Watch against Unbelief (v. 12)
Brothers Need Warnings
Only among those of like precious faith can serious warnings and admonitions be given and received with thanks. This is because we are brothers and have only one Head and Master. To enter his kingdom and house, we stoop and cast aside our pride, or at least declare war against it so that each one of us desires to have his meekness formed in us. Otherwise, we have no part of him, for if there is anything that unites his disciples, it is a self-renouncing heart that desires to obey God. Thus, the serious warnings we find throughout this letter manifest a brotherly spirit. It is not enough to speak the truth; the truth must be spoken in love, as the apostle commands (Eph. 4:15). Many of our relations would be materially improved if we practiced this most basic gospel lesson. We cannot say, “Yes, I am angry, but hear me out, for I am right.” The wisdom that is from above – true and heavenly wisdom that must reign among us – is pure, peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated (James 3:17). Truth without meekness and rebukes without gentleness are not from above but from beneath (vv. 14-15). Therefore, let it never be said of us that our brothers or those outside the church could not hear the good things we said because the way we said them was so offensive. All the wisdom in the world will not overcome the horrors of a harsh, arrogant, or angry spirit.
The Heart at War
This is especially the case since the heart is the issue. We cannot scream or argue or belittle the heart into submission. Only one thing will reach and soften the heart so that it remains steadfast to God – his word wisely and lovingly and firmly spoken. It is a soft or gentle answer that turns away wrath (Prov. 15:1), and a wise man is known by his “meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). We are admonished, then, as brothers, to watch out, to be on guard for the state of our heart. The heart will look for ways to avoid the offense of the cross and the exclusivity of Christ’s claims. Do you think otherwise? Look at the history of the church and even of the compromises of our age. In each instance, hearts were involved – how can we escape these pressures? Is it really necessary that we deny ourselves and suffer for righteousness? Can we not accommodate a little to unbelieving science and philosophy – keep the core but let go of the peripherals? We are not the first to deal with these issues, and our hearts are no stronger than those who have gone before us. The believers to whom this letter was addressed did not likely think that they were turning from God. We can have him but avoid giving offense to the authorities by confessing that Jesus is Lord. Perhaps we can even hold on to Christ in our hearts if we tone down the claims of his Lordship or admit to a little political polytheism or religious syncretism. The message of Hebrews is shockingly clear – it is Christ or man, Christ or death. Without holding fast to Jesus Christ, there is no peace with God, no acceptance with God, no hope and no salvation. With the Christian gospel, it is all or nothing.
But the heart does not like this kind of gospel. No other world religion or philosophy confronts the heart as the Christian faith does. God claims it completely for himself. His word must be believed and confessed whatever the cost may be, for only hereby do we hold fast to Christ and everlasting life through faith in his name. God will have his word, his gospel, believed. Remember the Jews in the wilderness. Surely there must be another way – let us return to Egypt, or make our peace with the Canaanites, anything but a direct confrontation with the unbelieving world solely at the command of God’s voice. This is the choice before our hearts this morning – God’s voice or our own; God’s voice or the world; God’s voice or our fears and excuses. We face this choice in a thousand ways – in our homes, relationships, work, the way we spend the time God has given us, the Sabbath, money, attitude when our wife confronts us – everything of moral significance is a question of whether our hearts will yield to God’s voice or make excuses to do what we want. And thus, we are told to watch – to guard our hearts carefully.
This means, first, that we recognize that we are to live by God’s voice (Deut. 8:1-3). Many fail at this first point. They do not understand that we live by every word that comes out of his mouth (Matt. 4:4). God’s word must never be an afterthought or something we consider after we have already made up our minds and are looking for confirmation. No, whenever there is a decision to make, a relationship that needs mending, an attitude that needs to change, our main concern must be to hear from God what he wants from us (Ps. 32:8-9). And second, we must keep our hearts carefully in God’s ways, for the heart is giddy and will buck from God like a wild pony. Even the redeemed and renewed heart needs this warning, as the Holy Spirit shows us here. The assumption is not that these believers were wicked or not really believers, but the flesh fights back (Gal. 5:17), especially in times of fear and persecution. We are in a fight. We must take this warning to watch our hearts carefully and endeavor to believe and obey God in all seasons, even if what he is telling us will bring us into difficulty. The list of men and women who determined to obey God and then faced greater obstacles and persecution is long – Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel, the three Hebrew children, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and our blessed Savior. Hearing and believing and obeying God does not mean the path will be cleared of all obstacles. It may even grow more difficult in the short run, for the devil and the flesh oppose nothing more than new resolve to obey God. Yet, since we are walking humbly with him, we need not be afraid of monsters in the path. He will deliver and help us endure to the end of our course.
Unbelief Will Kill You
Now, it is certain that unbelief is the wickedest thing in the world. Unbelief is not a lack of faith or trust in God, for a pious heart will often cry, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Do not think that an apostle of the Savior would “break a bruised reed” with a condemnation of merely weak or struggling faith. To such, Jesus Christ extends an invitation to come to him for life and to rest in him for peace. In this context, unbelief consists of rejecting God’s word after having professed faith. It is similar to the sin of apostasy and blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, as later portions of the letter will make clear. It is to depart from the living God after having professed to make him your Friend. This is the evil heart against which we are to guard. It usually starts with small steps – questioning God rather than trusting him, looking to worldly opinion rather than obeying his word, tolerating rather than fighting against sin. Then, with God offended and the heart restless and under sin’s cloud of uncertainty, it doubts that God will really fulfill his promises.
Unbelief then leads us to look away from Jesus Christ, so that the promises of the gospel, his wonderful person and work, and his saving, cheering presence no longer rejoice and encourage the heart or establish the will in the path of obedience. This is unbelief’s ultimate goal – Satan, the world, and the flesh all conspire to this deadly end – to lead us away from Jesus Christ. For then, the preaching of the cross loses its hold upon the affections. Separated from this, there is no power unto godliness or joy in duty. There may even be the wicked desire that the preacher would stop preaching about Jesus and move on to something different and relevant. Again and again, however, we are told to look to Jesus (2:9; 3:1; 12:1-2). Paul determined not to preach anything except Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:2) and to boast in nothing but his cross (Gal. 6:14). But rest assured, that when we are led away from Jesus Christ, whether because the offense of the cross in a given period is great, or persecution is the cost of discipleship, or the world woos with its political and cultural polytheism, then there is a departure from the living God. To depart from him is death. He is our only life. And as no one comes to him except through the Son, we must hold fast to him to have the Father (John 5:23; 1 John 2:23; 2 John 9).
Exhort One Another Daily (v. 13)
Exhortation and Encouragement – Daily and “Today”
But how shall we believe God against the furious assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil? At other times, their poison creeps slowly so that the sinner is unaware of unbelief’s spread until closet religion has been left off altogether and the very thought of God and seeking him fills the heart with fear and dread. Praise God that we do not make or live our profession in an isolated vacuum, that Christian discipleship is not a private spiritual adventure. Christ is the Head of a great body of believers, his church and bride. We are to exhort each other daily. Exhort is a word that means to confront or encourage with words. It is the minister’s duty to exhort with all longsuffering (1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Tim. 4:1); it is every believer’s to speak words that confront and encourage toward faith and faithfulness, toward Christ and godliness and his eternal kingdom (1 Thess. 4:18). This must be done daily, which perhaps assumes a daily meeting or at least regular interaction among believers. “Today” means that there was a limited opportunity for that encouragement to be given. Once the heart gives way to unbelief, rejects Christ, and departs from God, there is no turning back. The implication may also be that in that particular period of history, only a few years remained for them to be severely tested.
Sin Deceives, Hardens, and Kills
We need words that confront and encourage because this is the very work of the Holy Spirit, who is called the great Exhorter or Comforter (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). To exhort and encourage is to join with him in his great work of witness bearing and upholding the saints in their battle against sin and Satan. We are commanded to do this because we are filled with him. We are not walking with him carefully and closely unless we are in some measure able to admonish and encourage each other. And this encouraging and exhorting is the very remedy for sin’s deceptiveness. It is always the case that those under the power of sin think something very different from what is actually the case. They cannot see. All sin deceives, even the little sins we tolerate. Because we cannot see them clearly, we need to be close to other believers and open and even actively seeking their open exhortations toward us. It is often the case that the sinner distrusts everything more than he distrusts himself and the fickleness of his heart and the uncertainty of his mind and will. Because sin deceives, it also hardens. The more we sin, the more calloused and eventually seared the conscious becomes. Men, women, children – lest any of you – all must be on guard against this danger, against unbelief’s creeping influence upon the heart, lessening the desire for Christ, making sin a little easier, hardening the heart so that it responds to Christ very weakly.
Loving Exhortations Prevents Heart Hardening
Do you not find it striking that such a deadly thing as unbelief should have encouragement as one of its remedies? But we have often found this to be the case. Let us say that we have fallen again into a particular sin and feel estranged, perhaps even completely cut off from Christ. Then, a fellow believer takes pity upon us, gives us loving words or shows a pitiable heart. Suddenly, we are arrested in our course; it is almost like the voice of the Good Shepherd is calling us back to the fold through that brother or sister. But this assumes that our exhortations are not prompted by anger or the desire to be right at all costs – or at any costs. At stake is not whether others agree to our opinions about secondary things but that together we continue to push forward toward Christ, holiness, and his eternal kingdom in our callings, families, and world. Make sure, child of God, that your words of exhortation actually comfort one who is struggling. If you have the Exhorter and Comforter, he will not scream, pout, or manipulate through you, but the tender, loving voice of Jesus will speak through you, as James says (3:14-18). A tender, friendly word will always accomplish more than truth coldly or harshly spoken. The heart must be confronted with the truth in love. “The wrath of man will not accomplish the righteousness of God.”
Hold Fast to Christ and Assurance (v. 14)
Partakers of Christ
Steadfastness in Christ is the ultimate goal of these warnings and of the exhortations we give to one another. It is not to prove who is right or to gratify personal ambition but to make sure that no one for whom Christ died falls into the ditch of unbelief. We have been made partakers of Christ – in a real union with him, even as he took upon our nature and became one with us (Heb. 2:14). Unbelief is deadly because it tempts the soul away from its only Savior. If we depart from him, righteousness, peace, and wisdom are lost to us – perhaps forever. And sometimes, the pressure to turn from him is great, perhaps to save ours skins either through denying him altogether or so altering the faith once for all given to the saints that it becomes a different gospel and another Christ altogether (Gal. 1:8-9), as in most of popery and the mainline denominations. To be a partaker of Christ, therefore, is to be one with him through faith and the indwelling Spirit, to have his mind and heart, and to talk in obedient communion with him. This is also what it means to be his house – not merely a formal connection, as with baptism or church membership – but a living and vital connection.
Life in Him Verified by Fruit
A real union with Christ, a partaking of him, once forged, cannot be severed or lost, but this does not make warnings superfluous but the more necessary. The means by which our partaking of him is confirmed and preserved is by bearing fruit – here holding fast (v. 7; John 15:1-8), especially as it relates to assurance of our interest in him. The “if” does not imply that a real connection or partaking of Christ can be lost; it does imply that such a partaking will be confirmed by its perseverance in Christ. Faith, because united to Christ, overcomes the world; he overcomes the world in us (1 John 5:4). “Have been made partakers” is a perfect tense and stresses the enduring nature of the union. God would not have us be in constant doubt as to whether we are truly partakers of Christ. Instead, he shows us the way to know that we are partakers of him. Here this is summarized as “holding fast the beginning of our assurance.” We might just as easily translate it as maintaining our first love, the first flush of faith, not in the sense of emotionalism but in clarity and confidence in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, that he is faithful to his promises and will keep what we have committed to him until the end (2 Tim. 1:12).
Hold Fast to Assurance…to the End
Were our religion of this world, we would be warned to hold fast to certain formulas or rituals, even to esteemed men. It is true that God’s covenant signs and seals are useful as testimonies of his faithfulness and aids to our faith. We shall later be told to follow the faith of the godly men the Lord raises up to teach and shepherd us. But higher than all these things is the simple consideration that we must hold fast to Christ. We are not disciples of men, for our “faith does not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5). And cults do not want you to have assurance, for then you might not be as ready to follow the prescribed regimen or revered guru. God wants you to have assurance – of his love and favor, that your sins are freely forgiven you, and that you may draw near to him for help in the worst of circumstances. How does he give this hupostasis, the interesting word used here and translated assurance or confidence? It means that which lies beneath, the undergirding support, that which stands under. It is found only in Christ Jesus. In him we see the glory of God and hear his voice inviting us to partake of his gospel. Give way to sin’s seducing influence and turn from Christ, and there is no assurance of God’s favor. There is nothing but your own feelings, the vain promises of men, and the pursuit of one spiritual experience and high after another.
Instead, we must learn that holding fast to assurance means holding fast to Jesus Christ. Our feelings are like kites or weathervanes. If we try to follow them, we shall soon go astray. We must look to Jesus Christ. It is not simply that he gives assurance, but he is the assurance or confidence. Remember that he is the wisdom and righteousness of God (1 Cor. 1:24). By bearing our curse upon Calvary, he has removed our condemnation by satisfying God’s justice. We are at peace with God because Jesus Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Does conscience seek a firm and quiet resting place? Let it come before Calvary and witness his forsaken soul and pierced side, the price of our redemption. Let it hear his “the Scriptures are fulfilled,” and “It is finished,” and rest in his finished work. Let it remember that he who died for our sins and rose for our justification was not a robot but the beloved of the Father, who “having loved his own, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). He laid down his life for the sheep because he knew them by name and loved each of them and was determined not one of those the Father gave him would be lost.
Jesus Christ is our assurance. Therefore, obtain the clearest possible understanding of the gospel. The more you understand, the more you will admire and want to learn of him who humbled himself and became obedient unto death. The world will be less attractive to you. Faith will be tested, but where the love of Christ is kept blazing in the soul, all the trials of life do not lead astray from him but more closely to him. This is the reason that the apostle says “to the end,” for it is through much trouble that we shall reach our eternal home. It is no good to pretend otherwise or to think that there are principles that will make life easy. There are none. Jesus Christ will secure his sheep against the fury of Satan and malice of the world, so that all will boast in him alone. Like him, we will bear the cross before we wear the crown. The way to the crown is through the narrow gate and along the narrow away of his gospel. Suffering is inevitable there, but Christ is there. Trials and testing are also inevitable, but there are encouraging saints there who have passed through your curve in the road and will help you get through it. When your faith is assailed and it is tempting to draw back in order to avoid hardship, remember our Savior’s bloodstained, nail-pierced hands. He did not draw back from you and is now reigning to help you. Do not turn away from the living God back to death. Watch and pray. Endure hardship as a good soldier. Take all your cares to Jesus, and you will find him a great and powerful Savior. His heart is never cold toward you. He is praying for you that your faith fail not.