Hebrews 6:1-3 continues the exhortation to perfection that began in Hebrews 5:11-14. The danger of turning back, an encouragement to persevere, and the steadfastness of God's promise make up the rest of chapter 6.
A Call to Perfection - Hebrews 6:1-3
The first three verses of Hebrews 6 belong with Hebrews 5:11-14. There the author implied that his readers would have difficulty in understanding the forthcoming argument because they were dull in understanding. They should have been at a level of understanding to have been teachers. However, the author regarded his readers as infants in spiritual understanding. That did not mean he regarded them as hopeless. Verse 1 of chapter 6 begins with a call to go on to perfection. The Greek construction that is usually translated, "let us go on," is the normal way Greek expressed an imperative idea using "we" as the subject instead of "you." The fact that the author urges his readers to join in him in the journey to perfection suggests that he was not as negative about their spiritual condition as we might think from Hebrews 5:11-14. Though they had been at the milk stage he is ready to challenge them to move on.
The first step in moving on toward perfection was to leave behind the elementary teaching about Christ. The author does not view this basic teaching as unimportant. The basics are foundational, but it was time to move on. The author is thinking in terms of teaching (or theology) about conversion or the beginning of the Christian walk. The second clause has the same idea when it suggests that the readers are to not be laying again the foundation. This shifts the figure of speech to that of a building. The foundation is absolutely necessary, but one does not build the foundation again and again to construct the house. The foundation is built once and then the super-structure proceeds.
The foundational elements of the Christian life are then listed in the final part of verse 1 and in verse 2. Those foundational elements are presented in three sets of related pairs:
Each of these basic elements would have been part of the teaching of any Jewish community in the first century. The readers of Hebrews had built their basic Christian theology on a foundation that fit into the Judaism of that time. The author of Hebrews has no problem with that procedure, but he also believed that it was time for them to move on to a deeper understanding of Christ. At the time of one's first encounter with Christ it is natural (and necessary) to use the cultural and theological understandings of one's environment to understand the gospel. However, part of Christian growth is moving beyond a way of understanding Jesus that is shaped by our culture and background. A mature understanding of Christ should transform and change our culture.
The first basic teaching that must be left standing is repentance from dead works. The Greek word for repentance literally refers to a change of mind. However, the New Testament regularly uses that word as the equivalent of the Hebrew word from the Old Testament that meant "to turn around" or "to change direction." The point of the biblical concept of repentance is not just a change of thinking, but a change in the way of living. The repentance was to be from dead works.
Though many scholars argue that the author calling for his readers to turn away from external regulations about worship or Jewish legalism, a more likely explanation is at hand. The Greek phrase could be literally translated "from works of death" or "works which result in death." These works of death include murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, sorceries, robberies, and many more sinful acts or attitudes. Thus one of the basics of the Christian life is to turn away from such sinful acts and attitudes that lead to death.
Repentance is always a matter of turning away from one direction of life and toward another direction. One can not only turn from. One must also turn toward. The direction toward which the new Christian turns is faith toward God. This is only the second time the (Greek) noun faith has appeared in the book of Hebrews. It first was used in Hebrews 4:2 where the author states that the good news did not benefit those who failed to enter the promised rest because they were not united by faith with those who listened to God. The context there makes it clear that faith means trusting obedience. Turning from a life of evil will never happen unless one also turns toward a life of trusting obedience to God.
Instruction about baptisms has traditionally been taken to refer to the Christian rite of baptism. While this fits well in the flow of thought it is probably a misunderstanding. The Greek word is plural rather than singular and it is not the normal word used in the New Testament to refer to baptism. The normal word translated baptism in the New Testament is baptisma. This word is baptismos which is only used in two other places in the New Testament (Mark 7:4 and Hebrews 9:10). In both passages the word clearly refers to Jewish ceremonial washings. Thus instruction about baptisms is a reference to teaching about Jewish ceremonial washings.
Laying on of hands refers to the early Christian practice associated with the giving of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament had used laying on of hands for the appointment of a person to a special office. Since the Old Testament associated such appointment with divine empowerment by the Holy Spirit, the early Jewish believers especially connected the idea of laying on of hands with imparting the Holy Spirit. (That is also why Acts 9:12 and 28:8 connect laying on of hands with healing.) The empowerment with the Holy Spirit is not an elementary matter, but teaching techniques (like laying on of hands) is. It was time for the readers of Hebrews to move beyond the techniques to the reality of life with the Spirit.
The doctrines of resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment had unique applications by early Christianity. The way in which the resurrection of Jesus assured the future resurrection of the faithful and the role of Christ as participating in the final judgment were different than the traditional Jewish views. Even so, Jewish Christians should have had no difficulty in grasping the special role of Jesus in both resurrection and judgment. They could well leave that foundation standing and move on.
The thoroughly Jewish background of these basic Christian teachings created a special problem for the readers of Hebrews. Pagan converts to Christianity experienced a major break between their old life in sin and their new life in Christ. The gulf was so great that they could not gradually slip back to their old way of life. Christianity would be "all or nothing" for them.
Jewish Christians like the first readers of Hebrews, on the other hand, could more easily gradually give up the various distinctives of Christian teaching and slip back toward Judaism without sense a great change in their lives. The author of Hebrews was aware of the danger and wants no part of it for his readers. They must go on toward perfection as God permits and leads.
A similar danger exists for "cultural Christians" or those raised in the church. They can easily live life as cultural Christians or in "church-ianity", never going on to deep spiritual growth and commitment and yet think themselves to be totally pleasing to God.
The Danger of Falling Away - Hebrews 6:4-8
Hebrews 6:4-6 is one long complicated sentence. It also contains one of the most difficult passages to interpret. The sentence states that it is impossible for people who have truly known the Lord and who then turn away to be restored to repentance. A starker way of putting it is that there is no second chance to be saved if one sins after being saved. Not surprisingly there are a variety of interpretations of this passage. It demands our most careful study.
First, whatever the final interpretation, verses 4-6 were intended to motivate the first readers of Hebrews to faithfulness in the face of pressure and persecution. The word for suggests that "if the readers do not 'go forward' into the fullness of Christian doctrine, they will be in grave danger of falling away altogether." (Hagner, p. 70) This highlights an important spiritual truth. The call to go on to perfection and spiritual growth is not a trivial or optional matter. There is no place in the Christian life where one can simply decide to settle down and to neither obey nor grow any more. One either moves forward or backward in the Christian life. There is no neutral ground for a "do-nothing" Christian. This is an important reminder for every believer.
The most difficult word in verses 4-6 is the word impossible. Its position in the Greek sentence shows that the author intended to emphasize it. "It is IMPOSSIBLE!" is his point. The next part of basic sentence does not appear until verse 6. A few modern versions bring that next part up to verse 4 to make the understanding easier. "It is impossible to restore to repentance certain people."
Who are those certain people that can not be restored? Much of the sentence is devoted to describing them. They are people who have once been enlightened. The word once is literally "once-for-all". To have been once-for-all enlightened, once-for-all tasted the heavenly gift, once-for-all become partakers of the Holy Spirit, to have once-for-all experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come is to be a Christian who is going on to perfection.
These verses are not describing infants in Christ. These people have thoroughly encountered the blessings of the grace of God. They know full well the power and glory of life in relationship with Christ. But these people also have fallen away according to verse 6. The grammatical construction of fallen away implies that it is a willful and purposeful decision to reject Christ. William Lane describes the meaning as "a deliberate, planned, intelligent decision to renounce publicly association with Jesus Christ. It signifies a choice not to believe God, not to listen to God, not to obey God. It is the decision to be disobedient and to deny all that Christ has done for you." (Call, p. 94) For such persons it is impossible to restore them to repentance. It is clear that the passage is not speaking of unwitting sins, but of sin committed with a high hand in willful defiance of God. The restoration of such people to repentance is impossible as they are crucifying again to themselves the son of God and exposing him to public disgrace.
The final key to interpreting Hebrews 6:4-6 lies in the way these phrases are related to the main sentence. Most versions use the word "since" or "because" as the connecting word. It is impossible to restore to repentance those who have fallen away since they are crucifying again the son of God and are holding him up to contempt. In the final analysis such a translation makes repentance of willful apostasy impossible. The person who purposefully denounces Christ can never be restored.
This interpretation has led to despair both on the part of people who thought this verse prevented their ever coming back to Christ again and on the part of people who thought persons they loved had crossed this eternal line that could never be erased. The fact that an interpretation has brought spiritual despair does not make it wrong, but it should make us want to be very certain that no other reasonable interpretation is possible.
Another very reasonable interpretation is not only possible; it is quite likely. The grammatical construction that led to the translation "since" or "because" does not have to be translated causally. In fact, most frequently that construction is translated temporally. In verse 6 that would mean that it is impossible to restore to repentance those who have fallen away WHILE they are crucifying again the son of God and are publicly holding him up for contempt.
In support of this interpretation is the fact that the Greek grammatical construction for the verb fallen away refers to a single event of rejecting Christ. However, the verbs for crucifying again and publicly holding up for contempt are constructed to show a repeated and on-going action. The continuous nature of those verbs suggests a temporal meaning - while. Thus as long as one contemptuously and publicly rejects Christ, as long as one lives a life of continual sin that requires a continual atoning death of Christ, there is no repentance. But should one stop crucifying Christ again and stop publicly humiliating him the possibility of repentance would be available.
Should the temporal interpretation be correct it is not a basis for a person to conclude that they need not worry about taking care for the spiritual condition. "If it will always be possible to repent then it is okay to sin," is the exact opposite of the conclusion the author intended his readers to draw. The purpose of verses 4-6 was to motivate his readers to stay true to Christ despite persecution. Any interpretation that is taken to give license to believers to sin is a misappropriation of both the interpretation and word of exhortation given by this author.
Verses 7-8 also make that clear. Verse 7 speaks of ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly which is a figurative expression for believers who receive all the spiritual benefits described in verses 4-5. The goal of those benefits is that such believers produce a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated. The end result is that they will be blessed. Verse 8, however, turns to ground that has received the same rain but produces thorns and thistles. This is an obvious reference to once-for-all enlightened believers who reject Christ. One should notice the final part of verse 8. Such believers are "on the verge of being cursed;" their end is to be burned over (NRSV). The author is not yet hopeless for such people. They are close to or on the verge of being lost, but not yet. In his mind there was still time to turn and obey.
Encouragement to Persevere - Hebrews 6:9-12
Though the author of Hebrews had given a very solemn warning in verses 4-8 he hastens to explain that he does not think that any of them are such apostates. He is convinced that better things applied to them. His goal was not to discourage them but to warn and exhort them. That affection for his readers is revealed in verse 9 when he called them beloved. This is the first and only time the author used this common Pauline word to address his readers. In verse 10 he appeals to the righteousness of God. God was aware of and would not forget their work and the love which they showed for his sake in serving the saints.
If Hebrews was written to the church at Rome they continued to serve. In about A.D. 170 the bishop of Corinth wrote the bishop of Rome, "This has been your custom from the beginning, to do good in manifold ways to all the brothers, and to send contributions to the many churches in every city, in some places relieving the poverty of the needy, and ministering to the brothers in the mines." (Bruce, p. 151) Such a pattern of other-centeredness does not arise from people who willfully reject Christ. The tragedy is that it does not appear more frequently among Christians!
Verse 11 returns to exhortation. We want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end. The words we want express a strong, on-going desire of the author for the spiritual success and perseverance of his readers. It is diligence or eagerness that will lead to the full assurance of hope. The purpose of the exhortation is stated in verse 12, that you may not become sluggish. The word translated sluggish here is the same word translated dull in Hebrews 5:11. The Greek word implies such a loss of vision and energy that a person becomes escapist and disillusioned. The antidote to it is endurance and the advice of the author is to become imitators of those who through faithfulness and steadfastness inherit the promises. It appears that the author is already thinking of the great list of faith heroes that will be described in Hebrews 11. To become imitators of such spiritual giants is an extremely worthy goal.
God's Promise is Steadfast and Sure - Hebrews 6:13-20
The final section of Hebrews 6 is an explanation of the reliability of God's promises made to his people. Thus the section flows out of verse 12 where the readers are urged to become imitators of the heroes who by faith and endurance had inherited the promises. The hero who the author specifically mentions in this section is Abraham. Verses 13-15 repeat the key words of this section, promise and patiently endured. It appears that the promise to Abraham that the author of Hebrews specifically had in mind in verses 13-15 was found in Genesis 22:16-17. There God had promised specifically to bless Abraham and to multiply his descendants. This statement of the promise came on the heels of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac. The author of Hebrews saw that event as the same as receiving Isaac back from the dead (see Hebrews 11:19).
However, that promise of Genesis 22 was also the reiteration of a promise stated in Genesis 12:2-3 when Abraham was a 75 year old childless man married to an old, infertile woman. In those rather humanly hopeless circumstances Abraham had persevered in hope and faith and God had given him Isaac. When Abraham persevered in obedience (the ultimate expression of trust or faith) by being willing to sacrifice Isaac, God not only reaffirmed the promise in Genesis 22:16-17, but did so with an affirming oath.
It was characteristic of early Christianity to appeal to Abraham as a formative example. John the Baptist had argued that God was able to produce children of Abraham from the stones. Paul had used Abraham in both Romans 4 and Galatians 3 as an example of one who was justified by faith rather than by works of the law. James 2:21-26 had appealed to Abraham to support his point that faith and works must work together. The author of Hebrews will also give significant treatment to Abraham in his stories of the heroes of the faith in chapter 11.
Here, the reference to Abraham serves two purposes. First, the appeal to the oath by which God had affirmed his promise to Abraham gives emphasis to the reliability of God's promises. This is an important point to conclude the exhortation section from Hebrews 5:11-6:20. As the author urges his readers to stay faithful to Christ in the midst of persecution and pressure he wants them to know that God will remain faithful to his promises to them. They can count on God. In fact, God had sworn with an oath by himself the promise to Abraham. The author notes that when human beings use an oath they swear by a higher power as a means of guaranteeing the oath. God also swore by the highest power available to him, himself. Thus God was both the one who swore the oath and the one who guaranteed the oath. The promise was secure; it was secured by the Ultimate Promise Keeper. The very existence of his readers, Jewish Christians, proved that God had kept the promise to Abraham to bless and multiply him. The readers could count on God to keep his promises to them.
Secondly, the appeal to Abraham at this point also prepares the way to return to the subject of Melchizedek in chapter 7. Melchizedek first appeared on the Biblical scene in an encounter with Abraham. Psalm 110:4 speaks of a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The promise of Psalm 110:4 was affirmed by an oath of God. Thus the faithfulness of God to his promise-affirmed-by-oath to Abraham in Genesis 22 anticipates the faithfulness of God to his promise-affirmed-by-oath in Psalm 110 to Christ to be a priest like Melchizedek. God will be equally faithful in all his promises.
The faithfulness of God is then presented in Hebrews 6:18 as strong encouragement to lay hold of the hope that is set before us. To lay hold of the hope meant that the readers could live in confidence that this threatening and evil world was not the final word. Not only is God in ultimate control but the path to the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies is open and available to us. Jesus, as a forerunner, has already entered there as a priest to intercede for us. The forerunner, like the pioneer and trailblazer, is one who goes before. He opens the way for us.
As a result the pressure of life and the persecution of evil people is not the ultimate word. We have a hope. Because Christ is that hope the author also describes him as an anchor for the soul. An anchor is designed to stop the drifting that our author had warned against in Hebrews 2:1-3. That anchor is sure and steadfast or secure and firm. Regardless of the way the phrase is translated the concept is clear. Our hope can not be shaken; it will not be swept away. We can rely on it.
The idea that Jesus was the forerunner into the Holy of Holies provided the way for our author to move back to the subject of Jesus as high priest. Since only the high priest could enter that inner sanctuary in Judaism and since (according to Hebrews 1:13) Jesus is there the right hand of the God whose presence fills the sanctuary the readers can cling to Jesus as the great high priest who intercedes for them. In this way the author returns in Hebrews 7 to the argument of Hebrews 4:14-5:10 that Jesus was the superior high priest.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 6:1-20. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1.Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2.Select a truth for which you see a personal application in your own life. Describe how that truth applies in your life.
3.Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you persevere and go on to the deeper and better things of the Christian life.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 7:1-25. Now focus in on Hebrews 7:1-3.
1.Read Genesis 14:17-20 in the context of all of Genesis 14. What does Genesis 14:17-20 state about the encounter and relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek?
2.Based on Genesis 14, how does the author of Hebrews draw the conclusions that he draws in Hebrews 7:3?
3.What do the phrases "king of righteousness" and "king of peace" suggest to you about the spiritual life of Melchizedek? What changes in your life might make those titles true about you?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 7:1-25. Now focus on Hebrews 7:1-10.
1.In what ways could the author of Hebrews make the case that Melchizedek was superior to Abraham?
2.How does the author argue that the Levitical priests were inferior to Melchizedek?
3.According to Number 18:21-26 what was the purpose of the tithes? What application of Numbers 18:21-26 would you make for the church today?
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 7:1-25. Especially focus on Hebrews 7:11-14.
1.Verse 11 refers to perfection again. How does this reference and previous references (Hebrews 2:10; 5:9; and 6:1) to perfection contribute to the overall argument for the superiority of Christ?
2.What point do you think the author was trying to make in verses 11-12? How would you summarize his train of thought?
3.The priesthood of Christ was a reflection of the inadequacy of Judaism's priesthood. What kind of reflection of Christ can be seen by your life? Write a brief prayer asking God to help you better reflect Christ.
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 7:1-25. Now focus your attention on Hebrews 7:15-19.
1.How do verses 16-17 contribute to the argument for the superiority of Christ's priesthood?
2.Verse 17 quotes Psalm 110:4. Hebrews 5:6 also quotes the same verse. What is the purpose for quoting it here compared to the purpose for quoting it in Hebrews 5:6?
3.Verse 19 speaks of a better hope. What do you think he means by a "better hope?" What are some of "worse" hopes that you find youself clinging to from time to time?
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 7:1-28. Now focus in on Hebrews 7:20-25.
1.Summarize the author's logic that led to his conclusion that Jesus had become the guarantee of a better covenant.
2.What characteristic of Christ in verse 23-25 both establishes his superiority and enables him to serve?
3.Has Christ become your high priest? Write a brief testimony stating what it means to you that he is your high priest or a brief prayer asking him to become your priest now.