Outraging the Spirit Deserves a Fury of Fire
Topic: Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Hebrews 10:26–10:31
Growing up in Corpus Christi, I learned to pay attention when hurricanes entered the Gulf of Mexico. The storms get worse. The winds get higher. The rain clouds, bigger. The tidal surge becomes more devastating.
What struck me, though, was the arrogant response some had to the warnings. Winds clocked at 160 mph. Rain drops hitting like bullets. Waves cresting at 20 feet. Housing developments likely to be swallowed. “If you’re on the coast, you need to leave,” authorities warned. Yet a number of people ignored the warning. Some threw a party in the face of the hurricane, as if to mock its power.
A number of them would also die. But not everyone. Many survived to re-tell the story and the thrill of seeing palm trees bent sideways and sailboats hurled into people’s backyard. But anybody in their right mind would also say that was foolish. To ignore the warning is foolish. Warnings are given to preserve you, to protect you.
Hebrews warns us that another storm is coming. It’s a storm that will shake not just the Gulf Coast. The entire earth will tremble. Mountains will melt like wax. The Lord will appear in judgment. In a fury of fire he will consume his adversaries. No mockers of his power will live to retell the story. To protect people from the raging fury of God’s coming judgment, Hebrews warns his readers not to go on sinning. Verse 26…
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
If you saw a child running carelessly into the street, how would you preserve her life? Wouldn’t you warn her with utter seriousness? “Stop! If you keep running into the street like that, a car is going to hit you!” Does she spend the rest of her life fearing whether you love her? No, she knows your love not just in times when you buy her ice-cream, but in times when you warn her about real dangers.
We find something similar in Hebrews. Some Christians are wavering in their faith. They’re not so sure they want to keep following Jesus. It was good for a while, but the suffering is making it harder. The culture is making it harder. Instead of holding fast, they’re giving up, reverting back under the old covenant, back to Judaism. To do so is to abandon the forgiveness Jesus brings under the new covenant. So Hebrews comes in not only with some magnificent passages about Jesus’ priestly work. He also warns of dangerous consequences for all who end up despising Jesus’ priestly work.
Context: Considering One Another
What’s the point? To preserve you. To keep you faithful. Warnings serve our perseverance. To understand this warning, I’d like to consider it in four parts. First, we need to understand the context. The context of considering one another.
Verse 26 begins with the word, “For.” That points back to verses 24-25. “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” “The Day drawing near” is Jesus’ return. It’s Judgment Day—a day he says in verse 26 involves a fury of fire that will consume God’s adversaries.
That Day is coming. In light of that Day drawing near, we’re supposed to be stirring up one another to love and good works. Your role in stirring up love and good works is one of the means God uses to keep you from hell. Your togetherness in the Christian life is one way God keeps you from the fury of fire.
As others have put it before, perseverance is a community project. You need each other’s encouragement. I need you to stir me up to love and good works. Why? Because that’s what helps me persevere in the truth, in faithfulness to Jesus. It’s like 3:13 said, “Exhort one another every day…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” I need you. You, as a believer, need each other, to keep your heart from being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. If your heart is hardened by sin, and you go on sinning deliberately, God will count you among his enemies.
That’ll change the way you view Sunday gathered, or small groups, or bible study, or one-on-one times of encouragement. That adds some weight and seriousness to our gatherings, doesn’t it? Stirring one another to love and good works is not something that’s optional to the Christian life. Without it, we perish. People who say they don’t need church are fooling themselves. That’s the context. The warning we’re about to look at is the reason you need to be involved in each other’s lives.
So let’s look at that warning more closely. We find next in verse 26 a conditional warning. He says, “If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
In some ways, all sin is the same. It’s rebellion against God. It’s lawlessness. But the Bible also makes distinctions when it comes to the nature of the sinning involved. For instance, the Law distinguishes unintentional sins from intentional sins. Or those sins committed in ignorance and those done with a high hand, after knowing what’s right.[i] The New Testament speaks to confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness. Yet there’s also sin—like blaspheming the Holy Spirit—for which there is no forgiveness.
The sinning he speaks of here is that committed with a high hand. It’s that sort for which there is no forgiveness. Notice the way he characterizes it. “Anyone who goes on sinning”—meaning, it becomes the pattern. Despite others stirring up to love and good works, this person doesn’t care. He chooses sin over love and good works. It’s also deliberate—“If we go on sinning deliberately.” It’s calculated, willful, decisive.
It also rejects gospel truth. The person continues in this pattern, “after receiving the knowledge of the truth.” He didn’t just hear the gospel; he understood it and received it. 6:4 spoke of this person as the one who was enlightened by it. The truth in view is the truth about Jesus fulfilling the Law, Jesus being the greater high priest, Jesus bringing the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. He knows that truth, even identified with it at some point, and yet he goes on sinning deliberately. Think of the second soil in Jesus’ parable: “He hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself; he endures for a little while and when tribulation and persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”
Basically, this person does an about-face from a position of belief—treasuring Christ—to a position of unbelief. For those who meet that condition, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” All throughout Hebrews we’ve learned that there’s only one sacrifice that takes away our sins. Our sin separates us from God and there’s only one sacrifice that can purify us; only one by which we can draw near to God; only one that opens the way for us into God’s presence. It’s the sacrifice of Jesus.
If you turn away from trusting that sacrifice, there is no other sacrifice left. 9:14 says the blood of Christ purifies our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Those truly purified by Jesus’ blood serve the living God. Not this guy, though—he turns away from the living God to give himself again to dead works, and he stays there.
If that’s you, you have nothing to take away your sins. There’s no assurance of salvation outside of Jesus and following him in a life of faith, obedience, and good works. To turn away from Jesus is to be left in your sins; and when you’re left in your sins, all you have left is a fearful expectation of judgment. Sure, you might get your 80 years of fun. But you will die in your sins, sins that must be punished.
A fury of fire will consume you along with the rest of God’s adversaries. That phrase, “a fury of fire,” could also be translated “a fire, a zealous one.” It fits a well-known theme in the Old Testament. God is zealous for his honor; and that zeal to uphold his honor requires him to punish all who live contrary to his honor. In white-hot passion, God will consume his enemies. Revelation 14:11 says, “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night…”
That’s not a popular thing to talk about. But the writer of Hebrews—and even better, the Holy Spirit—finds it necessary to your perseverance. It’s our heavenly Father taking our head in his hands and looking us in the eyes and saying, “If you keep going this direction away from Jesus, embracing sinful habits, terrible things await you.” God will not compromise when it comes to his honor. Don’t go there. The best thing for you is to hold fast to Jesus and follow him in love and good works. To do otherwise is to choose a path that leads to judgment.
The severity of this judgment he then supports with covenant progression. To this point, we’ve seen a steady pattern. The lesser rest in the Promised Land anticipated the greater rest of Jesus’ new creation. The lesser sacrifices under the Law anticipated the greater sacrifice in Jesus. The lesser priests with the tabernacle anticipated the greater priest in Jesus. With verses 28-29 that covenant progression occurs once more, only this time he applies it to punishment. The punishments executed under the old covenant anticipated a much worse punishment for those rejecting the new covenant.
Verse 28: “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” He’s drawing from Deuteronomy 17:2-6. That’s important because he’s not talking about someone breaking a specific command. He’s speaking about the person inside Israel who rejects the whole covenant to go and serve other gods. Under the Law, there is no mercy for that person. The community was supposed to stone him/her. They died without mercy.
If that’s true under the Law, how much worse should the punishment be when the Law has been fulfilled? That’s how he reasons in verse 29: “How much worse punishment…” Meaning, worse than mere death by stoning. It’s punishment in hell. “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” With more revelation comes more responsibility and greater consequences when rejected.
Trampling underfoot the Son of God. The Son of God—the heir of all things. The one through whom God created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. He is worthy of our worship. And yet this person treats him like dirt, worthless, no longer good for anything.[ii]
He also profanes the blood of the covenant. The blood of the covenant is Jesus’ blood, the blood that ratified the new covenant. In this context, to profane something means you disregard something that’s holy as something that’s common. Instead of blood that’s special and saving, this person sees Jesus’ blood as ordinary, not a big deal. He treats it lightly, take it or leave it—when it’s the only blood that sanctifies.
Now the words “by which he was sanctified” does challenge us theologically: How can someone be “sanctified” by Jesus’ blood, and then turn away and perish? What does that mean for Christian assurance? How does that square with so many other texts that say God will keep us till the end?” That’s a good question to wrestle with.
Some have answered by saying the grammar allows us to translate this in a more general sense: “the blood of the covenant, by which one is sanctified.” In other words, it’s not making a statement about the individual in view as much as it’s describing what Jesus’ blood does. It’s the only blood by which one is sanctified. I’m not sure that’s the most straightforward way to translate it; but it’s fairly convenient theologically.
Others maintain what the ESV has and go one of several ways. I don’t think it’s right to say, as some do, that someone can be truly saved—sanctified in the full, saving sense—and then fall away. It doesn’t adequately account for so many other texts in Scripture that speak to God preserving his elect until the end. I also don’t think it’s accurate to suggest the warning is just hypothetical—meaning, he doesn’t actually think this could happen to anybody in the church really. That seems to go against the utter seriousness with which he presents the warnings. It also seems that some are really turning away; they already have the habit of not meeting together—verse 25.
A little better take is to grant that sanctification is being used in a broader sense. That is, there’s a sense in which this person believed the gospel. He identified with the covenant community. He received incredible benefits from belonging to the church, learning God’s word, experiencing some work of the Holy Spirit. But in the end, his faith proves itself spurious, temporary, not genuine. He was set apart with the rest of the believers. But his falling away proves he wasn’t real.
The person in view here is like the one mentioned in 2 Peter 2:20-21, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” Some may experience many benefits from the new age in Christ, and yet prove to be enemies in the end.
The last thing he mentions is “outraging the Spirit of grace.” If you look back to 2:4, we learn that the Holy Spirit authenticated the gospel message with various gifts and miracles. In 6:4 the people in view experienced the Spirit’s power and presence when they heard the gospel. One of the gracious ways the Spirit works is by confirming the message about Jesus, by shining the spotlight on Jesus. But this person rejects him. This person dismisses the Spirit’s gracious work; and he or she will suffer a much worse punishment because of it.
Character of God
Lastly, he moves next to the character of God. Verse 30, “For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
We know him. He revealed himself in history and in Scripture. In particular, he quotes two texts from Deuteronomy 32. It’s from the Song of Moses, which falls just prior to Israel entering the Promised Land. The Song predicts Israel’s future rebellion and their exile. But this is super important—the Song reveals that no matter how gracious God is to his people, many in Israel keep rejecting him. Gift after gift, finding, rescuing, providing, keeping, sheltering—like the generous Father he is, he lavished them with kindness. And still they forsook him—they stirred him to jealousy with false gods. These are the people identifying with the covenant!
The result? God must judge them. He must banish them. He must pour out the curses. That’s where these sobering texts enter. God will judge his enemies, including the enemies who pretend to be part of his covenant people. If any one of us chooses to walk away from Jesus, we’re not exempt. God is zealous to preserve his honor, and he will not tolerate us treating his Son lightly.
Heed the warning; don't abandon Jesus
A few of you are questioning the Christian faith. You’re asking good questions—some as a result of your own reading; others as a result of conversations with non-Christians. We ought to ask hard questions and devote ourselves to what’s true. We may not be able to understand everything exhaustively, but we can know it sufficiently to determine what’s real, trustworthy. So don’t hear me wrongly when I say this—I’m glad you’re pursuing the questions.
What concerns me, though, is that you’ve given into a kind of radical skepticism that will never be satisfied. Meaning, there’s no amount of evidence for Christianity that would actually convince you; and it’s leading you to abandon Jesus. If you are contemplating leaving Jesus—if he doesn’t impress you anymore, please hear this warning: “…there no longer remains a sacrifice for your sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” You need salvation. You can’t even live up to your own standards, much less God’s. But that’s why God sent his Son. He didn’t deserve to die, but he chose to die to take away your sins and satisfy God’s wrath. You will not find another Savior like Jesus. He’s truly in a category all by himself; he is our only way to peace and fellowship with God. Hold fast.
Do not go on sinning deliberately
Others of you know what’s right. You’ve been enlightened by the gospel. You know what Scripture says about sexuality, marriage, your responsibility as a husband. You know the truth about loving your neighbor, raising your children, showing hospitality, caring for the needy, putting on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness. And yet knowing the truth you’re actively choosing to live contrary to it. Meaning, you know the dangers of disobedience and you run headlong into it anyway. The hurricane of God’s wrath is coming, and you’re throwing a party anyway.
Wake up! If we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. Don’t go on sinning! Never, ever grow content with sin; it will lead to your destruction…and mine, by the way. Even the writer of Hebrews includes himself in the warning—“If we go on sinning…” He will also say later in verse 39, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed…” Meaning, he feels sure of better things. He knows most of them will respond to his warning. But he needs it too. Christian leaders need it too. We all must be vigilant in the fight against sin and the pursuit of what’s holy.
Fight sin with all the gospel motivations
For those of you following Jesus—with no intent of leaving him. You’re fighting the good fight. Let this passage become another weapon in your arsenal against passive Christianity. The Bible gives different motivations for perseverance. One motivation we’ve seen in Hebrews is the enjoyment of final rest in God’s presence. Keep going because that’s the prize! Another motivation came in 6:18, where God himself wanted to give us strong encouragement to hold fast; and so he guaranteed his promise with an oath. Keep going because God is trustworthy; he will come through.
But another motivation is this warning: if you go on sinning deliberately, a fury of fire awaits you. Be careful not to have a truncated vision of gospel motivation. People sometimes talk about “gospel motivation,” but what they really mean are only those parts of the gospel they prefer to motivate them—justification and acceptance with God. That is a beautiful, indispensable, and foundational motivation. It’s just not the only piece. The gospel the apostles preached did not stop with Jesus’ death and resurrection; it continued with Jesus’ present reign and his glorious return to judge.
We must include that, too, when we’re encouraging one another in the faith. We often like to run to texts like, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful,” while neglecting the one right before it, “If we deny him, he also will deny us.” So don’t do it! Don’t deny him. Be faithful. Endure and you will reign with him! That’s the point. Preach all the gospel motivations to yourself and to others; not just the ones you like.
With utter seriousness, consider one another
Lastly, take the exhortation in verses 24-25 all the more seriously. “Consider how to stir one another up to love and good works.” Just because you had a conversion experience doesn’t mean you’re okay, that you don’t need help in the fight against sin or encouragement into love. You do need the help; and so much so that without it, you may very easily drift away from Jesus. Sin is deceptive like that. It tries to get you alone and then convinces you that you don’t really need other’s input into your Christian life. And before you know it, you’re not following Jesus anymore.
Six years ago, today, I received some criticism as a pastor. It was some criticism that stood in direct contradiction to what I received the week before from someone else. So I felt pulled, deflated, discouraged. I shared the situation with another brother for prayer. He wrote me back that week and this is one thing (of five!) he shared:
Guard your heart against desires that may be foreign to the purposes of God for Redeemer. Despair follows after a heart whose wants have been frustrated. “You desire and you do not have, so you murder…you do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” God will accomplish his work of salvation, sanctification, glorification. If he chooses to do so through sermons that are never perfect, events that are never perfect, and people that are never perfect, he does so on purpose. Our idolatrous heart sometimes uses despair over failure and weakness to veil our desire for praise.
“…to veil our desire for praise!” Man! You got people who talk to you like that? We need to talk to each other that way. Those words helped me kill some pride that day, and then moved me to press onward in love and good works for God’s praise, not mine. But if my brothers leave me there; it’s not good. It’s not loving.
You and I have an incredible responsibility for each other. Our unity in Christ is deeply interpersonal. We need to be familiar enough with each other’s lives that we’d actually know if someone is going astray. God’s warning to us here reminds us to redouble our efforts in caring for one another. It’s also a good reminder of the massively significant role we play in helping each other make it to the end. Again, perseverance is a community project; and this text makes it all the more serious. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, that Christ may be held in honor by all.
[i] Num 15:27-31; Deut 17:12.
[ii] “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matt 5:13).