Category Archives: Theology

The Lord Will Save Me into His Kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18)

While analyzing every New Testament use of the Greek verb “sozo” (σῴζω), meaning “to save,” I was surprised to find an instance I never noticed before.

Paul uses this verb 29 times in his letters (31 if you include Hebrews), and almost every instance has been consistently translated as some variation of “to save” in regards to our spiritual redemption and deliverance. When we look in the New Testament as a whole, and specifically in the Gospels, this verb is also often used in a more general sense when Jesus heals someone. The sick, lame, and blind are often “made well” (sozo) by Jesus.  So we do see broader NT usage that’s not limited solely to spiritual salvation. However, Paul consistently uses it in the sense of spiritual salvation, which were most familiar with. (Here’s a list of every NT use.)

Although in Paul’s letters “sozo” has been consistently translated as some form of “to save,” there is one exception found in 2 Timothy 4:18, where it reads “will bring me safely”:

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. (NIV 2 Timothy 4:18)

Most translations have some form of the phrase “will bring me safely.” Nothing is wrong with this translation. It does communicate the Paul’s overall meaning here.

However, it also unfortunately obscures the Paul’s use of “sozo” here. The entire phrase “will bring [me] safely” is translated from the future tense of “sozo,” meaning “he will save” (sosei; σώσει). This is significant because Paul has previously and consistently used this verb to communicate spiritual deliverance.

Young’s Literal Translation is one of the few that translate it as “ will/shall save”:

and the Lord shall free me from every evil work, and shall save me — to his heavenly kingdom; to whom is the glory to the ages of the ages! Amen.

I find this particularly interesting. Here Paul, near the end of his earthly ministry, is anticipating the Lord’s continued protection and ultimate future salvation into Jesus’ kingdom. He writes that the Lord “will save me into his heavenly kingdom.”

If you survey all the scriptures, Paul describes our salvation not only as a past event, but also as an ongoing process and a future hope. Just as God has delivered us from sin and death at our conversion, we are still being saved and ultimately will be saved.

Paul himself was no exception, as we see in his second letter to Timothy. He knew the value of perseverance, of running the race to the end. After writing that the time of his “departure” had come (2 Timothy 4:6), Paul writes:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Why will God rescue Paul from every evil work? Why will Jesus save him into the kingdom? It is because he’s “kept the faith.” He’s poured out his life as a servant in praise to God. He’s wholeheartedly trusted God with all that he has. He now looks forward to the completion of his salvation when he receives the “crown of righteousness,” given to those who persevere and joyfully anticipate Jesus’ glorious return.

What Is the Crown of Life?

The crown of life is mentioned twice in the New Testament—once in James and once in Revelations. In both instances, the crown is received by those who stand the test through perseverance in the faith.

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelations 2:10)

What Is the Crown?
When James and John allude to the “crown of life,” they aren’t thinking of some literal, physical crown. The “crown of life” refers to eternal life itself. It’s not just a bonus reward that only some people get in the eternal kingdom, but rather the prize received by all entrants into heaven.

This particular phrase uses what is known in Greek grammar as the genitive of apposition or epexegetical genitive. The genitive of apposition is often used when the head noun (here, “crown”) is metaphorical. The substantive in the genitive case that follows (here, “of life”) refers roughly to the same thing as the head noun (“crown”). (For more detail, check out this chart).

Put in simple terms, “crown of life” means more specifically “the crown that is life.” Life itself is the future reward. In keeping with the genitive of apposition, “crown” is a metaphorical reference that is further clarified by “of life.” So, the “crown of life” is simply another way to say “eternal life.”

This same concept applies to other “crowns” mentioned in the epistles. We read of a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8) and a “crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Just as with the crown of life, righteousness and glory are the rewards themselves. This makes perfect sense. When we enter heaven, we will be forever justified (found righteous) and glorified.

Conditions Upon Receiving Eternal Life
According to James, the crown will be given only to those who are approved after persevering under trial. The trial, of course, is a testing. It reveals the quality of that which is tested, in this case the Christian. After being tested by various trials, we will be either be approved or rejected. Those that are approved will receive eternal life (represented by the crown of life).

This crown has been promised to those who love God. Those who persevere and stand approved have been shown to truly love God, and thus receive eternal life. The one who is approved through perseverance and the one who loves God are one and the same. If you love God, you will persevere. If you persevere through trials, you show your love for God. They are different perspectives of the same reality.

The other reference in Revelations is completely consistent with the teaching in James. They both reinforce each other and communicate the same message. John, relaying the words of Jesus, writes that those who “remain faithful until death” will receive eternal life. Those who persevere until the day they die are those who are tested and found approved. They truly love God, as evidenced by their willingness to lay down their lives for Him. They walk in the same footsteps of Jesus as true disciples, loving as Jesus loved. As such, they receive the crown of life, which symbolizes eternal life.

This perseverance until our death isn’t in our strength alone, but with God’s help as we walk in obedience with Him. He will strengthen and guide us to the end, no matter what the trials. However, we must remain in Him through daily laying down our lives in service to God and others. If we are continually faithful in the small matters, he will strengthen us to remain faithful when faced with trials no mortal could withstand without divine help. And once we have overcome, we will receive the crown of life—life forever with God.

The words of Paul speak to this reality of God’s support as we abide in Him:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

No Immoral, Impure or Covetous Person Has a Kingdom Inheritance (Ephesians 5:1-6)

In Ephesians, Paul exhorts the believers there to imitate God and avoid grievous sin:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 5:1-6; bold added)

I want to draw attention to the three sins Paul names in verse 3. He specifically warns against:

  1. Sexual immorality (porneia, πορνεία)
  2. Impurity (akatharsia, ἀκαθαρσία)
  3. Covetousness/greed (pleonexia, πλεονεξία).

After listing other unbecoming behavior and encouraging thankfulness as a godly alternative, Paul returns to these original three sins in verse 5, now addressing those who are practicing this disobedient behavior.

Paul forcefully clarifies why there should not even be a hint of such idolatry. He writes that no sexually immoral (pornos, πόρνος), impure (akathartos, ἀκάθαρτος), and covetousness/greedy (pleonektes, πλεονέκτης) persons have an inheritance in the eternal kingdom. Anyone unrepentantly living in these sins are not heirs of the kingdom and have no hope beyond this life.

Paul creates a clear parallel between verse 3 and 5, repeating the three sins in the same order, to reinforce and highlight his warning.

He’s practically shouting by using this repetition. Watch out Christians! If you live this way, you won’t have an inheritance in the kingdom of God. You all “know this with certainty.”

Paul is concerned that a false teacher may “deceive” them “with empty words” by downplaying the risk of participating in such sin.

He isn’t writing generally about these sins and their consequences for unbelievers. Rather, this warning is specifically for Christians, so they will stop sinning and thus avoid condemnation. In verse 3, he addresses the Christian saints (“among you”; “among saints”). In verse 5, Paul again specifically directs his warning towards the same believers (“for this you know with certainty”). Finally, he warns Christians against being deceived with any contrary teaching (“Let no one deceive you”).

After these strong words, Paul goes on to encourage the believers in Ephesus to “walk as children of Light” now that they are no longer in darkness. (Eph. 5:8) He’s persuasively presenting two sides of the same coin. He warns of the severe consequences for Christians who return to living in darkness, while also encouraging them to walk in holiness according to God’s will.

If this warning applied then, how much more so today within our immoral culture? Fortunately, we are not left in the battle alone. Jesus has given us His Spirit, to strengthen and guide us until we receive the eternal promises. Yet, the warning remains.

The Seal on the Servants of God

Most have heard of the “mark of the beast” that is mentioned several times in Revelations. It’s captured the imagination of many Christians, especially of those holding a dispensational, premillennial interpretation of the end times. We’ve all read various speculations regarding forced chip implants, tattoos, and the like as possibly being the “mark of the beast.”

Of course, in all of this, people tend to forget the big picture. The beast, however we interpret it, is clearly in cohorts with Satan, working tirelessly to destroy the people of God. Those who have the beast’s mark on their hand and their forehead are those who have declared allegiance with God’s enemies, or are the very least not opposing their work.

However, in all of the speculation regarding the mark of the beast, what you don’t hear discussed is the mark of the righteous, the seal of God’s servants which John also writes about.

This is quite curious, since the Apostle John uses the same kind of language to describe this seal as he does with the ungodly mark. Perhaps its clear symbolic nature doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of frenzied speculation and excitement, despite being just as (if not more) prominent in scripture. We should take notice though, because just like the mark of the beast, the seal of the righteous is placed on the forehead of the saints. Those marked unbelievers who align themselves with the work of Satan act as a clear foil for those believers who are designated as belonging to and set apart for God.

This seal on the forehead of the servants of God is first mentioned in Revelations 7:3, after the first six seals are opened.

And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” (Revelations 7:2-3)

A couple chapters later, in Revelations 9:4, the fifth trumpet sounds and the locust-like creatures ascend out of the abyss.  They are commissioned not to harm vegetation, as one would expect, but rather to torment humanity. Not just anyone, but specifically only those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

Then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth, and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power. They were told not to hurt the grass of the earth, nor any green thing, nor any tree, but only the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not permitted to kill anyone, but to torment for five months; and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings a man. And in those days men will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, and death flees from them. (Revelations 9:3-6)

Just as we saw in Revelations 7, God has specifically sealed or marked the true servants of God. This is clearly not some physical, visible mark, but a spiritual designation by God. This spiritual seal indicates that they are God’s own possession, and as a consequence, they are spared here from the plague of demonic locusts, just as the Israelites were spared from the plagues God sent upon the Egyptians.

This does not mean the Christians do not or will not go through any tribulations. John is clear that many believers are killed for their faith in Jesus. (Rev. 20:4) We read the martyrs cry out to God day and night for justice to be served on earth. (Rev. 6:10) Yet, the seal of God clearly signifies that God knows all who are His. He is in complete control even in chaos, and will not allow anything to come upon His chosen people unless He has permitted it in His divine wisdom.

Ultimately, all those who have aligned themselves with Satan, having received the mark of the beast, are thrown into the lake of fire, but the servants of God enter into God’s eternal kingdom. They enter into His eternal reign on a renewed and glorified creation, where the curses of sin have been defeated, and the saints enjoy eternal fellowship with God. In this perfect world, where only the righteous dwell, we again see the seal—the mark of the holy believers—adorning the servants of God.

There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelations 22:3-5)

While the mark of the beast is forced upon the world indiscriminately, the seal of the righteous is only given by God to those who serve Him wholeheartedly—those who love Him and trust Him with all that they have and are. It is on the foreheads of these holy servants that the name of God is written, for they are His alone.

Rather than just focusing on the mark to avoid, let’s seek Jesus from whom we receive the seal that will last into eternity.

Co-Heirs with Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, while describing our deliverance through the Holy Spirit, we come across these verses regarding our heirship as children of God. I want to focus in specifically on verse seventeen, which contains parallels that emphasize our discipleship of Christ.

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (Romans 8:16-17)

There are three parallel ideas here that are not as obvious in the English, but clearly stand out as I read the Greek. They all express the concept of sharing with Christ, of being fellow participators with Jesus. I’ll diagram the English translation here, so it is more evident, and include the Greek as well, where the parallels are more pronounced. The three bolded portions below in the English are each communicated with three individual words in the Greek, creating strong repetition.

and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and
fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we
suffer with Him so that we may also be
glorified with Him. (Romans 8:16-17)

εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· κληρονόμοι μὲν θεοῦ,
συγκληρονόμοι δὲ Χριστοῦ, εἴπερ
συμπάσχομεν ἵνα καὶ
συνδοξασθῶμεν. (Romans 8:16-17)

If we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, then we are children of God, and consequently heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ Himself.

However, Paul puts conditions on this wonderful promise. Our being co-heirs with Christ is contingent upon our also being partners with Christ, not just in the good times, but in the hard times as well. We, as God’s children are co-heirs—if we suffer with Him. If we are co-sufferers, carrying the same cross He carried and being crucified as He was crucified (in a spiritual sense). Then, and only then, will we be glorified with Him. We must be walking in Jesus’ footsteps, and this includes enduring trials as we live with our eyes set on pleasing God.

For many Christians today, applying this teaching does not take an elaborate stretch of the imagination. Just recently, a Coptic church in Egypt was bombed, killing at least twenty-five Christians there. Those believers killed suffered with Christ. Those with dead relatives are suffering with Christ. In the west, we don’t face such stark persecution. But if we speak for truth, there is a good chance we will be mocked, especially in the public sphere, perhaps even in some churches. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)

Here is the key. If we want to be co-heirs with Christ, inheriting the glorious promises God gives to His children, we must be ready and willing to suffer with Christ. Only these true disciples who are willing to fill up “what lacks in Christ’s afflictions” will be glorified with Christ. (Colossians 1:24) And if we are glorified with Christ, we will be seen as true heirs, true children of God.

This isn’t a burden we carry alone, the presence of God strengthens us. As we abide in Him, His strength through the Holy Spirit empowers us where we are weak. There is a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, who have shared in Christ’s sufferings. So let’s run the race with perseverance. We aren’t running alone, we are running with Christ.

Pistis Iesou: “Faith of Jesus” or “Faith in Jesus”

In the scholarly world, a debate has been raging for a while now regarding the proper way to translate the Greek phrase “πίστις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ” (pistis Iēsou Christou), meaning either the “faith of Jesus Christ” or “faith in Jesus Christ.”  This would apply to other variations where we have the word pistis (faith) followed by different combinations of the name/title of Jesus in the genitive case.

The reason for the debate revolves around the fact that both options are grammatically possible and significant theological positions are at stake.

In simple terms, one could correctly translate the genitive Iēsou here either as an objective genitive or as a subjective genitive.  The terms objective and subjective are simply labels we apply to the genitive, depending on how we believe it is being used. There is no magical magnifying glass we can pull out and peer through to discover a small marking that indicates what type of genitive it is.  These are interpretive labels applied to the genitive case in Greek.

Translated subjectively, we would read the phrase pistis Iēsou as the “faith of Jesus”, meaning that Jesus produces the faith (so he is not the recipient of our faith in this scenario).  Alternatively, to translate it objectively would yield “faith in Jesus,” meaning Jesus is the recipient of our faith.  Both options are within the range of possible meaning grammatically.

Consequently, scholars can argue all day long in sophisticated ways and at the end of the day both sides still hold the same old positions stronger than ever. I’m simplifying, but that is the core of the issue.

The primary verses affected by this debate are mostly in Paul’s letters and would include Rom. 3:22, Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16; Gal. 2:20, Gal. 3:22, Eph. 3:12, and Phil. 3:9. Revelations 14:12 also applies, although it is not as commonly debated.

Let’s take a look at a couple examples and decide if a subjective or objective genitive would make more sense based on the context.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25 ESV)

In verse 22, we read that the righteousness of God has been revealed through pisteōs Iēsou Christou towards all those believing. Following most modern translations, the righteousness of God is through “faith in Jesus” and is for those believing. If understood this way, the concept of belief in Jesus is repeated twice unnecessarily. Paul would be saying that it’s revealed through believing in Jesus for those believing in Jesus, making it a bit of awkward phrasing.

It also raises an interesting theological dilemma. Is the righteousness of God revealed through our faith?  Or is it through the faith of Jesus, Jesus’ faithfulness through death on a cross? I think most would agree that humanity didn’t reveal God’s faithfulness, unless you are referring specifically to God in human flesh, Jesus Christ.  God revealed his righteousness through the person Jesus Christ.  This was specifically through His faithful obedience and perseverance.

Here’s another example to analyze from Galatians:

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)

This is similar to the previous example from Romans, but is even clearer in my opinion.  The bold portions could also be translated as a subjective genitive, the “faith/faithfulness of Jesus.”  Translated this way, Paul would be saying that we are justified by Christ’s death (the implied reference of the “faith of Christ”) and not by ritual observance of the Mosaic Law. Because we have been justified by Jesus’ sacrificial death, we have put our trust in Christ Jesus, so that we are justified by Jesus’ death and not by works of the Mosaic Law.  Paul would not be denying the need to put our trust in Jesus, but rather puts greater focus on Jesus’ faithfulness as the paschal lamb.

If we took both instances in Galatians 2:16 as objective genitives, it would follow Protestant tradition nicely, but would make Paul repeat himself three times.  Paul essentially would be writing that we are justified by believing in Jesus, so we believe in Jesus, in order that we be justified by believing in Jesus. Suffice to say, it lacks the theological depth the alternative interpretation communicates so nicely.

Let’s move on to a non-Pauline example, one I find interesting and is probably less discussed.

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelations 14:12 ESV)

As I’ve discussed, “faith in Jesus” is a grammatically possible translation, but so is “faith of Jesus” or “Jesus’ faith.”  So we could instead read this verse as:

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keeping the commandments of God and the faithfulness of Jesus.

This would change the definition of the saints to those who keep the commands of God and also the faithful perseverance of Jesus.  The “faithfulness of Jesus” puts emphasis on the endurance of faith displayed throughout Jesus’ entire life. The saints are those who have not only believe in Jesus (which is expressed elsewhere in scripture), but those who live by the same obedient faith Jesus lived by.

Although one can’t grammatically prove the correctness of one translation over the other, understanding the alternate possibilities provide a new (or quite old) perspective that could be easily overlooked otherwise.

One word of caution, not every instance where we read about our faith in Jesus is applicable to this discussion. For example, Paul writes in Ephesians 1:15, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus.”  The “Lord Jesus” here is in the dative and is preceded by the preposition “in” (en) in the Greek (unlike the examples discussed previously in this post). So any discussion of objective versus subjective genitives does not apply in this verse. There are a number of other verses like this. I would encourage you to use an interlinear or bible program accurately determine what grammatical construction is being used in the Greek.

Unless Found Perfect: A Parallel Passage in the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas

There is a strong parallel phrase between the Didache (50-70 AD) and the Epistle of Barnabas (90-131 AD), two very early Christian writings found in the modern collection known as the Apostolic Fathers.

In anticipation of the last days and the return of Jesus, the Didache emphasizes the necessity of being found perfect or complete in the last days, otherwise our past faith will “be of no use.”

Watch over your life: do not let your lamps go out, and do not be unprepared, but be ready, for you do not know the hour when our Lord is coming. Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time. (Didache 16. 1,2; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

In the 1912 Loeb edition, Kirsopp Lake translates the last passage as, “for the whole time of your faith shall not profit you except ye be found perfect at the last time.”

Similar language is used in the Epistle of Barnabas when talking of the last days:

Consequently, let us be on guard in the last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good unless now, in the age of lawlessness, we also resist, as befits God’s children, the coming stumbling blocks, lest the black one find an opportunity to sneak in. (Barnabas 4. 9b; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

Both are directly speaking of the importance of continued spiritual soberness in the last days.  The Greek has almost identical wording in both passages where it says “for the whole time of your/our faith will do you/us no good unless [now] in the last/lawless time […].”

Didache:    οὐ       γὰρ ὠφελήσει ὑμᾶς ὁ πᾶς χρόνος τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν, ἐὰν μὴ        ἐν τῷ ἐσχάτῳ καιρῷ […]
Barnabas: οὐδὲν γὰρ ὠφελήσει ἡμᾶς ὁ πᾶς χρόνος τῆς πίστεως ἡμῶν, ἐὰν μὴ νῦν ἐν τῷ ἀνόμῳ καιρῷ […]

There is no doubt that there either was a common source that both quoted from, or Barnabas borrowed here from the Didache. Regardless, the teaching that we need to be found faithful at the end was a common teaching present among the earliest believers. The eternal state of a Christian was not strictly viewed only as a simple profession of past faith, but in terms of continued faithfulness and endurance up until the end of our life.

Eventually I may take the time and effort to complete a comprehensive survey of this teaching in the earliest non-canonical Christian writings, but until then this is just one morsel of early Christian thought to chew on.

Setting Aside the Holy Spirit (Part 2)

This is second of a two-part post on the most serious warning we find in scripture addressed to believers, the warning to not reject the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Part 1 addresses the warning given by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 to not live in sexual immorality. Paul says that Christians must not “set aside” the Holy Spirit through living in sin. Here in Part 2, we’ll do a more detailed comparison between the Old and New Covenant, between the covenant people according to the flesh in the Old Testament, and the covenant people of God according to faith in the New Testament. We’ll see how those who set aside the Mosaic Law incurred the penalty of physical death. In the New Covenant, those elect who set aside the Holy Spirit through continued sin incur an even greater punishment, spiritual death.

Parallel Between the Old and New Covenants

Scripture is consistent in regards to the consequence for rejecting or setting aside God’s instructions, whether through the Mosaic Law for the Israelites or the Holy Spirit for the church. This consistency between the Old and New Testaments is reinforced by what we find expressed in the epistle to the Hebrews. The Greek word Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:8 for “rejects” is used again in Hebrews 10:28 when it reads “set aside.”

26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31)

In the Old Covenant, the consequence for setting aside the Law of Moses was death, assuming you had the legal minimum of two or three witnesses. (Deut. 17:2-6) Of course, this practice wasn’t for Gentiles who did not know the Law. It was specifically for the Israelites who were under the Law, meaning they were members of the chosen people of God. It was for those Israelites who God had saved from slavery. After saving them, they willfully submitted to God’s Law as revealed at Mount Sinai.

Then he [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:7-8)

By submitting to God’s covenant and the Law, they were now set apart as the people of God. To turn their back on the Law through unrepentant rebellion was to turn their back on the covenant, to say they no longer wanted to abide by the covenant. And the consequence of this willful disobedience was death.

Just as verse 28 applies specifically to the people of God under the Old Covenant, so the parallel that follows in verse 29 applies also to the people of God in the New Covenant. Only now it is not those Israelites under the Law of Moses who are the chosen people, but rather all those who have repented and put their faith in Jesus Christ. Those who repent and believe in Jesus are grafted into the people of God.  They receive the Holy Spirit, which is the Law of Christ written on their hearts and minds. As a chosen and called people, these believers are those who have willingly submitted themselves to the terms of the covenant, established by Jesus’ shed blood on the cross. They recognize that God has called them out of wickedness into sanctification, to be a people set apart for God’s use.

Clearly, when the covenant people reject God through willful sin there are serious consequences. Under the Law of Moses, the rebellious were put to death. Under the New Covenant, those who continue to deliberately sin against God without remorse face even more severe punishment. This is because something even greater than the Law of Moses has been given. God Himself living within His people in the person of the Holy Spirit, leading and guiding them into holiness.

 

What is this severer punishment? We know that it is worse than physical death. The Old Covenant dealt primarily with physical defilement. Uncleanness was primarily regarding the physical rather than the spiritual. (Hebrews 9:13-14) In the New Covenant, uncleanness is viewed in terms of the spiritual reality. And just as there were primarily physical consequences under the Law, the consequences in Jesus are conversely spiritual in nature. So Paul here is warning not of physical death, but spiritual death apart from God for all eternity. This is consistent with Jesus’ saying, “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5). These warning occur repeatedly in the gospels, in Matthew Jesus again warns his disciples, “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29). In other words, from Jesus’ perspective, we should be far more concerned about spiritual death than physical death. This would suggest the severer punishment talked about in Hebrews 10 is spiritual death.

Fortunately, we don’t have make educated guesses. In verse 26, it states that “if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” This severer punishment includes the cessation of sacrifice for sins. Jesus died once for all time.  We don’t have to offer bulls and goats constantly to atone for our sins. We only need to confess our sins, and he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. However, His sacrifice will only atone for our sin as we abide in Him and turn to Him in repentance. If we cease to abide in Him, we are cut off from the nourishing vine, thrown away and are burned. (John 15:6) Verse 26 simply states that those who continue to willfully sin and thus defile the sanctifying blood have no further opportunity for forgiveness of sin.  Jesus’ sacrifice will no longer atone for their sins, they have been cut off from the people of God.  Of course, when sins can no longer be atoned for, we stand guilty before God and will be justly condemned along with the guilty.  We have spurned the Son of God himself, in whom we have eternal life.

Concluding Thoughts

Remember, this warning is specifically for those who have received the Holy Spirit. Just as those who spurned the Mosaic Law through defiant sin were put to death on the basis of two of three witnesses, so those Spirit-filled Christians who repeatedly spurn and reject the Holy Spirit’s leading will suffer spiritual death, eternity in Hell. The Law came with glory, but we now have something far more glorious. The eternal God in the person of the Holy Spirit living within us, a living law that teaches us to walk in greater holiness.

Invariably, the question becomes, how serious of a sin do I have to commit to be cut off from the people of God? Where is the tipping point?  God is ultimately the judge, but I would say this. Don’t test God like the Israelites tested God in the wilderness. (1 Cor. 10:9) “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Gal. 6:7) We should not arrogantly presume upon His patience and kindness towards us. Recall Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree. We need to continually abide in Christ, producing fruit of holiness through the Holy Spirit. The patience of God, in all it’s perfection, will not last forever towards those who continue in willful sin.

And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

 

Setting Aside the Holy Spirit (Part 1)

This the first of a two-part post on the most serious warning we find in scripture addressed to believers, the warning to not reject the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Part 1 addresses the warning given by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 to not live in sexual immorality. Paul says that Christians must not “set aside” the Holy Spirit through living in sin.  In Part 2, we’ll do a more detailed comparison between the Old and New Covenant, between the covenant people according to the flesh in the Old Testament, and the covenant people of God according to faith in the New Testament. We’ll see how those who set aside the Mosaic Law incurred the penalty of physical death.  In the New Covenant, those elect who set aside the Holy Spirit through continued sin incur an even greater punishment, spiritual death.

Paul’s Warning to the Thessalonian Church

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

In Paul’s earliest letter to the Thessalonian church,  he admonishes the Christian believers to live their lives in such a way to please God. They already are living in this way, but Paul wants them to continue this God-pleasing conduct to an even greater degree. Just as all the liturgical implements used within the Jewish tabernacle had to be set apart for sacred use in worshiping God (Ex. 30:29), so too must the disciples of Jesus be completely set apart from the sinful practices and consecrated as holy to God alone. Practically, this means abstaining from the sexual immorality so commonly committed by those who do not know God.  

This exhortation to live God-pleasing lives is not merely a suggestion, but a command and a strong warning. Jesus himself will avenge those who participate in sexual immorality (v. 6). Paul had told them this before, and he is emphasizing this warning once again. Anyone who rejects the Lord’s command by living in sin is not rebelling against man, but God Himself (v. 8).

To reject God is to stand in willful rebellion. It is to set aside His directives, and make a conscious decision to disobey and continue to do so in unrepentance. In fact, the Greek verb here (atheteo) translated as “rejects” and “rejecting” was frequently used within the Septuagint to communicate unfaithfulness and rebellion of the Israelites who turned their back on God. (See Ezekiel 39:23 and Daniel 9:7 for just a few the many examples).

Paul doesn’t stop there, however. The one who rejects God, also is implicitly rejecting the Holy Spirit whom God provides. Paul literally states that the one who rejects this command is rejecting God “who is giving His Holy Spirit to you.” (v. 8) He does not look only to the past, that God had given the Holy Spirit previously. Rather, this describes the giving of the Holy Spirit as a continuous, ongoing event. God is continuously giving His Holy Spirit to the believers right now. The phrase “who is giving” here (ton didonta) is a present active participle in the Greek, which communicates an ongoing, continual action in the present rather than a one-time event. Therefore, this can be interpreted to mean that the one repeatedly rejecting God through willful disobedience is also rejecting God’s present provision of the Holy Spirit, which is an implicit warning that the Holy Spirit will be removed from them.

The warning of the removal of the Spirit is not a new teaching. King David himself fell into serious sexual immorality during his reign, the same type of sin Paul warns of in his letter. David took Bathsheba, another man’s wife, purposefully sending her husband to the front lines to be killed in battle. After lying with Bathsheba and being confronted by Nathan the prophet for this serious sin, David wrote Psalm 51 in which he pleads for God’s forgiveness and acknowledges his grievous disobedience. In the midst of the prayerful psalm, David writes “Do not cast me away from Your presence / And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11). Just as Paul warned the Thessalonian church, that those who willfully reject God through sexual immorality are rejecting God who is providing the Holy Spirit, here David has behaved immorally and realizes God may remove His Holy Spirit. Thus we see God’s consistency before and after the revelation of Jesus Christ, for with God the Father “there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (James 1:17)

In Part 2, we’ll tackle the parallels between the Old Testament and the New Testament, specifically looking at the people of God and what happens when they reject God’s instruction.