Volume 7, Issue 6: Exegetica
A Great Struggle With Suffering / Hebrews 10:23-39
In the previous chapters of this epistle the author has demonstrated to his readers
the superiority of worship in the new covenant over that of worship in the old,
encouraging them and warning them to hold tightly to their confession of Christ
in the midst of temptation to forsake Him. These temptations were apparently
due both to persecution they were enduring, or were about to endure, and the
desire for the tangible, ceremonial worship which they had in Judaism. The encouragements
he summarized in Heb. 10:23-25, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without
wavering . . . not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the
manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day
approaching." He followed this encouragement with a summary warning about the
punishment that God would bring upon those who so apostatized (vv. 26-31).
Having thus warned his readers, he again hastens to encourage them in the faith:
"But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured
a great struggle with sufferings" (Heb. 10:32). He desires that the Hebrew Christians
bring to mind the trials they previously endured, probably at the hands of their
own people the Jews, when they first heard and followed the gospel of truth.
Notice the author writes that they endured a struggle with sufferings, rather
than a struggle of suffering. The sufferings were their opponent in the struggle,
an opponent tempting them to forsake their faith and cast away their confidence,
as we shall see.
The recollection of former trials endured serves at least two ends. First, it
encourages us that such struggles do not last forever, giving us hope that what
we have endured once, we will be able to endure again. It reminds us of the faithfulness
of God, who helps us both to bear up under trials, and brings us out of them
in due time (cf. Heb. 10:23). Secondly, it reminds us that our treasure is in
heaven rather than on earth, and will continue to be stored up in heaven as we
obey Him Who sits there at our Father's right hand. It is primarily this second
end which the author now presents to his readers.
"You endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle
both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of
those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully
accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and enduring
possession for yourselves in heaven" (Heb. 10:32-34). We see that their struggle
was two-fold. First, it was a struggle as they watched with compassion the persecution
of the author, who here for the first time mentions something of his own situation.
He will do so again at the close of this epistle, where he tells them to "remember
the prisoners as if chained with them, and those who are mistreated, since you
yourselves are in the body also" (Heb. 13:3). This is a struggle of true Christian
fellowship which we all endure, for in the body of Christ "if one member suffers,
all the members suffer with it" (1 Cor. 12:26).
Secondly, they endured a more immediate, personal struggle as they were reproached
for the sake of Christ and their property was taken from them. This second struggle
they "joyfully accepted," demonstrating that they at one time showed a good level
of spiritual maturity. It is this mature confidence that the author would have
his readers retain, "Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great
reward" (Heb. 10:35).
Such confidence of heavenly rewards in the face of earthly trials requires great
faith on the part of those who must endure them. Knowing this, the author now
begins to focus on the theme of living by faith, which will carry us through
the next chapter. "For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done
the will of God, you may receive the promise: 'For yet a little while, and He
who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith;
but if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him' " (Heb. 10:36-38). The
context of the verses quoted here signifies that the endurance they need is endurance
for persecutions to come at the hands of those who hate God. For this passage
appears to be a conflation of Isaiah 26:20 and Habakkuk 2:3-4, both of which
speak of the sure future punishment to come upon wicked nations who have persecuted
God's people.1 The Hebrews are told that by faith they must endure persecution,
though up to this time they had "not yet resisted to bloodshed" (Heb. 12:4). By
faith they were to believe that God would judge the nation which persecutes His
people. By faith they were to know that those who endure will receive, perhaps
an eventual respite of persecution, and eternal life. "We walk by faith, not by
sight" (2 Cor. 5:7). When persecutions come, those who walk by faith will stand.
Those who walk by sight will draw back and stumble, to the displeasure of God.
"But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe
to the saving of the soul."