In a first, quick read this is a very shocking passage. The author of Hebrews has just outlined that we can have confidence to draw near to our God because of Christ’s sacrifice and the resulting clean conscience we have. And now he is writing in such harsh terms. How are we to understand this passage?
First of all it is necessary to clarify that the sin the author writes about here is apostasy. This is seen in the immediate expression that the sin is committed by those after receiving the knowledge of the truth continue in their deliberate sin (note that the author sees his own weakness and puts himself in the categories of his readers). The very fact that they (and we) received the knowledge of the truth implies that this is sin is not done in ignorance but in full knowledge of the one who commits such. See also further the a fortiori argument that those who “reject” (the lit. translation of atheteō “to reject someth. as invalid, declare invalid, nullify, ignore”; BDAG, 24) the law of Moses in relation to the sin of apostasy.
In Num 15:22-31 there is a distinction being made by those who sin out of ignorance and those who do so deliberately. Peterson rightly observes that “it would be a mistake to think that this merely referred to the sinful behaviour which is sadly evident in all of our lives” but as context and parallel passages in the book of Hebrews show “the writer has on view the specific sin of apostasy or continuing rejection of Christ” (in loc.).
This deliberate sinning constitutes (1) the spurning of the Son of God, (2) the profaning of the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and (3) the outraging of the Spirit (we will take a closer look at these three ‘items’ at the end of the exposition of this paragraph).
The only thing which awaits an apostate is a fearful expectation of judgment because he has become like those being opposed to the gospel – an enemy of God. Another reason why a fearful judgment is going to be expected is that there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins. As the author made more than clear, there is only ONE sacrifice, which was sacrificed ONCE FOR ALL, and to reject the only sacrifice which can cleanse our conscience is to reject the only way by which we can be saved.
Again an argument from the lesser to the greater is used. Those who rejected the Mosaic covenant in Israeldied without mercy under the law (cf. Deut. 17:2-7), how much worse is the punishment for those who commit the three ‘items’ mentioned above. Now we will take a brief look at each of these.
Ad (1): to spurn the Son of God is to “trample him underfoot” (a literal translation; Bruce, 261), “this is a treading of him with contempt by denying his true nature and identity” (Peterson, in loc.), which is “contempt of the most flagrant kind” (Moffatt, 151). In light of the seven affirmations found in vv. 1-4 in chapter 1 (cf. Bruce, 46-50)…
1. “heir of all things” (2b)
2. “through whom also he created the world” (2c)
3. “he is the radiance of the glory of God” (3a)
4. “the exact imprint of his nature” (3b)
5. “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (3c)
6. “making purification for sins” (3d)
7. “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (3e)
…this is of utter rebellion. God promised to make all of Christ’s enemies a footstool for him (1:13; 10:13; Ps 110:1) and thus the trampling of the Son under their feet show the deliberate rejection of God’s purposes (cf. O’Brien, 378).
Those who do so profane the blood of the covenant (2). Christ’s death is seen as “common” and “not as the sacred means chosen by God to achieve our salvation” (Peterson, in loc.), the way by which the new covenant was inaugurated.
Ad (3): The third action is the outraging of the Spirit of grace. “The Spirit of God brings us to trust in the grace of God, and to take hold of the benefits of Christ’s work for ourselves (cf. 6:4–5). The Spirit also distributes God’s gracious gifts, confirming the truth of the gospel (cf. 2:4)” (Peterson, in loc.). What other then God’s fearful judgment is to be expected by those who willfully reject the only way of reconciliation and salvation?
But as always the author of Hebrews is going to follow up his strong warning passage with a word of encouragement (vv. 32-39 – see the upcoming post).
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Moffat, James. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: Clark, 1948.
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; 2010.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.