For yet a very little while,
But we are not of them that shrink back unto perdition; but of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul." -- HEB. x.19-39 (R.V.).
The argument is closed. Christ is the eternal Priest and King, and every rival priesthood or kingship must come to an end. This is the truth won by the Apostle's original and profound course of reasoning. But he has in view practical results. He desires to confirm the Hebrew Christians in their allegiance to Christ. We shall be better able to understand the precise bearing of his exhortation if we compare it with the appeal previously made to his readers in the earlier chapters of the Epistle. At the very outset he plunged into the midst of his subject and proved that Jesus Christ is Son of God and representative Man. The union in Christ of these two qualifications constituted Him a great High-priest. He is able to succour the tempted; He is faithful as a Son, Who is set over the house of God; He has experienced the bitter humiliation of life, He is perfected as our Saviour, and has passed through the heavens. The exhortation, based on these truths, is that we must lay fast hold of our confidence.
Then come the big wave, the hesitation to face it, the allegory of Melchizedek, the appeal to the prophet Jeremiah, the comparison between the old covenant and the new. But the argument triumphs and advances. Jesus not only is a great High-priest, but this is interpreted as meaning that He is Priest and King, and that His priesthood and power will never pass away. Their eternal duration involves the setting aside of every other priesthood, the destruction of every opposing force. Christ has entered into the true holiest place and enthroned Himself on the mercy-seat.
This being so, the Apostle no longer urges his readers to be confident. He now appeals to them as having confidence, in virtue of the blood of Jesus, so that they tarry not in the precincts, but enter themselves into the holiest. The high-priest alone dared enter under the former covenant, and he approached with fear and trembling, lest he also, like others before him, should fall down dead in the presence of God. The exhortation now is, not to confidence, but to sincerity. Let their confidence become more objective. They had the boasting of hope. Let them seek the silent, unboasting assurance that is grounded on faith, on the realisation of the invisible. Instead of believing because they hoped, let them hope because they believed. In the earlier chapters the exhortation rested mainly on what Jesus was as Son over God's house. Now, however, the Apostle speaks of Him as a great Priest over God's house. His authority over the Church springs, not only from His relation to God, but also from His relation to men. He is King of His Church because He prays for it and blesses it. Through His priesthood our hearts are cleansed by the sprinkling of His blood from the consciousness of sin. But this blessing of the individual believer is now closely connected by the Apostle with the idea of the Church, over which Christ is King in virtue of His priesthood on its behalf. In addition to the cleansing of our hearts from an evil conscience, our bodies have been washed with pure water. The Apostle alludes primarily in both clauses to the rite of priestly consecration. "Moses brought Aaron and his sons, and washed them with water." He also "took of the blood which was upon the altar and sprinkled it upon Aaron, and upon his garments, and upon his sons, and upon his sons' garments with him, and sanctified Aaron, and his garments, and his sons, and his sons' garments with him." The meaning of our author seems certainly to be that the worshippers have the privilege of the high-priest himself. They lose their priestly character only in the more excellent glory and greatness of that High-priest through Whom they have received their priesthood. In comparison with Him, they are but humble worshippers, and He alone is Priest. In contrast to the world around them, they also are priests of God. But the words of the Apostle contain another allusion. Both clauses refer to baptism. The mention of washing the "body" renders it, we think, unquestionable that baptism is meant. But baptism is not here said to be the antitype of the priestly consecration of the old covenant. One rite cannot be the type of another rite, which is itself an external action. The solution of this apparent difficulty is simply that both clauses together mean baptism, which is invariably represented in the New Testament as much more than an outward rite. The external act may be performed without its being a true baptism. For the meaning of baptism is the forgiveness of sin, the cleansing of the heart or innermost consciousness from guilt, and the reception of the absolved sinner into the Church of God. "Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself up for it, that He might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word."
In an earlier chapter our author told his readers that they were the house of God if they held fast their confidence. He does not repeat it. The Church consciousness has sprung up within them. They were previously taught to look steadfastly at Jesus as the Apostle and High-priest of their confession. They are now urged to look as steadfastly at one another as fellow-confessors of the same Apostle and High-priest, and to sharpen one another's love and activity even to the point of jealousy. In the earlier exhortation no mention was made of the Church assemblies. Here prominence is given them. Importance is attached to the words of encouragement addressed at these gatherings of believers. Christian habits were at this time forming and consolidating into customs of the Church. Occasional and eccentric manifestations of the religious life and temperament were yielding to the slow, normal growth of true vitality. As faithfulness in frequenting the Church assemblies began to rank among the foremost virtues, unfaithfulness would, by force of contrast, harden into habitual neglect of the house of prayer: "As the custom of some is."
The chief of all reasons for exhorting the readers to habitual attendance on the Church assemblies the writer of the Epistle finds in the expectation of the Lord's speedy return. They could see for themselves that the day was at hand. The signs of the Son of man's coming were multiplying and thrusting themselves on the notice of the Church. Perhaps the voice of Joshua, the son of Hanan, had already been heard in the streets, exclaiming, "Woe to Jerusalem!" The holy city was plainly doomed. But Christ will come to His Church, not to individuals. He will not be found in the wilderness, nor in the inner chambers. "As the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west, so shall be the coming of the Son of man."
The day of Christ is a day of judgment. The two meanings of the word "day," -- day in contrast to night, and day as a fixed time for the transaction of public business, -- coalesce in the New Testament usage. The second idea seems to have gradually superseded the former.
The author proceeds to unfold the dreadful character of this day of judgment. Here, again, the precise force of his declarations will best appear by comparison with the warnings of the first part of the Epistle in reference to the sin and to the punishment.
First, the sin referred to here has a wider range than the transgression spoken of in the second chapter. For there he mentions the special sin of neglecting so great salvation. But in the present passage his words seem to imply that rejection of Christ has given birth to a progeny of evil through the self-abandonment of those who wilfully persist in sinning, as if from reckless bravado. The special guilt, too, of rejecting Christ is here painted in darker hues. For in the earlier passage it is indifference; here it is contempt. In the former case it is ingratitude to a merciful Saviour; in the latter it is treason against the majesty of God's own Son. "To trample under foot" means to desecrate. Christ is the holy High-priest of God, and is now ministering in the true holiest place. Therefore to choose Judaism, with its dead rites, and to reject the living Christ, is no longer the action of a holy zeal for God's house. Quite the reverse. The sanctuary of Judaism has been shorn of its glory, and its sacredness transferred to the despised Nazarene. To tread under foot the Son of God is to trample with revel rout on the hallowed floor of the holiest place. Further, the Apostle's former warnings contained no allusion to the covenant. Now he reminds his readers that they have been sanctified -- that is, cleansed from guilt -- through the blood of the covenant. Is the cleansing blood itself unclean? Shall we deem the reeking gore of a slain beast or the grey ashes of a burnt heifer holy, and consider the blood of the Christ, Who with an eternal spirit offered Himself without spot to God, unholy and defiling? Moreover, that eternal spirit in the Son of God is a spirit of grace towards men. But His infinite compassion is spurned. And thus the Apostle brings us once more in sight of the hopeless character of cynicism.
Second, the punishment is partly negative. A sacrifice for sins is no more left to men who have spurned the sacrifice of the Son. Here again we notice an advance in the thought. The Apostle told his readers before that it is impossible to renew to repentance those who crucify afresh the Son of God and put Him to an open shame. But the impossibility consists in hardness of heart and spiritual blindness. The result also is subjective, -- they cannot repent. He now adds the impossibility of finding another propitiation than the offering of Christ or of finding in His offering a different kind of propitiation, seeing that He is the final revelation of God's forgiving grace. Then, further, the punishment has a positive side. After hardness of heart comes stinging remorse, arising from a vague, but on that account all the more fearful, expectation of the judgment. The abject terror is amply justified. For the fury of a fire, already kindling around the doomed city, warns the Hebrew backsliders that the Christ so wilfully scoffed at is at the door. Observe the contrast. The law of Moses is on occasion set aside. The matter is almost private. Only two or three persons witnessed it. Its evil influence did not spread, and when the criminal was led out to be stoned to death, they who passed by went their way unheeding. The Christ of God is put to an open shame; the covenant, for ever established on the sure foundation of God's oath and Christ's death, and the spirit of all grace that filled the heart of Christ are mocked. Of how much sorer punishment shall Christ at His speedy coming deem the scorner worthy? The answer is left by the Apostle to his readers. They knew with Whom they had to do. It was not with angels, the swift messengers and flaming ministers of His power. It was not with Moses, who himself exceedingly feared and quaked. It was not with the blind pressure of fate. They had to do with the living God Himself directly. He will lay upon them His living hand, -- the hand that might and, if they had not spurned it, would have protected and saved. Retribution descends swift and resistless. It can only be likened to a sudden falling into the very hands of a waiting avenger. He will not entrust the work of vengeance to another. No extraneous agent shall come between the smiting hand and the heart that burns with the anger of the sincere against the false, of the compassionate against the pitiless. Does not Scripture teach that the Lord will execute judgment on behalf of His people? If on behalf of His people, will He not enter into judgment for His Son?
From the terrible expectation of future judgment the Apostle turns away, to recall to his readers the grounds of hope supplied by their steadfastness in the past. He has already spoken of their work and the love which they had shown in ministering to the saints. God's justice would not forget their brotherly kindness. Now, however, His purpose in bidding them remember the former days is something different. He writes to convince them that they needed no other and greater confidence to face the future than had carried them triumphantly through conflicts in days of yore. They had endured sufferings; let them conquer their own indifference and put away their cynicism with the lofty disdain of earnest faith. The courage that could do the former can also do the latter.
From the first break of day in their souls they had felt the confidence of men who walk, not in darkness, not knowing whither they go and fearing to take another step, but in the light, so that they trod firmly and stepped boldly onward. Their confidence was based on conviction and understanding of truth. For that reason it inspired them with the courage of athletes, when they had to endure also the shame of the arena. Made a gazing-stock to a scoffing theatre, they had not turned pale at the roar of the wild beasts. Instead of tamely submitting, they had turned their sufferings into a veritable contest against the world, and maintained the conflict long. Taunted by the spectators, torn by the lions, reproaches and afflictions alike had been ineffectual to break their spirit. When they witnessed the prolonged tortures of their brethren whose Christian life was one martyrdom, they had not shrunk from the like usage. They had pitied the brethren in prisons and visited them. They had taken joyfully the spoiling of their substance, knowing that now they had themselves, as a better and an abiding possession. If they had lost the world, they had gained for themselves their souls. As true athletes, therefore, let them not throw away their sword, which is no other than their old, undaunted confidence. There was none like that sword. Their victory was assured. Their reward would be, not the plaudits of the fickle onlookers, but the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham. They had need of endurance, because in enduring they were doing the will of God. But the Deliverer would be with them in a twinkling. He had delayed His chariot wheels, but He would delay no more. Hear ye not His voice? It is He that speaks in the words of the prophet, "Those whom I deny will perish out of the way. But I have My righteous ones here and there, unseen by the world, and out of their faith will be wrought for them eternal life. But let even Mine own beware of lowering sail. My soul will have no delight even in him if he draws back."
The Apostle reflects on the words of Christ in the prophecy of Habakkuk. But he has an assured hope that he and his readers would repudiate the thought of drawing back. They were men of faith, bent on winning the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus; and the prize would be their own souls. May we not conjecture that the Apostle's fervid appeal prevailed with the Christians within the doomed city "to break the last bands of patriotism and superstition which attached them to the Temple and the altar, and proclaim themselves missionaries of the new faith, without a backward glance of lingering reminiscence"?
 Chaps. ii.1-5; iii.1, 6; iv.11, 16; vi.
 Chap. x.19.
 =meta alethines kardias= (x.22).
 =megan= (x.21).
 =apo syneideseos poneras= (x.22).
 Lev. viii.6, 30.
 Eph. v.26.
 Chap. iii.1.
 =eis paroxysmon= (x.24).
 =ethos= (x.25).
 Matt. xxiv.27.
 =hekousios= (x.26).
 Chap. x.29.
 =pneuma tes charitos=.
 See chap. vi.6.
 Chap. x.26.
 =zelos= (x.27).
 Chap. x.28.
 =paradeigmatizontas= (vi.6).
 Chap. iii.12.
 Chap. xii.21.
 Deut. xxxii.36.
 Chap. vi.10.
 =photisthentes= (x.32).
 =houtos anastrephomenon= (x.33).
 Reading =heautous= (x.34).
 =eis peripoiesin= (x.39).
 =me apobalete=.
 =mikron hoson hoson= (x.37).
 Reading =mou= (x.38).
 =peripoiesin= (x.39).
 Dean Merivale, Romans under the Empire, chap. lix.