Partaking of Christ, A Simple Plea Against Apostasy
Hebrews 3:12–15 12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, 15 while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.”
The Primitive Plea Against Apostasy
There is a sense in which we can say that salvation is a simple matter based on simple truths and can be reduced to a simple reality— faith in Christ. Remarkably however, it is this simple center of Christian faith that is often complicated, jeopardized and assaulted by false doctrine, false teachers and false conversion. The evidence of this is given to us in a parallel passage in Paul:
2 Corinthians 11:1–4 1 I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. 2 For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. 3 But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. 4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.
Paul’s sarcastic words at the end of this passage sums up the potential for apostasy in Hebrews. They would in fact bear “beautifully” with a false gospel if they did not hold on to the simplicity of Christ in the New Covenant. The unbelief of Hebrews is not simply brought on through personal struggle and sheer unbelief but as is always the case, unbelief is not alone. There is always some attendant circumstance that leads to total apostasy. Whether it’s the power of our own flesh (3.12), the allure of the world (2 Tim. 4.10), or the destructive effects of heresy and theological compromise; apostasy is never a brute fact.
This is why the present context has a connection to other things. Falling “away from the living God” is coupled with the disobedience and unbelief of the wilderness generation who provoked God and thus could not enter God’s rest in Canaan (3.11). Israel often displayed a hard heart on a national level which led to the consequences of covenant curses for the whole nation. But in verse 13 the author personalized the issue of apostasy for each individual church locally, and ultimately each individual person in that church by stressing the deceitfulness of sin, “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” What follows in vv.14-15 is a conditional promise of partaking of Christ through faith.
The Promise Of Participation In Christ
Incentives can be a wonderful thing. They can be used to produce greater production in sales personnel at a retail job, they can be used to encourage obedience in children, they are used to motivate an athlete to get good grades so that he can play on the team. That is really what the author of Hebrews is setting out to his audience. It is the incentive to persevere and thus partake of Christ, “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (3.14). But where was the value of Christ introduced in the letter, because here it is assumed?
His Redemptive Supremacy
The promise of being partakers of Christ will only truly be an incentive for perseverance and obedience if we see Christ as infinitely valuable in His person and work. But we also have to deal with the phrase, “partakers of Christ” (μέτοχοι... τοῦ Χριστοῦ) to know precisely what that means. The first meaning of the word “to partake” or to “share” with Christ is used in Scripture of partnering with some one as in a business venture (cf. Lk. 5.7) or joining someone as a partner or companion. The idea of companionship is probably in view in Heb. 1.9 where Christ is said to have “companions.” But the greatest consensus is with the fact that (μέτοχος) refers to a personal participation (BDAG) in or a sharing (ESV) in or a partaking of someone or something (NASB, NKJV). In this verse it is strictly salvific. It recalls the use of the term in 3.1 where the believers are said to partakers of “heavenly calling.” Being “partakers of Christ” is simply another way of saying that they possessed this “heavenly calling” or salvation in Christ. They were in union with Christ and thus, fellow-heirs with Christ and His redemptive work.
This began in the opening words of the letter which put Jesus’ redemptive and revelatory supremacy on display. Being saved in Christ, “partakers of Christ” meant that they were the recipients of the redemption that Jesus brought “in these last days” (3.2). This is the value of being “partakers of Christ,” we are partakers of the redemption He reveals through what He said and did, and partakers of the redemption He accomplished through His blood as He made “purification of sin” (3.3).
His Divine Exaltation
His value is also seen in His divine exaltation. This is where we begin to see who is on our side! It is the Son of God, enthroned, exalted, worshiped and served by angels that gives us the victory over our present sufferings and our ultimate enemies (1.5-7). His divine exaltation is also seen by His royal enthronement. To partake of Christ also means that we are the recipients of Jesus’ prophetic fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant where it is said that His throne will be endure forever, He will rule His people in righteousness and with incomparable joy (1.8-9).
His Sovereign Enthronement
Not only is Jesus’ value seen in His divine exaltation but also in His sovereign enthronement. In verses 10-12 Jesus is Alpha and Omega, He is sovereign over the beginning of all things, as He lays the foundation of the earth and outlasts them. He is also sovereign over the end of all things as He rolls the universe up like a garment. This also means that Jesus is sovereign over the ages. In every age, in every epoch and dispensation, Jesus has been its author, theme and purpose. His centrality in God’s plan of redemption is brought to completion with Jesus reigning supreme over the stage of creation where the drama of redemption has unfolded.
Jesus is not only pictured as sovereign over time and history, He is also pictured sovereign over His enemies who will become a footstool for His feet as the final sign of the vindication of the Son of God over all those who oppose Him and oppose His people, “Sit at My right hand, Until I make Your enemies A footstool for Your feet?” (1.13 cf. Ps. 110.1). It also leads us in the direction of a warning. Seeing that Jesus will reign over His enemies (cf. 2 Thess. 1.5-10), if we are going to be partakers of Christ, we must pay very close attention to what we have heard in the gospel (2.1). If we fail to recognize the day of our visitation and the all-defining revelation that has come in Christ, we too may fail to enter God’s rest.
His Redemptive Solidarity With His People
Finally, the infinite value of Christ is seen in His redemptive union with His people. This is the union that Jesus has with all those whom He set out to redeem and restore to fellowship with God through the cross (cf. John 6.44; 17.4-5). The author of Hebrews repeatedly stressed throughout chapter two the importance of Jesus’ humanity and thus His solidarity with His people (2.5-18). This is the closest point to the context of 3.14 and being “partakers of Christ.” Chapter one already described believers as Jesus’ “companions” (1.9). We are the heirs of salvation (1.14) and thus, fellow-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8.17). We are also identified as Jesus’ house (3.6), we are His household and members of His eternal family (Eph. 2.19; 1 Tim. 3.15; 1 Pet. 4.17), we are His brothers and sisters, His “My brethren” (2.12-13). Peter O’Brien points out the purpose of partaking of Christ and His reward:
“Since they are his brothers and sisters (2:11–13), their hope is of sharing with him in the honour and glory attained through his death and exaltation (2:8–9), and so of participating in his heavenly, unshakable kingdom (12:28).” (Peter Obrien, Hebrews; 150).
Although assumed in verse 14, the above points: Jesus’ redemptive supremacy, His divine exaltation, His sovereign enthronement, and His solidarity with His people spell out for us the benefits of being “partakers of Christ.” But to all this goodness of knowing and sharing in Christ, there is an important condition that is set out for us.
The Perpetual Threat Of Provoking God
The Christian life has many perils, none greater than the peril of unbelief leading one to fall away from the living God. Apostasy is therefore the greatest threat facing the life that is lived in faith to Jesus Christ. Thus, according to this passages there will always remain the perpetual threat of provoking God through sin and unbelief. There are two things in the text that provide us with the perpetual threat of provoking God. The first is with the duration of perseverance and the other is with the duration of this age.
The Duration Of Our Perseverance
The perpetual threat of apostasy and our failure to be “partakers of Christ” is due to the duration of our perseverance. Our calling is not simply to enter the Christian faith through conversion, it is not simply a call to live a religious life for an extended time, it is not even a calling to make sure that you do something great for Christ before death. We are called to endure to the end.
This is the conditional nature of our participation in Christ, “we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (3.14). The language and the theology that the author uses here is reminiscent to what he had already said in verse 6:
Hebrews 3:6 6 but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.
We should point out something else here. In verse 6, the focus of the author is ecclesiastical. His focus, we could say, has to do with sharing in God’s people; Christ’s “house.” In verse 14 the focus is Christological, “we have become partakers of Christ.” Both are soteriological and both are conditions of the Christian life. This is no accident. If there are two things that will determine if we are truly saved it will be predicated on whether we stay in fellowship with one another and stay in fellowship with Christ. The whole context turns on both of these points:
Hebrews 3:12–14 12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end,
Verse 13 answers the issue of persevering in the church through our personal involvement and accountability to the local church. Verse 14 answers the issue of persevering in our personal faith in Christ. The call is to endure to the end by holding “fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (ἐάνπερ τὴν ἀρχὴν τῆς ὑποστάσεως μέχρι τέλους βεβαίαν κατάσχωμεν). The language here is nuanced, elaborate and brilliant. The controlling verb is placed at the end of the conditional clause for emphasis. The word rendered here, “assurance” has been translated in various ways. The ESV translates it, “confidence” just like verse 6. The problem with that translation is that in verse 6 a different word is used which is regularly translated “confidence” in the NT (παρρησία). The word here is (ὑπόστασις) where we get the term hypostatic as in “the hypostatic union” of Christ because it refers to Jesus’ two natures. The word is used this way in (1.3) referring to Jesus being the exact representation of the Father’s “nature.” In that sense the word means something like the essential reality and nature of someone or something (see, BDAG). But in this context (3.14), that definition does not fit.
If we are not being told to hold on to original nature or essence, then what are we being told to hold fast to? There is a clue that leads in the direction that this word is referring to the believer’s original conversion and faith-commitment in Christ. This verse is set against verse 12 which warns the believers against falling away from the living God. The term “fall away” is (ἀποστῆναι). The answer to (ἀποστῆναι) is (ὑπόστασις). The answer to doubt is assurance, the answer to apostasy and unbelief is assurance and perseverance. But this “assurance” must be protected persistently and perpetually because the threat of apostasy is perpetual as well. There is simply nothing more important than our spiritual maturity. There is nothing more important than our spiritual well being and growth:
1 Timothy 4:7–9 7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance.
The Duration Of This Age
To add to the need and ongoing urgency of perseverance we also have to bear in mind the duration of the age in which we live. Remember that chapter three and four is an exposition of Psalm 95 (e.g. 3.7-11, 15; 4.3, 5, 7). This is why Psalm 95 is citing here again, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me” (3.15). This verse is cited over and over again to press upon us the urgency of our endurance. In chapter 10 the parallel passages there also call us to endure even in the face of persecution and weariness:
Hebrews 10:35–36 35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
The reward for holding fast to our original “assurance” is great but it also comes with a great cost; the cost of discipleship and endurance. Like Paul, Hebrews also speaks of our endurance with athletic metaphor:
Hebrews 12:1–2 1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…
Like many portions of Scripture, the theology of Hebrews often strikes at this tension between our personal effort in our perseverance such as running, holding fast, and endurance and God’s sovereign power to keep us. Many people error in thinking that Hebrews is teaching that believers can lose their salvation while others see no need for personal effort in holiness and perseverance. What the grammar of v.13 is teaching us is that in this age assurance is conditional upon our perseverance in the gospel. We could say, the witness of the Spirit within us that tells us that we are the children of God (Rom. 8.15-16), that original testimony is either quenched by the springs of sin and apathy or it is fanned into flame through our unwavering persistence in faith (βέβαιος).
There are many things that will complicate the gospel in the Christian life. Theology will complicate the way we see the gospel. Personal relationships will complicate the gospel. Dark providences, personal sinful choices, broken relationships, ministry disappointments, and a million other factors can complicate and fog the way we view Christ and our life in Christ. But for those who lose their grip on “the beginning” or their “assurance” do so ultimately from an “evil unbelieving heart.” It is an evil unbelieving heart that allows to the simplicity of the gospel to be overthrown by doubt, it is the evil unbelieving heart that rejects the promise of partaking of Christ, rejecting also the worth and value of Christ, and the evil unbelieving heart casts caution to the wind an their soul into Hell by refusing to take heed to the perpetual threat of apostasy. This is why the author of Hebrews reiterates the this warning in verse 15 because it zeros in on the heart, “while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” We end with the warning of verse 15 because in the spirit of the letter, Hebrews is full of sanctifying warnings that are meant to drive us closer to Christ and further away from sin.