A call to persevere - Hebrews 10:19-39

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 12th November 2006.

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Four and half years ago, in the summer of 2002, American TV stations were showing live footage of a heart stopping real life drama that was gripping the nation. The story concerned nine miners who had been trapped underground by rising floodwater. Their lives hang in the balance, and the nation watched with bated breath. The ordeal had begun on a Wednesday evening, 24th July, a mile and half underground in the Quecreek mine just outside of Somerset, Pennsylvania, in the Eastern United States. Miner Mark Popernack was drilling through a seam of coal when he drilled through an old abandoned mine shaft which was flooded. In a matter of seconds, 70 million gallons of water started to gush through a six feet wide gash in the wall at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour. Nine men were down in that mine as they struggled to find higher ground. Eventually they did, but as the water rose, they found themselves trapped with no way out. And it was at that point that each of the miners began to ask that terrible question: “Will I survive? Will I make it to the end?” The terrible situation they found themselves in made them seriously doubt they would ever get out alive.

            Well sometimes in life we find ourselves in situations that just seem totally overwhelming. Everything seems to be against us, and as soon as one thing is dealt with another big problem lands on our plates. And it’s in those times when we think to ourselves: “Will I ever get out of this? Will I ever survive?” And if it’s true of life in general, it’s also true in the spiritual realm. For each one of us, being a Christian means big challenges, and sometimes it feels as if those challenges are just too great for us to deal with. It may be through overwhelming pressures on us at work or in the family. We find it very hard to be a faithful witness for Christ in those situations, and if truth be told we feel guilty we’re not doing better. For others it might be the difficulties that accompany illness or bereavement. We perhaps find it hard to trust God and to keep walking with him day by day. For others it maybe because we have been let down by a Christian friend or even by a church and we feel hurt and neglected. And the temptation in every one of those situations is to think: “Am I ever going to get through this? Am I ever going to survive?”

            Well the letter to the Hebrews, as we’ve seen over the last months, was a letter written to a congregation who were struggling. They were under pressure from persecution and they were tempted to chuck the whole thing in and return to the relative safety of their old faith Judaism. But this whole letter has been a word of encouragement to these struggling believers, urging them to trust the Lord Jesus Christ who is the fulfilment of all God’s plans and purposes. In fact, to go back to the Jewish faith and to leave Christ would be disastrous in the extreme. No what this church needs to do is to keep trusting the wonderful promises of God and to keep on keeping on. Because the danger of drifting away from Christ, and giving up, is something this church was facing. And in every generation, that same danger is a reality whatever ups and downs we are facing. And it’s especially during the tough times we face that the temptation is strongest. When the pressure is on, it’s our relationship with God that can suffer. And that is why in this passage from Hebrews 10, the writer gives us four clear commands to urge us to keep going in the Christian life and to keep trusting Jesus Christ. Because the answer to the question “will I survive” can be a resounding yes for everyone here today. We can survive whatever is thrown against us. We do not have to be those who give up and drift away from God. But we need to make sure we take the writer’s commands seriously, otherwise there is every chance we won’t survive. So what then does he tell us to do?

1) Draw Near (Vv 19-22)

2) Hold On (Vv 23-25)

3) Watch Out (Vv 26-31)

4) Keep Going (Vv 32-39)

1) Draw Near (Vv 19-22)

So first of all he says to us, draw near in verses 19-22. Let’s read from verse 19: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God.” The writer says that we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place. That is we are able to enter into God’s very presence, we can know God personally. We can draw near to God. Now in the OT, that was something that was impossible. In the OT, no-one could walk into God’s Temple and breeze into the Holy of Holies where God’s presence was said to dwell, because mankind was sinful and sinful human beings cannot mix with a perfect and holy God. The Bible tells us that like it or not we are naturally opposed to God and that shows in our words, our actions and our thoughts, all of which are tainted with sin. So anyone who tried to go into God’s presence died instantly. For the punishment for sin was and is death and separation from God. And there were a number of barriers in the Temple which prevented people entering, including a large curtain which hung in front of the Holy of Holies. So the message of the Temple was basically: “Keep Out”. And only one man, the High Priest, could go into the Holy of Holies once a year and meet with God to make sacrifice for the sins of the people. So one person, once a year meeting with God personally. Not exactly regular contact is it!

            But now our writer is saying that we have confidence to enter the very presence of God. There is a way to know God personally and to meet with him. How is that possible? The writer says in verse 19: “…by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened up for us through the curtain, that is, his body.” It is now possible to know God personally, to come into his presence because of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Someone else has paid for our sin. Someone else has stepped into our shoes and taken the punishment we deserve for all our wrongdoing. And that someone is Jesus. And throughout the letter the writer has argued that Jesus’ death on the cross is the final and full sacrifice for sins that we need to enter into God’s presence, to become friends with him. Or to put it in the words of verse 22, our hearts have been sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. If we trust in Jesus’ death on the cross, then we can be cleaned up and forgiven for all our sins, all our guilt and all our shame. 

            So, then, verse 22, we can draw near to God. And the writer urges us to do that again and again, to come back to God and ask for forgiveness, to have the confidence to come to him in prayer. In other words, through Jesus’ death on the cross, we should have no fear about enjoying our relationship with God. For that is what we were made for.

            Let me tell you a true story. An American soldier wanted to get compassionate leave so he could care for his dying mother. He tried to get permission but failed, so he decided he would go straight to the top. It was in the days of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and so the soldier went boldly up the to White House, but was told that it was impossible to see the President. The soldier went away sad and sat in the park dejected. But a little boy came up to him and asked what was wrong. So the soldier told his story, and at the end of his tale the little boy simply said: “Follow me.” So they went back up the White House Drive through the doors, down a corridor and through another door into where President Lincoln himself was sitting. When Lincoln saw his young son, he said: “What is it Todd?” And the little boy replied, “Father, there is a man here who wants to speak to you. Please would you listen to him?”

And that is the privilege we have as children of God. Like Lincoln’s son approaching him with confidence, so we can come before God, the awesome God of the universe, not in fear, but in humble confidence. We can ask him for forgiveness, we can come to him in prayer. And very often in times of difficulty, this is one of the first things we forget as Christians. We forget the grace and mercy of God.  We maybe think that God is displeased with us or doesn’t really care for us, or is waiting to hit us with a big stick if we do wrong. We find ourselves asking questions like: “Surely God can’t have forgiven that sin can he? I mean it’s just so horrific? Does God still love me even when I persistently muck up every day?” And the temptation is simply to stop praying and reading the Bible, to stop drawing near to God and deepening our relationship with him. But the problem with that understanding is that we are running away from the very one who can help us. It’s the devil’s trick to undermine our faith and get us to stop trusting God. He’d love us to think of God as the harsh examiner rather than the loving heavenly Father that he is. He’d love to convince us that the barriers are back up, that once again there is a sign which says “No Entry to God”. But that is a lie. Rather, says our writer, we need to draw near to God. Jesus has opened the way for us through his death on the cross. The sign now reads: “Come in- all welcome”. And it is our duty and joy to foster that relationship with God so that we don’t drift away. So our writer says, draw near to God. Don’t try and get through life on your own two feet, and don’t ignore God in your time of need. Rather, let us draw near to God. For he is the only one who can help. Draw near.  

2) Hold On (Vv 23-25)

But secondly we also need to hold on in verses 23-25. And our writer says we need to hold on to two things. First we need to hold on to our hope in verse 23: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” We need to hold on to that future hope that God has promised to us. Now we’ll see why that’s important a little later and in more depth. Because I want us here to focus on the second thing to hold on to and that is each other in verses 24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” One of the problems the writer was facing with his readers was that some of them were giving up meeting together. Some had drifted away from the congregation. Perhaps because it was dangerous to meet together, perhaps because they didn’t really get on with the others. For whatever reason they were drifting away. But the writer insists that it is absolutely vital to keep meeting together for the sake of each other. You see the plain fact is that it is hard being a Christian. We need each other to keep going in the Christian life. Being a Christian means swimming against the tide in our society, and we need to support of one another if we are going to survive. And so he says: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” Yes we may have one or two differences, but we need each other to support and encourage each other.

            The world of nature tells us this. For example, if you’ve ever seen geese flying overhead you’ll know that they fly in a V shaped formation. Well a lot of scientific research has been done on geese, and scientists have discovered some remarkable things. For example, those in front rotate their leadership. When one lead goose gets tired, it changes places with one in the wing of the V-formation and another flies at the front. Secondly, by flying as they do, the members of the flock create an upward air current for one another. Each flap of the wings literally creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. One scientist states that by flying in a V-formation, the whole flock gets 71 percent greater flying range than if each goose flew on its own. Thirdly when one goose gets sick or wounded, two fall out of formation with it and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with the straggler until it’s able to fly again. And finally the geese in the rear of the formation are the ones who do the honking, or crowing, whatever the correct term is! Scientists reckon that it’s their way of announcing that they’re following and that all is well, and the repeated honks encourage those in front to press on. You see, each goose needs its pals to help it travel the thousands of miles from Canada to Britain. But imagine that you were a rebel goose and you thought to yourself: “These geese are a bunch of no hopers. I’m going off on my own.” What do you think would happen? You would never survive. You would die.

           

            Now it’s the same for the Christian. We need the encouragement of one another to keep going because we cannot make it on our own. The NT knows nothing of freelance Christians. One writer puts it like this: “The freelance Christian, who would be a Christian but is too superior to belong to the visible church upon earth… is simply a contradiction in terms.” We need to encourage one another as we meet together.

            But the writer gives us an added incentive to keep meeting together in verse 25. He says: “All the more as you see the Day approaching.” Here he means the day of judgement. And he is saying that Christians meet together in the light of the day of judgement. It is that which spurs us on to remain faithful. On that day Jesus will either welcome us into his perfect kingdom by saying “Well done good and faithful servant,” or else he will send us away from him forever saying “I never knew you”, which is a fate far worse than death. And so it is with that judgement day in mind that we must meet together and urge one another on in the faith. We long for not one of our number here to fall by the wayside spiritually speaking. We want to help each other along so that on that great day, all of us will be found faithful to Jesus. I wonder if you and I consider that when we meet together. That actually we are helping one another to stand on judgement day. That’s the perspective we are to have. So as we gather here this morning at St. John’s  we’re not meeting for just another Sunday service. We’re meeting because it is absolutely vital for our spiritual health. We’re meeting with judgement day in mind and we’re encouraging each other to live the Christian life for Jesus faithfully for another week. And if we are those who are here one week and then skip a few and here the next month, then actually we are endangering our spiritual health. We need to be committed to one another for our own sakes as well as the sakes of others. For if we are to survive then we need to hold on, not just to our hope, but also to each other.

3) Watch Out (Vv 26-31)

But there’s a third command and that is to watch out. And in verses 26-31 he turns to a very serious topic, to the possibility that there may be some among his congregation who may not make it to the end, who may drift away and publicly turn away from Jesus. So let’s read from verse 26: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Now the writer is returning to topic he tackled in greater depth in chapter 6, and if you weren’t here for that sermon or want to understand more on this topic of professing Christians turning away from Christ, then I’d encourage you to get a copy of that talk off the website or from the bookstall. Because what the writer is doing is giving his readers a serious warning about the dangers of spiritual drift. You see he’s just said in verse 25 that we meet together with one eye on judgement day. We need to encourage one another to keep going till that great day. And then he gives the reason why we must keep each other going. There’s a word that links verse 25 and 26 in the original that is actually not in our versions and that is the word “because.” We must encourage each other in the light of the day of judgement, because, verse 26, if we deliberately keep on sinning after we’ve received the truth, then no sacrifice for sin is left.

            Now of course the big question is, who is the writer talking about? Well it needs to be said straight away that he is not talking about anyone who sins as a Christian. Quite frankly we all do that, and if the verse meant that, then none of us would be in heaven. No, the NT tells us that if we sin we can come to Jesus for forgiveness. Instead the writer here is talking about wilful deliberate sin. And in the context, he is talking to those of his congregation who willingly turn away from Jesus having seemed to have accepted the truth, and turn back to their old religion of Judaism. And if that is the case, he says, then no sacrifice for sin is left. If you deliberately turn away from Christ having professed faith in him, then what other sacrifice for sin is there. There is only one sacrifice for sin and that is Jesus. So if you ignore him as your rescuer, then you are ignoring the only hope of salvation and therefore condemning yourself to judgement. So verse 27, only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire awaits us. This is not talking about the occasional lapse into sin that we all do. It’s not even talking about a serious lapse into sin by someone who genuinely repents and asks for forgiveness. No this is talking about the person who deliberately and wilfully turns against Christ after having seemingly accepted the gospel, and goes back to his old way of life. And that is an awful position to find yourself in says the writer. Do you see how the writer describes their actions in verse 29. They trample the Son of God underfoot. It’s been well said that the only pathway to hell is by stepping over the crucified body of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words a wilful rejection of the one who died for you. They treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him. There’s nothing special about the cross they say. Just a common man shedding his blood. And they insult the Spirit of grace. Instead of embracing the grace of God with tears of joy and humility, they spit in God’s face and curse his name. Can you think of anything more dreadful than that. And that is what happens when a person deliberately and publicly turns away from the Jesus they professed to love and serve and turns back to their old way of life. And as the writer says, all that awaits them is God’s just judgement. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

            Now why does the writer says such things? Is it scare tactics, to scare us to trust Jesus? Well no. It’s actually a mark of love, because he wants not one of his readers to find themselves in such a dire position. And that is why we need to encourage each other all the more as we see the day approaching so we don’t find ourselves in this position. That’s why church and Homegroups and other groups are so important. Because if we begin to drift, then we may find ourselves hardening our hearts against God and placing ourselves not in his hands of love, but of judgement. And spiritual drift must be stopped before it’s too late.   

            I came across a true story recently about a couple who were fishing in their boat off the coast of Florida. It was a hot day and the wife decided to go for a swim, but soon found that the current had taken her far from the boat. She shouted to her husband, who thought she was telling him to come in. So he dived in and he too discovered that he was being carried away. He was a strong swimmer but not she. So they worked out a plan. He would swim against the tide and try and stay as close to the boat as possible until the tide turned and he could swim to the boat. She would just let herself be carried by the current and then he would come and get her. Well six hours passed before the tide turned and the husband could get back to the boat, now on the distant horizon. But the sun had almost set and he could not search for his wife. Well the following day a search party was called and just as they were about to give up they found her, twenty miles out to sea and still alive, just.

            It is extremely dangerous to drift on the tide of spiritual complacency. And friends, we must keep one another up to the mark and hold each other to account. And can I say too that if you are not yet a Christian here this morning, then this is a message for you too. Because the writer longs for not one of us to be in God’s hands of justice, but to place ourselves in his hands of love. There is a way to escape the wrath to come by trusting in the Saviour, whatever you have done. He will have back. He loves you just as you are. Please don’t let another opportunity go by without placing your hand in his and giving him your life. For it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

4) Keep Going (Vv 32-39)

But there’s a final command we’ll look at together before we finish, and that is, press on. Press on and keep going because of your future hope. We’ve already seen that we are to hold on to that hope unswervingly, but now the writer finishes this chapter by reminding us of our wonderful future and that we must keep going to get there. And he reminds his congregation that when they first became Christians their lives were totally dedicated to God’s cause because of their future hope. So verse 32: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” They were willing to put up with anything and support brothers and sisters in need. They even endured their possessions and homes being taken off them. Why? Because they believed they had better and lasting possessions. In other words, they believed that they had a home and possessions in heaven. They were looking forward to their future hope and it enabled them to stand firm in the present difficulties. And the more we ponder the future hope, the more it will enable us to be strong with the ups and downs of the present. Because our true home is with Christ in his kingdom. It’s often said that Christians are so heavenly minded they are no earthly use. I’ve actually never met anyone like that. I have met lots of Christians who so earthly minded they are no heavenly use. But actually the Bible’s understanding is that the more heavenly minded we, the more earthly use they will be! The more we realise where we are heading, that our true home lies with Christ, then we’ll be spurred on to give everything for him in this world, to use our time and money and energy for his sake.

            And the writer wants his readers to keep that first love, that youthful enthusiasm and confidence. Maybe some of us need to recapture that first joy of being a Christian, that love which meant we’d do anything for the Lord whatever the cost. As the years have gone by, maybe we’ve dulled a little in our zeal for the Lord and our joy. And so he finishes in verse 35: “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, "He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him." But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.” We mustn’t lose our confidence because God is faithful to his promises. What he has promised to do he will do. We need to persevere so that we will receive what has been promised. And if we think that 2000 years have gone by and still Jesus hasn’t returned, still those promises remain unfulfilled, then remember these words: “He who is coming will come and will not delay.” The one promise Jesus has left to fulfil is that he is coming back. He’s kept all the others, so it’s certain he’ll keep this one. And we must not be those who give up and shrink back, but who keep going and are saved. For the true Christian is the one who perseveres right to the end. Press on. Because God will keep his promise.

            The 30th July 2002 was a great day for those nine trapped miners. Because after 77 hours of asking the question “will I survive”, they were eventually rescued. They never gave up hope that one day their rescuer would come. And it was that hope that kept them going. And for the Christian there is an infinitely more precious hope of being with Christ forever in his perfect kingdom. So will you press on? Yes, it’s hard, yes it seems sometimes as if things are going from bad to worse. But God is faithful. He will keep us as we keep ourselves in his love. And we will survive. But to do that we must obey these challenges today. To draw near, hold on, watch out and keep going. 

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