“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
These two verses in Hebrews 12 were shared with me by a gentleman at the church I go to who sends out daily verses by text to a group of men. Sometimes things like this are particularly timely and poignant. These verses inspires my thoughts today.
I have been wrestling with my own sinfulness lately. I have been painfully aware of areas of sinful behavior in my life and sinful attitudes in my heart that I have yet to conquer. The threads of this sinfulness go back to childhood, and they are rooted deeply.
I find myself stumbling over the same things time and again. I sometimes feel like a bird caught in a snare that cannot escape. I am tempted to be completely disgusted with myself, indignant, and condemning. Then, I recall that God is faithful to forgive; and I must ask myself, “Who am I to condemn?” Unless, of course, I am not really “saved”.
I have variously felt convicted, forgiven, hopeful, condemned, hopeless, and depressed in cycles for a long time. I tire of continually going back to God, asking for forgiveness…. again! I fear that my lack of success in overcoming these things means that I do not have the power of the Holy Spirit in me; and maybe I have fooled myself into believing in Christ’s power in my life.
I am reminded today that the letter to the Hebrews carries in it some of the most hopeful and some of the most despairing verses that can be found in the New Testament, like my cycle of feelings. I am digging deeper today to explore them. In doing so, I am reminded that the trajectory of Hebrews is hope!
The following verses provide great hope to the weary Christ follower:
“[S]ince we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
If we “hold firmly to the faith we profess” and “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence”, these verses promise mercy and grace to help us in our time of need. These words bring great comfort to a person like me.
Yet, thoughts arise in my mind that are concerning: What does it mean to “find grace to help us in our time of need”? How does this grace help us? Does this grace mean forgiveness in our time of need? If so, then I am thankful for that grace?
What is that grace in our time of need us the power to overcome the sin – to put a stop to it? What if the grace we receive is meant to empower us to stop, and I don’t stop? Does that mean I didn’t receive the grace that is offered? Am I doomed if I continue to fail?
A fear naturally arises that grace is not enough for me, that maybe it isn’t offered to me, or that I have spurned that grace by continuing to fail. If we go on sinning, we fear we will exhaust God’s well of mercy. The consequences of “falling away” loom ominously:
“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, 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.”
This passage is particularly ominous in its finality and the impossibility of coming back from “falling away”. I have tasted of the goodness of the word of God, If I go on sinning is there no repentance for me?
Am I the only who thinks like this? Am I the only one who fears being on the wrong side of this grace that is offered, doomed to a life of sin and, eventually, death? Fortunately for us, we have hope!
As I read through Hebrews again, I am reminded that this passage does not talk about sinning, per se, but “falling away”. The Hebrew word used here combines two words: one meaning close-beside, and the other meaning “fall away”. Falling away suggests a change in position. Having once been close, a person who has fallen away is no longer close. It suggests abandonment or wandering away from of a previous position.
The words used do not seem to be a matter of simply failing to bring ones conduct into line. They suggests a change not in conduct, but in position. It suggests a person who once professed faith in Christ who no longer professes faith in Christ; a person who once approached God’s throne of grace who no longer does so; a person who once drew near to God who no longer seeks God. These verses suggest a person who has given up, walked away, and abandoned the faith he once had.
Indeed, the following language in the same Chapter as the warning provides clarity and hope:
“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.”
This language contrasts those who have “fallen away” with people who continue to love and help God’s people and who remain “diligent to the end”. It contrasts people who become lazy with those who inherit what has been promised “through faith and patience”.
In other words, we have hope if we hang in there, if we don’t shrink away, and we just keep going. The message is: forge ahead; do not give up.
This journey is not a race that goes to the swift, but a race that is won by those who keep putting one foot confidently and patiently in front of the other, no matter how faltering. This hope is echoed again in these words:
“[S]ince 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 with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”
But then, just as hope seems to be attainable, the ominous, dark cloud of impending judgment reappears:
“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.”
There it is again: the judgment we feared; the finality we suspected all along; the nail in our coffin. I have continued to sin; I am doomed!
The various sections of Hebrews are like a formal rendition of my own inner turmoil – the cycle from despair to hope to despair again. As I think on these things, trying to see where the writer of Hebrews is headed I recall where Hebrews started:
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.”
An unbelieving heart is a heart that turns away from God. The first warning in Hebrews is of people who fall away, who change their position: who turn from God and move away from Him.
A believing heart turns toward God. As long as it is “today”, we can turn toward God, and we can have confidence that He will forgive. As long as we are not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin to turn away from God, as long as we continually turn to God and hold “this conviction firmly to the very end”, we will be saved from sin and death.
The passage I began with in Hebrews 12 is a bookend to Hebrews 3. It encourages us to continue in our efforts to “throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles”. The writer of Hebrews implicitly acknowledges that we are still susceptible to “encumbrances” and sin”. He acknowledges that the sin “easily entangles” us. Yet, we have hope if we continually turn to God and hold firmly to our faith to the end.
If we continue to draw near to God, to approach His throne of grace, we have hope. If we sin, all is not lost. Don’t turn away. Turn always to God! In all things, turn to God.
Though we may not be always be faithful, God always remains faithful. (1 Timothy 2:13) If we confess our sins, He is always faithful to forgive us and to cleanse us from our iniquity. (1 John 1:9) Because of Jesus we have confidence “that He who began a good work among you will complete it by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
This life is a long-distance race that requires endurance. Just don’t give up! We have hope as long as we hang in there, and always, always, always, go back to God and the mercy and grace He offers us in Christ.
We also need to understand the context of the letter to the Hebrews, including the obvious fact that it was written to Hebrews. What the writer was concerned about was the Hebrews shrinking back and falling away from their confidence in the death and resurrection of Jesus, their association with him, and association the followers of Christ.
To fall away for the Hebrews meant disassociation from Christ-followers and going back to reliance on following the Law. All of the text between the warnings, from Hebrews 6:13 through Hebrews 10:25, focused on linking Jesus to the promises made to Abraham, following in the priesthood of Melchizedek, establishing the supremacy of Christ over the Levitical priesthood, the ultimate efficacy of the sacrifice made by Christ, compared to the Levitical sacrifices, the new covenant introduced by Christ, and the finality of what he did.
Falling away and going on sinning in that context is linked to walking away from confidence in what Christ did to return to reliance on following the Law. Falling away means abandoning the confidence we have in Christ for confidence we have in our own abilities to observe the Law. If we go on sinning, and our confidence is in the sacrifices and observances of the Law, we are sunk. If we fail to embrace the sacrifice Christ provided once for all time, there is no hope for us – only judgment – because we have rejected the one things that saves us
 The version used here is the Berean Standard Bible, which the website, www.biblehub.com, uses to allow searches of the various Greek and Hebrew words from which the text is derived. Bibehub also provides many different translations of the same verse in the left-hand column of the page, making it an exceptional tool for studying the Bible in more detail.
 parapíptō (from pará, “from close-beside” and píptō, “to fall”) – properly, fall away, after being close-beside; to defect (abandon).