Studies in Hebrews, 1 & 2 Peter
10. Hebrews 6 - Danger and Promise
The author of Hebrews wants to help his readers understand that Jesus is our High Priest. This is a key point that will help them choose to remain in Christianity rather than go to any other religious option. They need to see Jesus as their Savior, as the key to forgiveness of sin and acceptance by God.
However, he knows that this will not be an easy doctrine for them – not because it is difficult in itself, but because they will be reluctant to hear it. So at the end of chapter 5, he has a short exhortation for them to be willing to learn. This exhortation continues into the first part of chapter 6.
The foundational doctrines (verses 1-3)
“Therefore let us go on toward perfection,” he writes. He does not mean that we will become sinless in this life (even though we want to go in that direction) – the meaning in context is that they should become complete in their understanding. He tells them what he has in mind:
Leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.
The author is not trying to be comprehensive here, but he gives a sampling. These doctrines were found in first-century Judaism as well as in Christianity, and this is probably part of the author’s rhetorical strategy. Both groups said that people should repent from dead works (behaviors that lead to death rather than life) and have faith in God. However, the two groups would develop these doctrines in different ways. Christians would say, for example, that our faith in God should also include faith in the Son he sent for our salvation.
Both groups talked about baptisms, although in different ways. Jews taught baptism for Gentile proselytes, and ritual washings for various occasions. Christians taught about baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. We do not know which of these baptisms is meant here; the author is probably deliberately vague. He mentions these doctrines, but also says that he will “leave them behind.” His purpose is not to develop the foundation, but to acknowledge that he and the readers already share some important beliefs. He is building rapport with his readers before he moves to the more difficult teaching.
Both groups talked about laying on hands, for blessing or for appointments. (This is probably better categorized as a custom, for it is not a key teaching in either Judaism or Christianity. Perhaps the author included it because in his mind it went along with baptisms.)
Last, he mentions the resurrection and the judgment; these beliefs were similar in Judaism and Christianity. The key difference in beliefs here is the role of Jesus Christ at the judgment. Faith in Christ affects the way we understand all these “foundational” teachings, but the author is not choosing to talk about any of those things.
Falling away (verses 4-6)
The author wants to explain Jesus’ role as our High Priest. But he is still not ready to do it, because he thinks his readers may not be ready to listen to it. He wants to emphasize to them the importance of listening, so he warns them about the danger of turning away from God (his warning implies that he thinks they may be in danger of doing this, of drifting away from God by neglecting Jesus). This warning is one of the most controversial parts of his letter. We’ll quote it all and then return to look at the individual parts:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and 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, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.
Here is the controversy: some theologians say that God’s grace is irresistible and always effective; therefore it is impossible for a true believer to permanently fall away. This passage is a “difficult scripture” for this belief because it seems to say the opposite of what they teach. Various exegetical strategies are used to explain this passage from this perspective, such as
1) The people described in these verses are not true believers – the author is writing to a group in which some are chosen by God and some are not; he is describing the result for those who are not chosen: no matter how close they come to the church, they will eventually fall away.
2) The author is speaking hypothetically. If people who experienced all these blessings fell away, then it would be impossible to restore them to repentance. No one does this, though, because they always heed warnings such as this one.
I do not think that either of these strategies accurately portrays the intentions of the author of Hebrews. It seems to me that interpreters end up muzzling Scripture in order to uphold their beliefs. It is legitimate for people to bring theological beliefs to help them understand passages of Scripture, but I think in this case they have not allowed the Scriptures to correct their beliefs. (For more on that, see the excursus below.)
Look at how the passage describes these people:
- They were once enlightened, able to understand the gospel.
- They tasted the heavenly gift, experienced some of the blessings.
- They shared in the Holy Spirit – they were not just spectators.
- They tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.
If the author wanted to describe people who were on the margins of the church, who were deceived into thinking they had faith, then it is hard to imagine why the author would describe their status in such glowing and lengthy terms. What more could a true believer have? These people had the gospel, and grace, and God himself. If people with all these spiritual benefits fall away, then it is impossible for us to restore them to repentance again. (The word “again” implies that they had a genuine repentance once before.) Perhaps they can repent in some other way, but it is outside of our ability to lead them to it.
The author seems to describe true believers. But is it hypothetical? It would be odd for him to give the readers such a lengthy warning about something that cannot happen. He has already warned them about drifting away (2:1), and about falling due to disobedience (4:11); he warns them not to lose the grace of God (12:15). If he thought that believers had a promise of preservation, he has hidden that belief. We do not normally give warnings about things that cannot happen.
I will proceed on the conclusion that the author is giving a genuine warning to genuine believers. People who understand and experience the gospel, but reject it anyway, have rejected the only salvation that God gives. They don’t like what he is giving (which is himself), and we cannot do anything to change that. It would be an irrational choice, but Scripture indicates that some people make it anyway. They are telling the public that Jesus is of no value to them, in effect putting him back on the cross.
Let’s remember the context in the letter: The author has a teaching about Christ that the readers need, but they may not want to hear it. He tells them they need to grow in their understanding, to learn something new. Then he warns them about how serious it is for someone to deliberately turn their back on what God has given. He intends for the readers to see themselves in this description: They are the ones who have been enlightened, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, etc. He is warning them about the potentially unpleasant consequences of refusing to listen to this message from God (12:25). The language may seem harsh, but we do not know the people or the situation as well as the author does.
Close to being cursed (verses 7-8)
Despite the severity of the warning above, the author is not finished. He gives an agricultural metaphor to help explain why God might not want to deal with people who refuse to listen. He begins by stating the positive results of a good response: “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God.” In analogy, these are the people who listen and grow; they are blessed.
But if these people receive God’s grace (symbolized by the rain) and fail to produce the desired results, they are like a field of weeds: “But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.” If farmers want wheat but get only weeds, they will burn the weeds (which kills the weed seeds and fertilizes the soil), and hope for a better result the next time. At least for soil, there will be a next time, another chance.
There is a slight softening here – the curse is only near, not certain – but the language is still very blunt, stronger than we usually use today. The author believes that blunt warnings are needed to help his readers listen and heed.
Words of affirmation (verses 9-12)
Ancient rhetorical manuals advised speakers to follow warnings with expressions of confidence that the readers will heed the warnings. Our author follows this advice: “Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation.” His own feeling is that the readers will not fall away – they will choose to listen, and to heed the warnings.
He reminds them of God’s good will for them: “For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.” In chapter 10 he gives more details about what they did; here he indicates that God will reward them for their previous work. He does not mean that God will save them even if they fall away, merely on the basis of their previous good works. He is not presenting a doctrine of how people are saved – he is just trying to encourage them to be faithful, and to continue in their works of love. God does care about what we do, but our good works cannot buy our salvation.
Verse 11 gives another exhortation to keep up the good work: “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 readers will experience the future blessings if they diligently continue in their faith, work and love.
He repeats his primary concern in verse 12: “so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Do not be sluggish, he says – be patient and hold on to the faith. Others have done it, and so can you. We do not inherit the promises by giving up hope and quitting.
God’s guarantee (verses 13-18)
After mentioning the promises, he explains how certain they are. This does not mean that they are certain even if the people fall away; that would contradict the context. Although God made a promise, the promise will be claimed only by those who want it. The author is trying to make sure that the readers will continue to want it. He does not detail what the promise includes, presumably because the readers already know. He will describe it more fully in chapter 12.
He begins by referring to the patriarch Abraham, a figure held in high regard by the readers: “When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and multiply you.’ And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise” (Genesis 22:17).
God did not merely say that he would do it – he said “I will surely do it.” The author of Hebrews takes this as equivalent to swearing an oath. God emphasized that the promise was certain, and Abraham eventually received what was promised.
The author elaborates on the significance of this oath:
Human beings, of course, swear by someone greater than themselves, and an oath given as confirmation puts an end to all dispute. In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it by an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible that God would prove false, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. (verses 16-18)
Humans invoke the names of deities to lend support to what they say, and that kind of testimony is accepted by others. But since there is no one higher that God, God had to invoke himself: “I will surely do it.” The two “unchangeable things” are his purpose (one thing that is specifically said to be unchangeable) and his oath. God will not be false in either one. The author is dwelling at length on God’s promise in order to encourage the readers to not give up on their hope. God has not changed his mind, he seems to say. The reward is still there, but you need to endure with patience, like Abraham did. The hope is set before us, but we need to seize it.
The author describes himself and the readers as “we who have taken refuge.” We do not know what they fled, but it does suggest persecution. Or it may be a metaphor for salvation: they fled the threat of death by taking refuge in Christ.
Our hope in heaven (verses 19-20)
With the mention of hope, he transitions to the teaching that he wants the readers to accept: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Hope is an anchor for the soul. The metaphor suggests stability, but the author adds movement to it: this hope enters the “inner shrine,” meaning God’s presence in heaven, pictured by the room behind the curtain of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:31-35). The metaphor has moved from stability to security. Our salvation is secure when we have a hope that is anchored in the inner shrine, and in Jesus, this is what we get.
Jesus is a high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek.” The author told us that he has much to say about this (5:11), and he will get into it in chapter 7.
Things to think about
- If you listed the foundational teachings of Christianity, what would you include? (verses 1-3)
- Some people who drop out of Christianity eventually come back to faith. Does this contradict verses 4-6?
- “God will not forget your work” (verse 10). Does this encourage people to relax because they have already done enough?
- In what way is hope an anchor for your soul? (verse 19)