Christ) and then in verse 10 telling you that you are saved by works (working for Christ). Both Luther and Calvin said something similar: We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.
We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works. We are “God’s workmanship,” crafted uniquely and individually by him, “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” And those good works are our destiny. God prepared them even before we were born. He knows exactly the good works that would fit our personality, our physical makeup and our spirituality.
Philippians 2:12-13 express a similar idea. In the latter part of verse 12 Paul says…
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
You work out what God works in you. We do work, but we work because God is at work in us. We work and God works, but we work because God works. This is the dance of sanctification.
So our author is convinced of salvation on the part of these readers because they have become notorious for the expression of their ministry and their love towards one another. They had a track record of ministering to one another out of a heart of love. Love, of course, is a key characteristic of genuine Christianity. Paul mentions its presence in most of the churches he wrote to (Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:3), and highlighted it in 1 Corinthians 13. The apostle John indicates that it is one of the signs of genuine spiritual life in 1 John 4:7-8.
If you read the history of the early church, you find out that early Roman officials consistently commented about the love that Christians showed not only to one another, but to people outside the church as well. They deeply and sacrificially loved one another.
This love came to an apex at a particular moment in time. In A. D. 49 Claudius expelled from Rome a large group of Jewish believers in Jesus. They had been evangelizing others. A riot broke out and the emperor banished from Rome all the synagogue rulers and church leaders. You read about Aquila and Pricilla being banished from Rome in Acts 18:1-2.
The Christians who remained in Rome were hounded, persecuted, insulted, and attacked. Some had property taken away. Now look in Hebrews 10, where the author mentions an experience very much like this.
32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners [the NIV has “stood side by side”] with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
There we are told that they stood tall in the face of suffering public insult, persecution, and confiscation of their property. But even more heroic is how they unselfishly committed themselves to helping their suffering brothers and sisters, for it says they were “sometimes . . . publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes . . . partners with those so treated [i.e., insulted and persecuted]. For you had compassion on those in prison” (10:33, 34).
This not only took great compassion, but daring courage as well. It was that loyalty that he has in view here in Hebrews 6 when he says, “God has never forgotten that.”
They were notorious lovers, not only in that defining moment, but in an ongoing way. Notice the words at the end of v. 10, “as you still do.” What a wonderful tribute, to be known for the way they have loved others both in the past and in the present!
Here are at least three observations to make on these verses:
First, serving the brethren is an evidence of authentic salvation. That’s how he knows they are not apostate. They were living in light of the new commandment (John 13:34), doing for others what Christ had done for them. The distinguishing feature of His disciples is that they love like He loved—sacrificially. “[W]hoever loves has been born of God and knows God,” says 1 John 4:7. Who has been regenerated? The one who acts like God and loves the brethren.
Secondly, serving the brethren is a manifestation of love for Jesus Christ. He will not forget your work and “the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints.” You’ve displayed love for “the name” of Jesus. What does this mean? It means that when they came to the aid of their brothers and sisters in Christ in a public way, it showed that they were willing to associate themselves with the stigma attached to the name of Jesus Christ. (Notice the contrast with “those” of fall away, in verse 6, who were “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”)
Do you realize that when you serve one another in a sacrificial way that God regards this an act of love towards Him? Talk about lending dignity to ministry! Jesus sees any service towards a brother or sister in Christ as ministry and love towards Him! And God won’t forget that! They will be rewarded because in helping God’s people they were honoring the name of Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 25 Jesus says, referring to the end times judgment:
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Our ministry towards God’s people is a ministry towards Him. Jesus stands in solidarity with His people. That is why he asked Saul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). When Saul asked who was speaking to him, the answer was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). But Jesus wasn’t physically present. He was talking about “disciples of the Lord” that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against” (Acts 9:1).
Thirdly, serving the brethren will result in the blessing of God (Hebrews 6:7). Remember that verse 7 promised the blessing of God for forgiveness. In verse 9 we’re promised “better things.” When do these blessings and better things occur? Our text doesn’t say. If not until the next life, it will just be better than we could ever imagine. But it could also be in this life. That they are definitely coming to us is rooted in the character of God, “he is not unjust, he will not forget.”
“Not unjust” is understatement; God is, of course, eminently and perfectly just. This is what is called a litotes, a figure of speech that sets forth a positive idea by stating its negative opposite (cf. Acts 12:18; 15:2; 17:4, 12; 19:24; 27:20; et al.). When we are discouraged we sometimes think God forgets us and all we have done for Him and for His people. But God would deny His own nature if He forgot such things (He would be unjust). God sees and remembers. Other people may forget our labor of love, but God never will. Don’t depend upon the applause and appreciation of other people; look for the heavenly reward.
Now, there are some things that the Bible says God will forget. But He will not forget your labors of love; He will not forget your service that honors His name.
In the promise of the New Covenant God says, “I will remember their sins no more.” Now, that’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it?
In Isaiah 43:25, God says…
“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
Now, how can an omniscient God, who knows all there is to know, both actual and potential, past, present and future, at the very same moment in time…how can a God like that forget our sin?
Listen to what Hebrews 10:11-12 and verse 17 says
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, [and what’s the result?] Verse 17, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Because of the satisfactory death of Jesus Christ, God will never allow the memory of those sins to play any part in how he deals with us. Bask in that! If you have trusted in Jesus Christ for your salvation, allow yourself to be expunged from all those feelings of guilt and shame for your past sins, because God will never, ever use them against you. It is in that sense that He has forgotten them, because He chooses not to ever bring them to mind again.
On the contrary, there is something God never forgets. He will not “overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints.” He will bless you with great rewards for every expression of sacrificial ministry you exercise in behalf of its people—no matter how small, no matter how hidden, no matter how unappreciated by people here and now.
So keep up that ministry to other believers. It will be rewarded—far out of proportion to our service. God will reward you. It is guaranteed. You can bank on that.