Warnings in Hebrews

illuminated manuscript in Hebrew

The book of Hebrews was written to people who are likely second-generation Christians still struggling with the tensions between the traditions of Judaism and the teachings of Christianity. Many had, currently or at one time, relatives who would have seen Jesus as a false teacher. They would have had family and friends reject them, and the temptation would have been great to slip back into the traditions of their past. In this light, the Hebrew writer includes five warnings in his epistle to these struggling Christians.


Hebrews 2:1 encourages them and us to give earnest heed to the teachings of Jesus and His inspired apostles, confirmed by signs and wonders from God, lest we drift away in neglect. Hebrews challenges us to ask ourselves how we plan to escape judgment if we neglect and reject so great a salvation, a salvation planned from the foundations of the world.

John 20:30-31 concludes that the miracles and signs recorded in that gospel are for confirming our faith. Like those steps reviewed every time we get on a plane, have we heard God’s word so much that we filter it out? Ephesians 2:8 reminds us of the role grace plays in our salvation. While we were disobedient, God sent His Son as an unmerited gift of propitiation. God has given us a gift in salvation and eternal life in His Son, and the Hebrew writer makes sure we understand that we should not neglect so great a gift.

A Hardened Heart

In Hebrews 3, the author repeatedly quotes the 95th Psalm, saying, “Today, if you hear His voice…” He calls on us, in verse 12, to take care we do not develop an unbelieving heart, and he uses the next several verses to help us overcome unbelief – exhort each other, share in Christ, hold confidence, even fear of failure. We need to be aware that it is possible to harden our hearts and miss salvation.

We may simply choose unbelief, but I Corinthians 10:6-13 warns us to learn from the mistakes of those who came before us, lest we be overconfident in our faith and slip into disobedience. This is why the Hebrew writer warns us against becoming hardened to God’s word, for it can happen without us realizing it.


No one likes being called immature, but when we most dislike it is when we are often most guilty of it. In Hebrews 5:11-14, the author does just this. He admonishes his readers for being too spiritually immature to understand some things they should. He goes on in chapter 6 to then encourage growth, so they and we do not fall away despite having known the heavenly gift.

When we are not growing spiritually, skepticism, indifference, and apostasy may find room to creep in. An arm kept in a cast for several weeks quickly becomes smaller and weaker than the arm being used every day. Growth takes effort on our part, and it is something we should be working toward every day.

Falling Away

In Hebrews 10:26-31, the author addresses the dangers of deliberate sin, specifically quoting from Deuteronomy 32. Again, these are things his readers are familiar with from Moses’ teachings, but now it is being applied to rejecting Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice sealing a covenant greater than the one brought by Moses.


The author uses the illustration of Esau in Hebrews 12:16-17, who refused to acknowledge the worth of his family birthright. This is compared to our own spiritual birthright, standing before the holy mountain, and we are warned, in verse 25, to not refuse the one who speaks to us now — Jesus Christ according to chapter 1:1.


In Jeremiah 44, after God calls on His people time and again to listen to His word, the prophet makes a final appeal. In verse 16, though, the people state they will not listen. Rather than refusing the word of grace like they did, we should receive it gratefully, knowing the promises and gifts that come from our God who delivered Him.

God’s word can work in our lives if we avoid turning our back, hardening our heart, and closing our hearts to it. His word can change us from sinful creatures without hope into sanctified children with the hope of eternity. No one can force us to soften ourselves to His word, though. It has to come from within. We need to heed these warnings just as much as those second-generation Christians, holding to our faith despite anything that might try to take it from us.

A Faithful Light

photo of two lamps shining on a snowy night
Photo by Hide Obara

We’ve been looking at what it means to be a light in this world, shining God’s light to others around us. In this, we don’t draw attention to ourselves or look for any kind of earthy praise or rewards. Rather, we direct attention and glory to God. The purpose of our shining is not simply for the sake of bringing God’s light to the world, but we shine so we can bring others to God.

Let’s look again at Matthew 5:14 – 16:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

This is how our lights should be characterized, but a light is of little use if it’s unreliable or if it is not true. We have to be faithful lights for God, and I want us to consider faithfulness from two perspectives. First, we are faithful because we are pointing to God. Second, we are faithful because God can rely on us in all circumstances.

Lighting the Way True

If you are following a light for direction, it only does you good if it’s guiding you true. If you look up in the sky and search for Polaris, the North Star, it guides you north — but only if you identify it correctly. If you simply look for the brightest star, you’re going to spot Sirius, which is not usually in the northern sky. If you follow that, you’ll lose your way, and you’ll have to rely on your phone to save you. To reliably find Polaris, look for the constellation to which it belongs. Then you’re going the right way.

We’re only useful as lights for God if we are actually pointing people to God. John 14:5 – 7 records this conversation between Thomas and Jesus:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Also, John 8:12:

Again, therefore, Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus is saying that we have to point people to Him in order to point them to the Father and the life found in Him, and we do that through the truth of His word. Staying in the book of John, let’s turn to chapter 3 and start in verse 16. It’s a very well-known verse, but we’re going to read what comes after it as well.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only born Son of God.                

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn’t come to the light, for fear that his works would be reproved. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done with God.”

We are only children of light when we love the truth and do it. That truth is God’s word. It’s upon that truth that we shine. Our actions have to be based on the truth of His word. Our words should speak His truth. If we’re not walking and speaking in truth, then we’re guiding others away from the light. This is a big responsibility, but we are all up to it. We are all called to be this light, and it is for this purpose that God chose us to be His people.

I Peter 2:9 – 10:

But you are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are the people of God, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.

As lights in the world, we have to be concerned with lighting the way with truth. This means we handle God’s word with respect. We light up the world with kindness, generosity, and love, but we don’t compromise God’s truth when doing so. And we always make sharing that truth a goal when we’re making connections with those around us.

A Reliable Light

Of course, it doesn’t matter how true a light is or how bright it might be if it’s unreliable. A flashlight does you no good if it keeps going out. Stars are no good if a cloud covers them. Your headlights are useless if they are burnt out. And we are no good as lights for God if we’re unreliable, burnt out, or hiding our lights. We should make it a goal to be lights at all times and in all circumstances.

That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be cheery and bright. At times our light can be seen in our calmness and serenity in the storms of this life. It can be seen in how we choose to respond or not respond to provocation. It can be seen in how we maintain a faith in God even when nothing seems to be going our way. We don’t want to be like Jonah, who only shone when it suited him and who even found room to complain when a group of people he didn’t like repented and turned to God. Rather, we should be more like Daniel.

To me, Daniel is one of the best examples of shining under all circumstances. Think about it, as a young man, he’s taken from his home and stripped of his heritage. Still, in Daniel 1, he finds a way to be faithful to God’s law while showing respect and deference toward those ruling over him. In the next several chapters, Daniel makes a life of sharing God’s messages with kings who might not want to hear those messages, but he never makes enemies of those rulers. Finally, Daniel is even forbidden to pray to God in chapter 6. He does so anyway, but he remains peaceful and even gracious in the face of punishment for civil disobedience.

We see this same peace in Jesus and His apostles throughout their ministries. This is what it really looks like to practice the words of Philippians 4:4 – 9:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice! Let your mildness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

We should be spending our time filling our minds and hearts with things that encourage us to shine our lights. We should allow God’s light to fill us with a peace that transcends any of the unsettling things that can happen in this world. We should first be crowding out the darkness within ourselves with His light, and then we should be reliable bearers of that light — always burning steady and always pointing the way to God.

That is who we are: lights unto the world, a city on a hill, a chosen priesthood. We are not lights for our own sakes. Rather, we shine for our God, shining the light He has given us reliably and faithfully so that we can bring others to Him, so that they too can share in the safety of His salvation and so we can all go home with Him when all of this has passed away and darkness is no more.

Longing for God’s Light

Let’s finish with Revelation 22:1 – 5:

He showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of its street. On this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruits, yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.                                

There will be no curse any more. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night, and they need no lamp light, neither sunlight; for the Lord God will give them light. They will reign forever and ever.

This is the light for which we are striving. This is the hope that brings us joy and peace beyond all understanding. This is the light we should be sharing with others. All other concerns are pure triviality when compared to this. All those things that seem so pressing now, those wordily concerns that seem so urgent, the sorrows that can seem so crushing — they all melt away under the radiance of this light.

Let’s resolve to be faithful lights for our God, reliable and true. Let’s remember to let our speech and our conduct guide others to Christ, for it’s His light that fills us and shines through us. Each of us can do our part to better use our words and actions to point others to Christ, and, when we do so, we are pointing them to the light in Heaven, where pain, sorrow, sin, and darkness cease to exist. How could we do anything else but share such a wonderful gift with everyone we can?

lesson by Robert Smelser

The Parable of the Vineyard Workers

illuminated manuscript depicting the parable of the vineyard workers

Last time we were together, we looked at several short parables about the kingdom of Heaven. We took some time to define this kingdom that Christ is talking about as His church, and we’ve looked at parables covering several subjects. It’s been compared to both treasures and weeds, sowers and fishers; it’s been a mustard seed, and it’s been leaven. The themes, though, have been consistent. The kingdom is valuable. The kingdom is enduring. The kingdom will spread. The kingdom should be shared.

Today, we’re going to look at one more kingdom parable, and this one is looking directly at the kingdom beyond this life.

Matthew 20: 1 – 16:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

“And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.

“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

“And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.

“Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

“So the last will be first, and the first last.”

An Old Testament Principle

This parable actually centers around a command given under the former law in Deuteronomy 24:14 – 15:

You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.

The idea here is simple. These are itinerant workers who are struggling financially. You hire someone to do laborer, and you pay them that day for their labor. Moses is specific here, saying that you should pay the wages before the sun sets. These individuals are living hand-to-mouth on a day-by-day basis. You show mercy by paying daily rather than withholding wages until a set interval. Moses says that doing otherwise would be sin.

In this parable, the master goes out in the early morning, starting around 6:00 a.m. by our standards. This makes the third hour 9:00 a.m., the sixth hour noon, and the ninth hour 3:00 p.m. Finally, those called at the eleventh hour came at 5:00 p.m. and only worked for one hour.

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses did not specify how you should divide up wages for the poor you employ under the old law. However, the common practice back them was similar to what we do now. If you work more hours, you get paid more. Isn’t that what’s fair? But that’s not what happens in this parable. Here, the master pays those who worked one hour the same as those who worked twelve.

A Lesson in Humility

This is a parable about humility, as evidenced by Jesus ending the parable with these words: “So the last will be first, and the first last.” In a way, this passage foreshadows another parable most of us here will likely be familiar with: the prodigal son. At the end of that parable, one son feels he deserves more honor because he has demonstrated more loyalty to his father. The same is true of these laborers, but the wording here is interesting in verse 12: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day…”

They aren’t concerned so much with getting more than those who worked fewer hours as much as they are with those who worked less getting less. Let me make this clear: those who were grumbling basically wanted those who worked less to be “put in their place.” The words “you have made them equal” are basically accusing the master of unfairly elevating those who deserved less. Do you see the distinction there? They didn’t ask for a greater reward; they asked that the others should receive less. Brothers and sisters, when we become too proud of ourselves it’s easy to punch down.

In the direct historical context of this parable (and also that of the prodigal son), Jesus is likely drawing a comparison between the Jews and Gentiles access to the kingdom. Some of the Jews — particularly the religious leaders — viewed themselves as having been faithful to God for generations, and they would later resist the gospel being shared with Gentiles. They were God’s chosen people, after all. Parables like this served to prepare them for the kingdom opening to the Gentiles, whom they would view as less deserving because of their years of unfaithfulness. That’s likely the direct context, but the actual application has wider implications for us.

It’s easy to look at someone who stumbles more than we do or has a greater difficulty understanding God’s word than we think we do and show them lesser grace. It’s easy to lose our temper with the brother or sister who has a hard time controlling their own. It’s easy to feel less forgiving toward a brother or sister who confesses more sin. It’s easy to act as if we are more deserving of God’s grace than others because we just have it so together. After all, we’re just so faithful. This parable is a warning to us to not think too highly of ourselves.

Humility in God’s Kingdom

Look at what happens in verses 17 – 28:

And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?”

She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?”

They said to him, “We are able.”

He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Gospels are not always recorded in strict chronological order, and I believe that sometimes the authors pair events with teachings to drive a point home. That may be the case here, for the pride of the apostles directly mirrors the pride of the laborers earlier in the chapter. And it’s not the pride shown by the sons of Zebedee or their mother that’s the real problem. No, the real problem is the pride shown by the other ten in verse 24. It says they were indignant. This is anger toward a perceived unfairness as if any of them were as deserving or more of that reward.

Remember that the all-day laborers were indignant over what they felt were unfair wages. They worked longer, so they deserved more. I’m sure some of the apostles could say they had been with Jesus longer or had labored harder than James and John. What about Matthew, Mark, and Peter? Didn’t they deserve an equal or greater place in the kingdom? Jesus flat out says this the the wrong way to think about it, and He tells them to put on a servant attitude rather than an attitude like earthly rulers. He commands them and us to be humble.

You see, it doesn’t matter if I was baptized before or after you. It doesn’t matter if I have preached more or fewer sermons than you. It doesn’t matter if I have brought more or fewer souls to Christ than you. It doesn’t matter if my Bible knowledge if greater or less than yours. None of these things make me greater or less than you in the eyes of the Father. We are all His humble servants, and we are all working toward the same goal. And, in doing so, we will all receive the same reward, whether we’ve been faithful fifty years or fifty minutes.

A Quick Caveat

Before we move on, I do want to insert a word of warning. This is not to encourage unfaithfulness. Like Paul writes in Romans 6:1, “Shall we then sin more so that grace may abound?” We might ask, “Might we not go on sinning and repent in the last hour?” The answer is the same that Paul gives: Assuredly not. God takes sin seriously.

As the Hebrew author writes in Hebrews 6:4 – 6:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

When we’ve learned of God’s invitation to work in His vineyard, then anything other than humble acceptance is an insult to Christ’s sacrifice for us. And that contempt can lead to a hardened heart that may never return. That is why the Hebrew writer also calls on us to respond to God’s invitation while it is still called today, later warning us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’s.

We do not know the hour of our final breath. We do not know the hour Christ will return. Courting unfaithfulness in hopes of an eleventh-hour repentance is flirting with disaster. If you know Him, then humbly accept obedience to His will in faith.

A Lesson of God’s Mercy

Finally, this is also a lesson in mercy. The master in this parable pays those who worked but one hour the same wage as those who worked twelve. He lifts them to equal standing. This is unmerited grace; for those third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh-hour workers do not deserve the same wage as their colleagues who worked twelve. It is not a sleight to those laborers who faithfully toiled all day. Rather it is an extension of love and grace to those who fell short.

John 3:1 – 2:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

Do any of us deserve to be called a child of God? Can any of us merit such a relationship? Jesus Christ, the only living Son of God, came to this world from the spiritual realm. He lived a perfect life. He perfectly submitted to the Father’s will to become a sacrifice for all. Then He rose again in power and ascended back to Heaven to sit at God’s right hand. Can any of us say we truly live up to that standard?

Jesus is the only one who can say He deserves to be called God’s Son. But we gain the status of children through love and grace. This then makes us joint heirs with Christ, as Paul writes about in Romans 8. No matter how great or righteous or faithful we may think we are, not one of us deserves an inheritance like that, but grace says we get to receive it anyways.

Instead of begrudging such a great inheritance, as those laborers in the parable begrudged their wages, let’s be humble and grateful. Let’s be grateful for the favor God has bestowed upon us when there is no way we can deserve it. And let’s show that gratitude by humbly submitting to His will and also by sharing that great inheritance with others, so that God can say, to as many people as possible, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

lesson by Robert Smelser