The Function of the Warning Passages in the Structure and Argument of Hebrews
The warning passages in the book of Hebrews have an important role to play in our assessment of the doctrine of perseverance. Whether Hebrews teaches the final perseverance of the saints or whether it can be shown to teach that some genuine Christians will fall away and not be saved on the last day is an important and hotly debated topic.
All good doctrine must begin with exegesis of the biblical text itself
As a preliminary to that debate, this article examines the rhetorical function of the warning passages in Hebrews, in order to elucidate their role in the structure and argument of the book as a whole. It is an exegetical study rather than a doctrinal one, but not because the formulation of doctrine is somehow abhorrent or unnecessary. On the contrary, the end of all good biblical study must be the formulation of doctrine, just as the purpose of all doctrine is to correct, rebuke, encourage, and train Christians in righteousness. All good doctrine must, however, begin with exegesis of the biblical text itself (as originally given, as far as this can be determined, and in Greek) in all its detail and difficulty; only then, once this has been examined and understood, can we proceed to a proper assessment of the Bible's doctrinal basis.
First we must determine which passages from Hebrews may rightly be termed “warning passages.” Below is a comparison of five scholars’ definitions of the limits of the “warning passages”:
|Bruce ||Lane ||Mugridge ||Grudem ||McKnight |
There is a consensus on the broad outline of where such “warnings” may be found (with Hebrews 2:1-4 agreed by all), but the exact limits of the passages are disputed. A warning, according to Mugridge, should “warn the readers of the consequences of following their present trend and of not heeding the author’s message to them.” This accords with the definition of warning as a “hint, intimation or threat of harm or danger,” and “advice to beware or desist.”
McKnight analyses his chosen passages as to form, and avers that “warning passages” contain the four elements of audience, sin, exhortation and consequences. This is based on an inductive study of passages decided upon previously, however, and unless his analysis can be shown to have uncovered a distinct “warning form,” does not help to decide the present question.
If it is agreed that no single paragraph from the book can be rightly understood if divorced from its context, then it is evident why some include more verses in their definitions than others; Lane and McKnight, for example, wish to place 6:4-8 into its broader context, whereas Mugridge and Grudem have specified only those verses which contain the actual “hint, intimation or threat of harm or danger.” Since we are interested here in examining the function of the warnings in the book as a whole, we will be careful to delineate precisely where the warnings themselves are in order to determine each one’s place in the argument and structure of Hebrews.
The writer interrupts his discussion of the place of angels (which is resumed in 2:5-16) to fire a “paraenetic salvo.” Dia touto in 2:1 could indicate that an inference is being drawn from the previous verse, or from the final clause of 1:14; more likely, it bases the following material on the superiority of Christ as outlined throughout Hebrews 1:1-14, since the comparison between Christ and the angels built up there is an integral part of this exhortation. Since Christ is greater than the angels, the message concerning him and spoken through him must be regarded very seriously. The exhortation is to pay attention to what has been heard, that is, the “gospel” taught to them by their leaders (13:7), by the Lord himself and by the Apostles (2:3).
An intimation of danger comes as the writer explains why we should pay more attention - “lest we slip away (pararuomen).” Without careful attention to the gospel declared through the all-surpassing Son (the kurios of 2:3), Christians will become like anchorless ships, drifting in a “state of constant flux.”
The intimation of danger is heightened in 2:2 with the mention of retribution (misthapodosian) for transgression in an a fortiori argument expressed by means of a first class conditional sentence. If the logos declared through angels (the Mosaic law) could not be ignored without due punishment, neither can the word of the gospel. Indeed, the possibility of escape from punishment is now even less likely, given the greatness of the salvation offered and the greater affront to God its rejection would imply. Ignoring the speaking God was always dangerous; how much more now that he has spoken by and through his Son? Not only does God speak authoritatively, but he has now done so in a decisive and salvific way. The warning is against neglecting not merely the word, but (metonymically) the telikautes soterias it speaks of.
The writer is concerned lest the ‘Hebrews’ become liable to the more severe sanctions reserved for those who disobey the gospel. Chapter 1 may therefore be seen as providing the essential foundation upon which this warning is based. As Barth says, “Scripture exposition is for this man not an end in itself. It is a brotherly service to a congregation that is in actual temptation.” To make light of the gospel would be both dangerous and foolish, particularly given the powerful confirmation God himself had provided in recent days (2:4) and possibly continued to provide.
In 2:1-4 then, the writer moves from a statement of doctrine, to show its significance for the readers. The function of his warning is to apply the teaching of chapter 1 concerning God’s decisive speech in the Son, who is greater than the angels, in order to warn them that they neglect it at their peril.
As with the previous passage, this section is preceded by teaching concerning Christ’s superiority (3:1-6), this time to Moses. Psalm 95 is thereafter introduced as the second of the writer’s major texts. He uses this text to deliver two warnings to his congregation focused on Psalm 95:7b-8 (in 3:12-19) and Psalm 95:11 (in 4:1-11). The writer includes positive exhortation here too, as well as straightforward teaching (especially in 4:6-10) rather than neatly separating out the warnings. Since, however, the two warnings are delivered from a single Old Testament text, they are treated here together as one “warning passage.”
The mention of Moses in 3:2-6 brings the writer to a consideration of the exodus generation, imagery used in other New Testament warning passages. The quotation from Psalm 95 is introduced as a word of the Holy Spirit addressed directly to the ‘Hebrews’ (legei to pneuma to hagion), its relevance being highlighted by the first word semeron. God speaks to the readers now through an ancient Psalm, as indeed he did in 1:5-2:14. The writer applies it to his readers from 3:12, taking up the motif of the hardened heart. They are warned not to follow the exodus generation by having an “evil, unbelieving heart.”
The warning is addressed not (as in 2:1-4) in the first person plural but in the second person to “any of you” (tini humon) a general phrase designed to engage every listener’s attention. Culpable disbelief in the face of God’s many signs is also mentioned in Numbers 14:11, from which same chapter the writer probably takes his reference to apostasy (apostenai).
The ultimate end of faithlessness and the greatest danger facing the recipients of the letter was apostasy from the living God. Hebrews 3:13 urges them to exhort one another daily, a positive encouragement but with a negative motivation - so that no-one from among their number (tis ex humon) might be hardened. This hardening is portrayed as the work of the “deceitfulness of sin,” a standard but non-specific reference.
The addressees have come to share in Christ only if they hold fast until the end. The “end” (telos) in mind is either death or the consummation, but the insistence on perseverance is clear. This intimation of danger is intended to spur them on to faithful endurance, maintaining their resolve and determination in the face of sin’s deceitfulness. Going back to the Psalm, the writer now applies it with three exegetical questions to which he supplies the answers (3:15-18). Each question highlights the faithlessness of those who hardened their hearts and failed to enter the Promised Land. Although they had been liberated and begun their pilgrimage (16) they sinned, incurring God’s wrath which ended their journey (17) because they had disobeyed (18). The writer therefore concludes in 3:19 as he began in 3:12, by emphasising the danger of faithlessness which leads to apostasy.
This point would not be obscured even if tínes ("some") in 3:16 were read as tinés ("who?": note the different accentuation). However, despite the fact that this may make more sense of the alla oun, the account of the rebellions in Numbers 14 often emphasises the fact that “all” Israel were involved, which the variant accentuation would then contradict. The thought that a few did not rebel, if it were in the author’s mind, would probably have surfaced again immediately.
The second warning based from Psalm 95 is bounded by an inclusio of dangers accompanied by positive exhortations: it begins in 4:1 with the hint that some may fall short (husterekenai) of entering God’s rest accompanied by the exhortation phobethomen oun; it ends in 4:11 with the possibility of falling (pesein) accompanied by the exhortation spoudasomen oun. The writer emphasises that although they started well (as the Israelites did in 3:16) and have heard the gospel, that gospel must meet with faith to be effective. Only those who believe enter God’s rest (4:3). Although hoi pisteusantes is in the aorist tense it is clear from the context (especially 3:14) that faith must be a continuing reality for the promise to be fulfilled (the aorist probably functioning in parallel to those in 3:17-18). Disobedience implies failure to enter that rest (4:6) because disobedience shows lack of faith.
A sabbath rest, however, remains to be entered by faith (4:9) with the proviso that no-one falls through disobedience (4:11). That the promise remains despite the apostasy of the previous generation is even explicit in Numbers 14. The second phase of this exposition from Psalm 95 therefore applies the first more specifically to the theme of rest. The theme of God’s speech, so prominent throughout the first four chapters of the book, is brought to a climax in 4:12-13, as the writer waxes lyrical upon the penetrating power of God’s word.
Hebrews 3:7 - 4:11 applies Psalm 95 to the readers lest they too should prove unfaithful and fall short of the promised goal.
The implicit warnings against disobedience are intermingled in 4:1-11 with positive exhortation and instruction concerning the remaining sabbath rest. As with the previous section based on Psalm 95, warnings serve as the negative counterparts of the exhortatory material, which in turn is developed from an exposition of a key Old Testament text. The function of the warnings in 3:7-4:11, then, is to apply the warnings of Psalm 95 to the readers lest they too should prove unfaithful and fall short of the promised goal.
Lane comments on the warning passages as a whole that, “they relate the thrust of the homily to the community in a direct way and convey a cumulative impression of how the writer envisaged the situation to which he responded with such passionate earnestness.” This is particularly true with respect to 5:11-6:12, where the writer explicitly describes the situation of his first readers. The term nothroi forms an inclusio between the first and last verses of this passage, with the central section (6:4-8) forming the most controversial of all the warnings. Hebrews 5:11-6:19 diverges from the theme of Christ’s High Priesthood (introduced in 4:14 and taken up again in 6:20ff) and may be seen as introductory to the material concerning Melchizedek based on Psalm 110. Thinking that they are not ready to handle such solid food, the author warns them about the dangers of sluggishness. The intimation of danger itself appears in 6:4-8.
After urging them to leave behind elementary doctrines which were not distinctively Christian, the author asserts that it is impossible to restore certain people to repentance (adunaton gar ... palin anakainizein eis metanoian). This is an unequivocal assertion like others elsewhere in Hebrews. Those who cannot be restored are described using four participial phrases which describe entry into the Christian faith in terms reminiscent of the systematic theological category of “regeneration.” Whether this is a description of genuine Christians or not is a debateable point, since it has huge implications for systematic theology. It is not part of our purpose here, however, to decide this particular issue, although discerning the function of the warning passages generally may have an impact upon dogmatic reflection.
The danger is that those who have (genuinely or seemingly) entered into Christian experience may “fall away.” This is expressed by use of the aorist active participle (parapesontas) which stands out amidst the aorist middle and passive participles used to describe Christian experience. To fall away is equivalent to apostasy (3:12), and would be to re-crucify (anastaurountas) the Son of God, holding him up to public contempt and rejecting him as forcefully as those who first crucified him. The writer illustrates this warning with an agricultural image in 6:7-8. Land which, despite much rain, refuses to produce the fruit it was intended for is only fit for burning. The mention of “thorns and thistles” evokes the exact same image in Genesis 3:18 where the earth was cursed following the Fall. If they continue in their refusal to “drink up” solid food (the metaphor of milk for elementary doctrine necessitates this strange mixed metaphor!) they are vulnerable again to that same curse.
The writer does not say that the ‘Hebrews’ are in this position, but he warns them that dullness may lead this way. The writer refers “to a total defection... from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace.” In the case of his first readers, he is confident of better things (6:9), and encourages them to continue with their present work and love until the end (6:10-11).
The antidote to sluggishness is faith and patience (6:12), which they are encouraged to display. Hence the hint of danger in 6:4-8 is again accompanied by positive exhortation, in order to encourage the readers to pay attention to the following material, based on the writer’s third major Old Testament text (Psalm 110).
The writer moves naturally from the priesthood of Christ in to the theme of the covenant of which he is mediator. By means of an extended quotation from Jeremiah 31 he introduces the ideas of covenant, sacrifice and sanctuary in 8:1-10:18. What follows in 10:19-39 is transitional material which exhorts the readers on the basis of the previous discussion (10:19-25), warns them of the punishment for “spurning” the Son of God, whose blood is the blood of the new covenant (10:26-31), and reminds them of their need for endurance in the struggle they face (10:32-39).
The warning itself is directed against ongoing sin (cf. the present tense of the participle hamartanonton). This sin is deliberate, the note of wilfulness being emphasised by the position of hekousios which echos (but not precisely) the distinctions in Numbers 15:22-31. Such sin occurs after receiving the knowledge of the truth (10:26), which was a standard way of referring to conversion, and is parallel to the description of Christian experience in 6:4-5.
The argument is expanded by use of another a fortiori argument involving the threat of punishment under the old order. A greater punishment than the merciless retribution laid down by the Mosaic Law for murder, false prophecy, idolatry, and blasphemy is to be meted out on those who commit this deliberate ongoing sin. In 10:29 this is equated with the deliberate repudiation of Christ and his one perfect sacrifice without which there can be no forgiveness. The sin in mind is therefore clearly seen as “willful apostasy,” which leads some to leave the Church (10:25). The readers are invited to consider the implications for themselves (dokeite).
As in 6:4-8 there is no “way forward” for those who commit this most heinous of sins against the Son of God (the same title for Christ used in 6:6). The warnings this time are much more explicit and terrifying than any of those previously delivered. In 2:1-4 there was only brief mention of “just retribution” ; in 6:4-8 there was the merest intimation of punishment for the apostate in the illustration of 6:8; in 3:7-4:13 the thought was of falling short of God’s rest but not of the punishment this would incur.
Here in 10:26-31, however, the note of punishment is uppermost and is driven home by the use of the powerful images in 10:27, two scriptural quotations on the theme of God as the avenging judge (10:30) and a strong asyndetic sentence (10:31). The note of fear is captured by the inclusio between phobera (10:27) and phoberon (10:31). As the writer elaborates the gospel more and more clearly, showing the superiority of Christ and the insufficiency of the Old Covenant, the warnings become more severe. The implications of apostasy become starker as our understanding of the gospel becomes more mature, and as the writer explains that gospel ever more clearly.
The purpose of the warnings in 10:26-31, then, is to warn the ‘Hebrews’ of the implications of rejecting the great high priest who has secured our entry into the sanctuary by his own blood thus inaugurating the new covenant - an understanding of the work of Christ developed from Jeremiah 31, the author’s fourth major Old Testament text. The warnings function as the negative counterpart to the trio of positive exhortations in 10:19-25 and serve to “raise the stakes” for the readers.
The warnings 'raise the stakes' for the readers.
The final section of the book begins here. 12:14 starts on a positive note of exhortation which moves immediately into a threefold warning (12:15-17). The exhortation is to pursue peace and sanctification while taking care (the participle episkopountes matches the present tense of diokete) that three harmful situations do not occur. Each situation is marked by an opening me tis. These warnings give way to an extended comparison between Sinai and Zion in a block of teaching designed to show again the superiority of the new order. This issues in a final warning based a fortiori on the comparison just developed, not to refuse the God who speaks from heaven.
12:15 warns the listeners to watch out lest someone (note the singular forms tis and husteron) should fall short of the grace of God. The present participle husteron is an echo of the same root used in 4:1 to describe falling short of the promised rest of God. The present tense indicates not that someone amongst them is at that very moment falling short, but that this would be a continuous act or lifestyle.
The second warning is based on Deuteronomy 29:17 which forms part of the curses section of the covenant made in Moab. It warns against “poisonous and bitter growth” (NRSV). The context of the quotation concerns those who turn away from hwhy in idolatry and yet consider themselves safe to go their own stubborn way. In view of this, hwhy will be unwilling to pardon them, calling instead for all the covenant curses to be showered upon them. The LXX uses the verb ekklino (rather than aphistamai) to describe their activity, but the Deuteronomy passage contains a description of exactly that kind of apostasy the readers have been warned about. It may begin with just a small root (hriza) but it leads to the defilement of many.
The third warning focuses on Esau and is more developed than the others. The readers are to take care lest they become immoral or irreligious like Esau. As an example of Esau’s irreligion, the writer reminds them of episodes recounted in Genesis 25-27. In Genesis 25:29-34 Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for the sake of a single meal. His immorality is perhaps indicated by his marriage to two Hittite women in Genesis 26:34-35 which made life bitter for his parents (the verb used in the LXX of 26:35, erizo, may have prompted the writer to think of Esau given the assonance with hriza in the previous verse).
By the first century ad Esau had become a “symbol of all that is unethical and ungodly” for Jewish writers, even the “quintessence of heathenism.” Esau himself could not, after losing his birthright, be restored to it despite his protestations (Genesis 27:38), a reminder of the impossibility of restoration to repentance for apostates (Hebrews 6:4). By reminding his readers of this story, the writer intends to prevent them losing (or “flinging away”) their heavenly inheritance in the same way.
Hebrews 12:18-24 develops a contrast between Sinai and Zion. The readers are reminded of the request, prompted by a voice whose words (rhematon) were terrifying, of those in Exodus 19 that no further message (logon) be spoken to them (12:19). They are also reminded of the blood which speaks (lalounti) better than that of Abel (12:24). It is this motif of God’s speech, prevalent in the earlier chapters of Hebrews, which is picked up by the warning in 12:25f. The readers are exhorted not to refuse the one who is speaking (lalounta). Then, in another example of qal wahomer argumentation, they are warned not to refuse the one who is warning them (chrematizonta) from heaven. This warning is heard through Scripture and throughout the writer’s own exposition. The contrast is not between speakers (Moses and God) but between the revelation at the earthly mountain and the revelation from heaven, the speaker being God in both instances.
The concept of “no escape” is picked up again from 2:3. The quotation from Haggai 2:6 is then developed as both warning and cause for thanksgiving. The language of shaking (Greek: seiso; Hebrew: r's) is the language of epiphany during holy war, where God comes to judge. The judgment on those who refuse God’s warning against apostasy is hinted at, but the writer also uses the quotation to encourage the readers that again he is confident of better things for them (6:9) since they will receive an unshakeable kingdom (12:28).
The purpose of these final warnings in 12:14-29 is again to warn against apostasy or attitudes and behaviour which may lead in that direction. Using Old Testament examples and the contrasts of Sinai-Zion, earth-heaven, the writer warns his readers to listen to God with the same attitude as that recommended in Psalm 95 earlier. The warnings appear side-by-side with positive encouragements and function as their negative counterparts.
Lane sees Hebrews as arranged around six Old Testament texts (Psalms 8, 95, 110; Jeremiah 31; Habakkuk 2; Proverbs 3) the exposition of each being framed by exhortation: “The rhetorical use of these OT texts defines the arrangement and the argument of Hebrews as a whole.” He goes on to state that “the paraenetic passages are grouped fairly uniformly in proximity to the six scriptural quotations.” Caird considers the argument to be controlled by the first four of these Old Testament quotations, with other quotations being merely ancillary. Whether Hebrews is structured around four or six texts it is clear that the warning passages we have examined are indeed closely associated with the surrounding expository material which gives the book its structure.
The writer has a doctrinal and a pastoral aim. It is dangerous to separate these too strictly given that one of the pastoral needs he perceives in his readers is that they require more solid teaching. However, doctrinally the writer’s interest is in “the confessed inadequacy of the old order” and the superiority of Christ which he demonstrates by means of his key texts. This leads in turn to a pastoral call not to fall foul of the same sins which rendered the Old Covenant ineffective, but to hold fast to Christ. By describing the goal and the negative consequences of failing to reach it because of neglect, hard-heartedness or dullness, he shows how “the neglect of God’s gifts is almost tantamount to a decisive rejection of them.” He stresses that apostasy involves an on-going attitude of repudiating Christ and his strong warnings are delivered to prevent them following that road too far.
The warning passages are a pastoral call not to fall foul of the same sins which rendered the Old Covenant ineffective.
The word of God may have been neglected (2:1-4) or disobeyed (3:7-4:11), but God still held out promises in the gospel, thus showing that the Old Testament was incomplete and awaiting fulfilment. Only by avoiding the same apostasy which led to Israel’s failure could they go on to maturity, escape the wrath to come and enter God’s rest. The warnings, therefore, play an integral part in the writer’s doctrinal and pastoral aims, functioning as the negative counterparts to his encouraging exhortations.
Hebrews describes itself as a “word of exhortation” (tou logou tes parakleseos). It is somewhat parallel to the preaching of Moses in Deuteronomy where doctrine, history, encouragement and warning are intermingled in a passionate plea for faithfulness, nowhere more so than in the passages where the covenant blessings and curses are set forth alongside a call for decision. Our writer even shares Moses’ love for switching between first and second person, singular and plural and other such rhetorical devices as he calls his readers to consider, watch out, think and decide.
The exhortations and warnings in Hebrews serve a similar persuasive purpose. “Persuading people to change their minds is always difficult, and especially so when their emotions are strongly engaged in their intended course of action. It can only be done by winning their emotions. Cold logic is not enough.” Hence the writer does not teach doctrine alone, but encourages and warns, using the Old Testament “to present Christ as the climax of the ongoing, historic purpose of God, the culmination of Israel’s long pilgrimage, in the hope that his readers will return with new zeal to their own pilgrimage.”