The danger of unbelief
In 1912 the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs and kept sailing through the night at near full speed. When they saw an iceberg it was too late to avoid the impact and the ship sank within three hours. This shows it is dangerous to ignore warnings.
In the book of Hebrews we see that God’s greatest warning to us is the danger of not believing the gospel message. This excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor) is doomed to punishment in hell.
Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted for their faith (Heb. 12:4-13; 13:3). They were spiritually weak and being tempted to give up following Jesus and turn back to their Jewish customs.
Hebrews tells them what they needed to know and to do. The first 9.5 chapters show that Jesus is greater than all their Jewish heroes like the prophets, angels, Moses, and the priests and Christ’s sacrifice is greater than the Jewish sacrifices.
Halfway through chapter 10 there is a change from doctrine to practice. The next two chapters tell us what to do. It says that following Jesus is like running in a marathon race. As athletes keep running through adversity, we can keep following Jesus through adversity by: focusing on God and Jesus; encouraging one another; and removing the obstacles that hinder us.
Five warnings are also included in the first 12 chapters of Hebrews. We will look at each of these in turn. These warnings are written in strong language. They are imperatives and commands, not just models to follow. As Hebrews was probably written to a church in about AD 67-70, which is well after the early days of the church, we can generally apply the principles in it to us today without needing much consideration of the changes since then. While Noah and the Old Testament prophets warned their generations of God’s imminent judgment (2 Pt. 2:5), these warnings apply to us today.
1. Warning against drifting away (Heb. 2:1-4)
“We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Heb. 2:1NIV).
This command is a warning against drifting away from the message of the gospel. Don’t be like a boat drifting past its destination or moving away from its anchorage/mooring because it’s being pushed along by the current and it’s drifting towards danger.
They had heard the gospel message. The danger is not paying attention and letting the words flow by while our minds are occupied elsewhere. It’s a warning against ignoring God’s gift of salvation by remaining in unbelief.
“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3a)
This explains why drifting away is so dangerous. The message spoken through angels was the law given on Mount Sinai (Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). The Israelites were commanded to keep these laws and there was punishment for disobedience (Deut. 17:2-6; Heb. 10:28).
The writer says that the gospel is greater than the law. He assumes that a greater message demands a greater punishment for those who rebel against it. If disregard for the law brought punishment, then disregard for the gospel will bring even greater punishment.
If we ignore the gospel message, we can’t escape God’s punishment (1 Th. 5:3; Heb. 12:25).
When the Titanic ignored a warning from other ships about icebergs it hit an iceberg and sank within three hours. Likewise, in 2012 when the Costa Concordia sailed too close to an island near Italy it hit rocks and capsized. In these cases, ignoring warnings and dangerous behaviour resulted in shipwreck. The Bible says ignoring the gospel (by unbelief) also leads to disaster.
“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (Heb. 2:3b-4).
Here we see that the message of our great salvation has been confirmed by reliable witnesses. While the law was given by God through angels to Moses and then to the people, the gospel was spoken directly by the Lord Jesus. It was confirmed to the writer’s generation by the apostles who were eyewitnesses who heard the original message (Lk. 1:2; Acts 1:21-22; 1 Jn. 1:1-3; 2 Pt. 1:16).
The testimony of the apostles and their delegates was supported by miracles, such as the healing of the sick (Acts 3:7-12, 16; 5:12-16; 9:32-41; 14:3, 8-10; 19:11-12; 28:8-9). This is because at that time Jews wanted to see a miracle before they would believe that a message was from God (Jn. 4:48; 1 Cor. 1:21-22). The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles and their delegates miraculous abilities, such as the ability to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4-12).
These witnesses demonstrate that God’s great salvation is true, reliable, dependable and trustworthy.
2. Warning against unbelief (Heb. 3:7 – 4:13)
The book of Hebrews was written to professing Christians; they were not all true believers. The writer says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). So some were unbelievers; they had “sinful unbelieving” hearts. This passage is a warning to them (Heb. 3:7 – 4:3). On the other hand, perseverance in the Christian faith is evidence of a true believer (Heb. 3:6, 14; 6:11; Mt. 10:22; 24:13; Mk. 13:13). True faith endures and is shown by ongoing hope in God. God gives believers the strength to persevere (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 13:21). But the “faith” of those who remained unbelievers and didn’t “come to share in Christ” (Heb. 3:14) doesn’t endure.
This danger is illustrated by the Israelites. Although God miraculously helped them escape from slavery in Egypt and travel to Canaan; because they rebelled they died in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (Num. 14:21-35; Ps. 95:7-11; Heb. 3:7-11).
It says, “They were not able to enter, because of their unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).
Unbelief (hardening the heart) excluded them from Canaan. They had seen many miracles including the 10 plagues in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, eaten manna and quail provided by God, drank water provided by God, defeated the Amalekites, saw God’s glory and received the law at Mt Sinai and heard God’s promises. But they rebelled, sinned and disobeyed (Heb. 3:16-19). Sin deceives (it is attractive) and leads to hardening of the heart and unbelief. Persistent sin is a sign of unbelief. Of that generation, only Joshua and Caleb believed and obeyed God and entered Canaan. So the warning is to beware of unbelief. Don’t be like the Israelites!
The main message is given three times “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts (in unbelief)” (Heb. 3:7-8, 15, 4:7). It says, don’t do what they did! The remedy is to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). To persevere in the faith we need to “encourage one another daily” in our families, churches and communities.
The message given by God’s voice was the “good news” that was proclaimed in the first century that included “the promise of entering His (God’s) rest” (Heb. 3:15; 4:1-2). The Israelites heard good news about the Promised Land, but it was of no value to them because instead of having faith and belief, they disobeyed and didn’t believe. Here’s the warning. God has also given us a message of good news in the gospel of salvation – forgiveness of our sin and eternal life in heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. But this is of no value to us if we ignore it and reject it. As unbelief excluded the Israelites from Canaan, it also excludes us from heaven (also called God’s “rest” and a “Sabbath-rest”, Heb. 4:1-11). It’s only entered through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:3).
“Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest (by faith), so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).
Unbelief is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven.
3. Warning against falling away (Heb. 6:4-8)
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away (committed apostasy), to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace” (Heb. 6:4-6).
An apostate is someone who professed to be a Christian and attended a local church, but turns against the Lord and abandons the Christian faith and opposes Christianity. They are traitors like Judas Iscariot who betrayed the Lord after being one of His disciples for three years. Apostates are unbelievers without salvation, in contrast to believers who have salvation (Heb. 6:9).
An apostate isn’t someone who hears the gospel and does nothing about it. Such an unbeliever may have another opportunity to become a believer. Also they aren’t a backslider who stops following the Lord and falls back into a previous sinful way of life (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 1:6; 4:9-11; 2 Ti. 4:9-10). Backsliders are Christians who are unfaithful and unfruitful.
Apostates had “once been enlightened”, which means they heard the gospel message. Like Judas Iscariot they knew the way of salvation, but hadn’t accepted it. They had “tasted the heavenly gift” of Jesus Christ, but hadn’t accepted Him by faith as Savior. They had “shared in the Holy Spirit” even though they weren’t indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts unbelievers of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment (Jn. 16:8). They had “tasted the goodness of the word of God”, which means that they responded to the gospel message, but didn’t repent. In this respect, they were like the seed that fell on rocky ground and had no root and died when trouble or persecution came (Mt. 13:20-21). They had also experienced “the powers of the coming age”, which means they had seen the miracles associated with the preaching of the gospel by the apostles and their delegates (Heb. 2:4). But although they had experienced some of the benefits and privileges of Christianity, after they had “fallen away” (committed apostasy), it’s impossible for them to repent. They deliberately turn against and renounce Christianity and ridicule Christ, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace”.
The warning is repeated in a parable, which is consistent with the parable of the sower.
“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.
But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned” (Heb. 6:7-8).
The first land is an illustration of believers, while the second land is an illustration of apostates. The first is fruitful, but in the second the seed sprouts but because it has no root, some of it dies and the thorns and thistles take over and choke out the rest. The lesson is that God blesses the fruitful believer and punishes the apostate.
Apostates are not only traitors, they are also like terrorists. Terrorists wreck havoc with bombs and guns to undermine their enemies. Apostates are spiritual terrorists who undermine Christianity. You can read all about them in the book of Jude.
Next there is another warning for these spiritual terrorists.
4. Warning against deliberately sinning after knowing the truth (Heb. 10:26-31)
This passage warns those who profess to be Christians and go to church about the terrible consequences of rejecting Christ (Heb. 10:26-31). It says that God is angry about sin.
God will judge and punish sinners. This punishment is worse than death – because it goes beyond death. Hebrews constantly warns about this danger. It is mentioned three times in this passage.
“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” (Heb. 10:26-27).
“How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb. 10:29).
“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:30-31).
In this warning, apostasy is called deliberate sinning after knowing the truth, being part of God’s people and sanctified and is associated with deserting the church (Heb. 10:25-26, 29-30). Because the apostate has rejected Christ, and there is no other sacrifice for sins, they will be punished for their sins. They are called “enemies of God” meaning that they actively oppose Christianity (Heb. 10:26-27).
Note that God’s judgment occurs when there is no sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26). There are two possibilities, either a fearful judgment or a sacrifice for sins. Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us is the only way to escape God’s anger and punishment. That’s the gospel. God’s loving sacrifice enables us to escape His judgment.
Once again a comparison is made with the law of Moses (Heb. 10:28-29). Under the law a person who was proven to be an idolater was put to death (Dt. 17:2-7). The apostate will be punished more severely than this because they have:
Trampled the Son of God underfoot.
After professing to be a follower of Jesus, they now deny any need for Christ as Savior and reject Him as their Leader.
Treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them.
They think the death of Christ which ratified the New Covenant is useless and unholy. Through their association with Christian people, they had been sanctified (set apart), just as an unbelieving husband is sanctified by his believing wife (1 Cor. 7:14). But that does not mean that they were saved because it is a different sanctification to that of believers (Heb. 10:14).
Insulted the Spirit of grace.
Although the Holy Spirit had convicted them of sin, and pointed them to Christ as Savior, they despised Him and the salvation He offered and “deliberately keep on sinning”.
The rejection of Jesus as Son of God is a serious sin (Heb. 10:30-31). The Bible says that God will judge such people:
“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” for judgment.
The apostate (spiritual terrorist) will be fearful when they face God’s judgment (Heb. 10:27, 31).
Next they are warned once again.
5. Warning against turning away (Heb. 12:25-29)
After contrasting the old covenant (where God and humanity were separated because of sin) and the new covenant (where God and humanity are reconciled by Jesus Christ), the writer warns
“See to it that you do not refuse Him (God) who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused Him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from Him who warns us from heaven?” (Heb. 12:25). God warned the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Ex. 23:20-33). When they refused to obey Him during the exodus towards Canaan, they didn’t escape God’s punishment and so they perished. But Jesus is both from and in heaven and His revelation is greater than that at Mount Sinai. Consequently, if we fail to heed His invitation and warning by turning away from Him in unbelief, then we can’t escape a greater punishment than experienced by the Israelites in the wilderness. After all, “God is a consuming fire” of judgment to all sin and all who refuse to listen to Him (Heb. 10:27; 12:29).
What are the lessons for us today?
Unbelief and apostasy are dangerous. That’s why there are five warnings against them in the book of Hebrews.
Unbelief (ignoring God’s gift of salvation) is dangerous, because it leads to missing out on heaven. Remember what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. They experienced great miracles, but still didn’t trust in God. Likewise, no matter what our spiritual experiences may be, including miracles, it doesn’t guarantee our salvation. Have we confessed and repented of our sin and trusted in Christ as our Savior and Leader? Are we warning unbelievers of the danger of unbelief? Are we encouraging one another to accept God’s gift of salvation and to continue meeting together (Heb. 10:24-25)?
Sin deceives and leads to unbelief. What sins are hindering us from accepting God’s invitation? Are we tempted to continue in our sinful ways?
Are we encouraging one another in the Christian faith (Heb. 3:13)? Reminding each other of the greatness of Jesus and what He has done and God’s promises in Scripture. Helping each other to not be deceived by the attractiveness of sin. Encouraging people’s faith and discouraging their unbelief. Are we doing this daily? In our families? In our church family? In our small groups?
Apostasy (committing treason against the Christian faith; betraying Christ; spiritual terrorism) is dangerous, because it is an eternal sin. Remember what happened to Judas Iscariot. It occurred in the first century and it happens today (1 Tim. 4:1).
If the sin of apostasy doesn’t apply to believers, to whom then does it apply? It could apply to someone who makes a profession of faith in Christ and seems to go on brightly for a while, but then something happens in their life. Perhaps they experience persecution or tragedy, or fall into immorality, or are convinced by the arguments of atheistic commentators or academics. With full knowledge of the truth, they deliberately turn away from it, completely renouncing Christianity. As the Bible says it is impossible to bring apostates to repentance, are we encouraging those at risk of apostasy?
God’s warnings to professing Christians were to not drift away, turn away, or fall away into ongoing unbelief, and not become a traitor by rejecting and criticizing Christ after knowing the truth.
We have seen from Hebrews that God’s greatest warning for us is the danger of not believing the gospel message because this excludes people from heaven and leads to eternal punishment for one’s sins. In particular an apostate (a professing Christian who becomes a traitor or spiritual terrorist) is doomed to punishment in hell.
The only way to escape God’s anger, judgment and punishment is to accept Christ’s sacrifice in the place of sinners like us. Let’s do this and turn around (repent) and persevere by trusting God day by day.
Written, March 2015
Also see the next article in this series:
How to please God – Heb. Ch 13
Also see summary of the book of Hebrews:
Never give up!