One of the sad realities of church life is apostasy. The Greek word is found only twice in the New Testament, but sadly its actual occurrence throughout church history has been far more common. The word literally means “to revolt” or “to defect.”
Precisely what is apostasy? To apostatise is to hear the gospel, to seemingly gladly embrace the gospel, and continue faithfully for weeks, months or perhaps even years, but eventually to turn away from the gospel. This defection normally takes place over time, and it is evidenced by a defection from the church. An apostate was not once converted only to lose their salvation, for that is impossible. No, the apostate is one who had made a merely mental assent to the gospel, but who has in reality never embraced the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is not to suggest that believers are never tempted to draw away from Christ. That is a reality that doubtless every believer reading this has experienced. But apostasy, as defined biblically, is a sin that can only ever be committed by an unbeliever. The rich young ruler was confronted by Christ with the gospel, and seemingly grasped what Christ was saying, but walked away from eternal life. Demas once served faithfully alongside the apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24), but eventually turned away in favour of “this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10). And, of course, the epitome of apostasy was Judas Iscariot. And so indeed the reality of apostasy is writ large in both the Scriptural record and in church history.
Billy Graham and Charles Templeton were partners in founding Youth for Christ International. Templeton died in 2001 and for the last 30 years of his life was a professing agnostic. At one time, he was a well-known evangelist who preached the gospel to thousands, but he eventually turned his back completely on the Christian faith and walked away from Christ.
Whilst the reality of apostasy ought certainly to sadden us, it ought not to surprise us, for it was indeed prophesied by the Lord Jesus Christ. In interpreting the parable of the sower, Jesus spoke these words:
And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience. No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light. For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad. Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have.
Jesus Himself taught that not all those who start out confessing Him will end up confessing Him. The good news, however, is that we can guard against the reality of apostasy in our lives and in our churches. As we take the problem of apostasy seriously, we will become alert to its danger. And, as we continue our study of BBC’s newly adopted covenant, we will see the biblical possibility and need to guard, as far as possible, against apostasy in our lives and churches. The covenant reads:
We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, eager to make productive use of the means of grace.
We will endeavour to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our family and friends.
The local church must be committed to both protecting and perpetuating her confession. And a sound understanding of Hebrews 10:19-25 will go a long way in helping us to do this.
The author of Hebrews wrote to Hebrew believers–probably those in Jerusalem–who were being tempted to apostasy. They had professed Christ as Saviour, but were now tempted to return to the shadow of Christ in the Judaistic rituals. But to turn from Christianity and to again embrace Judaism would be to turn away from Christ; it would be apostasy. The writer warns his readers to guard against this temptation. Thus, in our desire to guard ourselves from the danger of apostasy there is no better biblical writing we can study than Hebrews. Though we will study in particular 10:19-25, we must first glean something on an overview of the book if we will affirm our confession so as to avoid apostasy.
The Problem of Which We Must Be Aware
The problem that we constantly face is that of losing sight of the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. We sometimes sing, “Jesus, keep me near the cross,” that must be our constant prayer.
In the first century, the Jews needed to guard against the allure of Judaism. In 21st century South Africa, religious Judaism is not much of a threat, but there are other dangers of which we must be aware. For example, we are constantly bombarded by the media, which unashamedly seeks to diminish the value of Christ. Our own flesh bombards us: Forgetfulness and fear interferes, blurring our vision. And thus, in essence, we face the same problems that the early Jewish church faced.
The author of Hebrews writes to the Jewish church and shows them that, despite the slander of the religious Jews, Christianity is orthodox, biblical Judaism. Jesus showed believers in His time that He was the fulfilment of Judaism (Luke 24:25-27) and the apostle Paul summarised it neatly in writing to the Romans, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Romans 10:4). The Jewish believers to whom the author wrote were losing sight of this fact.
What was needed in this instance was a fresh vision of the supremacy of Christ, and that is precisely what the author offered. He shows unequivocally that Christ is supreme: He is better than the angels (chapters 1-2); He is better than Moses (3:1-4:7); He is better than Joshua (4:8-13); He is better than Aaron and the Jewish high priests (4:14-6:20); and He is better than Melchizedek (chapter 7); He is better than the Levitical priests (chapters 7-8). In short, Christ is better than the old covenant (8:1-10:18) and thus He is superior to all things.
Because these believers had lost sight of–or were at least tempted to lose sight of–Jesus Christ’s superiority they were thus turning from Him, the Substance, to Judaism, the shadow. And this was evidenced in them turning their back on the fellowship of the church.
As you survey this letter, there are at least four reasons given for the temptation of these believers to apostatise.
First, there was a certain degree of ignorance. The writer actually rebuked them for this ignorance: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (5:12-14). For whatever reason, they had become lazy in their thinking, and they needed to pick themselves up in this regard.
If we are honest, we will admit that our lazy habits often result in lazy thinking, which leads to ignorance where we ought to have knowledge. Television is a prominent source of lazy thinking in our lives. When we sit before the TV, we turn ourselves off and permit the media to entertain us. It doesn’t take much thought to watch a film or a TV program, and we do it so often that we train ourselves to be lazy. Another source of laziness in thinking is tradition; not the tradition itself, mind you, but our unquestioning acceptance of it. We are taught something and, rather than searching the Scriptures ourselves to verify its truth, we simply accept it as true. We thus do not train ourselves to think and ignorance is the result.
Second, the Jews to whom the author wrote faced the difficulty of intimidation. “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; Partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used” (Hebrews 10:32-33). There was a great deal of pressure from the unbelieving world at large, and doubtless from unbelieving family in particular, for the Jewish Christians to revert to Judaism. We ourselves certainly face pressure from the world at large, and unbelieving family in particular, to abandon Christ.
Third, there was a degree of indifference amongst the Jewish believers. It seems almost as if they had become accustomed to Christ. They seemed to believe that they could live in both worlds: clinging to Christ whilst still entertaining Judaism. They desperately needed to heed the warning of the apostle Paul: “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3; cf. Matthew 24:36-39). We too are tempted to become so accustomed to this world that we seek to juggle our Christianity with worldliness. If we are not careful, this is precisely the type of attitude that finds its end in apostasy.
Fourth, there was evidently an ungodly isolation in the church. The writer needed to urge the readers to gather together, as we shall see below. The attitude of some in the church was, “I’ll worship without your help, thank you very much!” And this attitude is very much prevalent today. Professing believers, when challenged about church attendance, are quick to object, “But you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” Whilst it is true that going to church does not make you a Christian, it is equally true that Christians go to church. Believers desire fellowship with other believers, and a refusal to attend church is nothing less than a rejection of Christ.
Each of these factors contributed in some way to the Jewish believers losing sight of the supremacy of Christ, and they will do the same to us today. We must recognise these tendencies for what they are: temptations to apostasy. We must acknowledge out apostatising tendency and do all we can to guard against it. We are all tempted to draw back, to draw away from Christ, and thus to lose sight of His worth.
Yes, we must recognise the very real temptations that we face to ignorance, intimidation, indifference and isolation. These things have the potential to blur our vision of Christ. But they need not … if we will follow the biblical prescription to guard against apostasy.
The Prescription which is Found in the Covenant
Simply stated, the solution to the problem of apostasy is for us to corporately fight back, to corporately stand against these tendencies to irreverence. Consider:
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
The phrase “let us” is found some 13 times in the book of Hebrews (4:1, 11, 14, 16; 6:1; 10:22, 23, 24; 12:1, 28; 13:13, 15). We might summarise the essence of the author’s argument in this way: “We all face this problem. So let us all stand together in opposition to it. Let’s beat back apostasy–together!” Apostasy is a corporate concern, for which there is a corporate cure. And this is what a church covenant is all about: helping others to see and savour the supremacy of Christ. Let us consider these verses together and see what is involved in the biblical prescription against apostasy.
Let Us Confidently Confess Christ
The first step to guarding against apostasy is for us to confidently confess Christ. This is the gracious privilege of all believers in Christ. Under the Old Testament, death was the penalty for anyone approaching the throne of God, bar the high priest, and that once a year. But things are different in this dispensation.
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.
As noted, the high priest alone could approach the throne of God in the Old Testament. But now the author writes, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We must corporately lay aside ignorance, intimidation indifference and isolation and walk together toward Christ.
Jesus Christ is, according to this text, “an high priest over the house of God” (v. 21). To the average Jew, “the house of God” was equated with the temple. Jewish Christians, on the other hand, would think instead of the church (Ephesians 2:20-22). The temple, which was evidently still standing when the author wrote, had a sinful, human high priest presiding over it. The church, on the other hand, had a sinless, divine High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The author adds that “our hearts” have been “sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (v. 22). This would immediately bring to a Jewish mind the ceremonial washings undergone by the Levitical priests, and the author’s intention is quite clear: He means to show that we, believers in Christ, are the new priesthood. And we, the new priesthood, have the privilege to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We are privileged to come confidently to Christ without fear of reproof. We must confidently confess Christ and we must do so together.
I am sure that I do not speak only for myself when I say that I sometime battle with confidence in Christ. The alarm on my cell phone is set to the tune of Be Thou My Vision. It is the melody to which I awake each morning, and I have set it to that deliberately to help me remember as I awake that Christ must be my vision. Since we all battle with keeping Christ as our vision, the assistance of the church (“let us”) is absolutely imperative if we will guard against the temptation to apostasy.
Let Us Continually Confess Christ
A once-off confession of Christ is insufficient. “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)” (v. 23). If we are in the faith, we must corporately persevere in the faith. Again, in Jesus’ interpretation of the parable of the sower, He said, “But that on the good ground are they [plural], which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). Let us not overlook the fact that He is speaking corporately here. All the seed in the good ground together grew and together brought forth fruit with perseverance.
The phrase “hold fast” literally means “to hold down.” It was used in biblical times of a ship holding its course for a particular destination (cf. Acts 27:40). It carries the idea of “seizing,” “clinging to” or “possessing.” 1 Corinthians 15:2 translates it as “keep in memory.” The point is that we need to set our compass firmly on Christ so as to head steadily toward Him, and we must do so corporately.
The word “profession” speaks of “acknowledgement” or “confession.” 1 Timothy 6:13 speaks of Christ’s “confession” before Pilate. Hebrews 3:1 makes reference to “the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus,” and 4:14 commands us to “hold fast our profession.” Hebrews 11:13 tells us that the great heroes of the faith “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Jesus said, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). And the New Testament speaks of those who would not “confess” Christ for fear of being “put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42).
“Without wavering” speaks of being firm and unbending. And thus, as we consider the verse in its entirety, we see a corporate call to persevere in our initial confession of Christ. The Hebrew Christians had professed Christ, but were now tempted to renounce that confession. The author’s challenge is for them to continue, as a church, to cling to that confession. “If ye [plural] continue in my word,” said Jesus, “then are ye [plural] my disciples indeed” (John 8:31). Theologians speak, not of “the perseverance of the saint,” but of “the perseverance of the saints.”
Covenantal accountability is essential in our continual confession of Christ. The word “covenant” is found time and again in Hebrews, and it is always in the context of a corporate covenantal relationship with Christ. The church is together in a covenant with God, and the only way we will remain faithful to that covenant is to remain accountable to our fellows in covenant.
It ought to be made clear by the local church at the very outset that members will be held accountable by fellow members to hold fast their profession. Baptism, communion, parent dedications and other significant events should highlight this accountability. And the church must be committed to holding others accountable to hold fast their profession.
Let Us Corporately Confess Christ
What has been implicit throughout the passage–the need for corporate confession–is now stated explicitly in vv. 24-25:
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
The author has shown quite clearly that Christ is supreme, and thus the risks involved in confessing Him are well worth it. He has shown the need for his readers to continue in their initial confession of Christ. Now, he shows how they will be able to corporately continue in their confession: by considering one another, by not forsaking assembling together, and by exhorting one another. The Jewish Christians needed to repent of selfishness and self-sufficiency, and so do we.
If you think that you can go the Christian life alone, then you have a problem with self-sufficiency. You cannot go it alone in the Christian life. You are not sufficient in yourself–none of us is. Evidently, some of the Jewish Christians had pulled away from the fellowship, believing that they could continue in their own strength, but the author writes to show the folly of this supposition. Perhaps some had the attitude that they did not care whether others in the church were okay, as long as they themselves were fine. But notice the twofold call of the writer.
A Call to Consider One Another
First, we see a call to be considerate, to care for the spiritual wellbeing of others. The word “consider” means “to fully observe.” It is used in an interesting way by the apostle James: “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (James 1:23-24). In James’ illustration, a man carefully considers himself in a mirror. It is as if he intently scans his own face, checking for grey hairs or newly formed lines. The ESV translates the KJV’s “beholding” as “looks intently.” Thus, to “consider one another” means to closely watch that others are holding fast to their profession. We are not seeking to control them. Rather, because we love them, we are concerned for their wellbeing.
The pastors (overseers) of the church are to be closely watching the flock to ensure that no sheep strays, but what is true of the elders is, biblically, equally true of all church members. We are each to watch for others who stray, and if we see them doing so, we are to come alongside them and help bring them back to Christ. We are all in the same ship, and we all face the same temptations. Therefore, we must pay attention to one another’s confession of faith.
This is a serious matter. The unconverted, whether church members or not, face eternity in the lake of fire. Their eternal wellbeing rests on their profession. There is no more loving thing we can do than to hold others accountable to that profession.
As we “consider one another” we must “provoke” one another “unto love and good works.” The word “provoke” means “to incite.” In Acts 15:29 the word describes the “sharp contention” between Paul and Barnabas, and it speaks of Paul’s spirit being “stirred” at flagrant idolatry in Acts 17:16. “Provoke” here does not speak of causing others irritation but of invigorating them. It is a positive thing, not a negative thing. And, specifically, we are to provoke others “to love and good works.” That is, we are to encourage them to live out their confession, for “faith … worketh by love,” and it is in “good works” that believers have been “ordained” to “walk” (Ephesians 2:10). This considering and provoking cannot happen in isolation; it can only happen corporately.
A Call to Congregate with One Another
The exhortation of v. 25 (“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”) flows naturally from v. 24, for it is impossible to consider and provoke others if we are not gathering with them. The danger for the initial readers of Hebrews is that they would forsake the church in favour of gathering at the temple. They would still be doing something religious, but it would be quite apart from the Body of Christ. And the author warns them not to do so.
We should realise that the issue here is not so much church attendance as it is attitude and affection. Some who professed Christ had adopted the ethos (“manner”) of forsaking fellowship with fellow saints, but this was both unhealthy and dangerous. The ethos of the believers needed to be that of consistent fellowship, and we need the same mindset today.
I recently met a pastor from the Bible Belt in the United States, where everyone is a Baptist. He came to a church whose membership was far larger than the actual weekly attendance. There were a large number of church members who only attended on Christmas, Easter and the AGM. This pastor recognised that such an attitude to fellowship is unbiblical, and so he began working toward correcting this problem. Over a lengthy period of time, he taught the church the need for corporate fellowship, and he and others in the church approached the members who displayed a lack of commitment to fellowship. Eventually, when many refused to repent, they were removed as members, and the membership list was revised. The following Sunday, a church down the road erected a sign that read, “Has your church rejected you? You are welcome here!”
The pastor recalls how he dreaded for a long time even going out shopping. The church is in a small town, and he could hardly step outside his home without bumping into former members. But he was committed to separating the sheep from the goats, unlike the church down the road, which effectively opened the door of the fold wide for the goats.
It is by no means too much to expect members of the local church to actually attend church. Sadly, the average church in the west requires less of its membership than most charity organisations or sports clubs. But if the church will help its members to guard their profession, it must be committed to holding them accountable to corporate fellowship, realising all along the truth that believers desire to fellowship with other believers. As noted, the issue is not as much church attendance as it is godly appetites. When God saves a person, He gives them a love for the brethren, and it is only those who have this godly love who ought to be permitted membership in the church.
The church really should not have to set a number of required attendances per week in order for membership to maintain their membership. If the church is careful about guarding the doors to membership, if it only permits as members those who have made a credible profession to faith, there will by and large be an atmosphere of fellowship. This is not to say that no unbeliever will ever enter into the ranks of the membership. But if a church’s membership comprises true believers, lack of fellowship will never be a major problem.
When it comes to church membership, the issue is not how many times you attend, but rather why you have chosen to be absent. Of course, there are legitimate reasons that believers cannot always gather with the church, but if you are making excuses to avoid the fellowship of the saints then you have no good reason to assume that you are in fellowship with Christ. On that note, we should understand that the issue is not even so much about attending the formal services of the church. Believers desire fellowship, and they do so both within and without the formal gatherings of the church. You can attend every formal service of the church and still stand in violation of this injunction. The issue is about your overall attitude to fellowship: Do you desire to gather as often as possible with saints for fellowship?
Our church covenant states, “We will not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, eager to make productive use of the means of grace.” Fellowship is one such means of grace, as are preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. All of these things assist us to corporately hold fast our profession.
The second part of the covenant that we are considering in this study reads, “We will endeavour to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and by a pure and loving example to seek the salvation of our family and friends.” I have said very little about this second aspect in this study, but I have combined the two aspects because everything that we have considered above must be taught to those under our care. That is, we must be concerned with helping others to hold fast their profession, and we must be careful to teach our children to do the same. The church must have a multigenerational focus. It will do little good to obey the spirit of 10:19-25 if we do not teach our children to do the same.
You cannot obey the second aspect of the covenant without first obeying the first. If you live selfishly and self-sufficiently, you will not raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. If you forsake assembling with the church, and are not eager to make productive use of the means of grace, don’t fool yourself into thinking that your children will be raised to hold fast their profession. For your children to be raised “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” they must be raised within the Body of Christ. And thus everything that we have learned above must be taught to our children.
The Peril against which Our Affirmation Guards
As we draw this study to a close, there is one more question that we must ask and answer: Just how serious is this matter of affirming our confession? What is the danger that we face if we do not obey the above? The author paints a frightening picture in the remainder of the chapter, and indeed the remainder of the book.
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The peril against which this affirmation guards is the peril of apostasy. What a painful thing it is to see people turn from Christ. But if we will obey the injunctions of 10:19-25, we will not have to worry about those in our fellowship or those under our care succumbing to the temptation to apostasy. May God give us the grace to guard against this in our lives and to help others guard against it too, for it is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.