Hebrews 6 – A Warning to Discouraged Believers
A. The essential nature of maturity.
1. (1a) Going beyond the basics.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection,
a. Therefore: The writer rebuked his readers for their spiritual immaturity but he knew that nothing was gained by treating them as immature. He continued with his instruction and warnings.
b. Elementary principles: This has the idea of “rudiments” or “ABCs.” They are basic building blocks that are necessary, but must be built upon – otherwise has only a foundation and no structure.
c. Perfection: This is the ancient Greek word teleiotes, which is much better understood as “maturity.” The writer to the Hebrews did say that we can reach perfection on this side of eternity, but that we can and should reach a place of maturity in Jesus. The call is plain: let us go on to perfection.
i. “Teleiotes does not imply complete knowledge but a certain maturity in the Christian faith.” (Barclay)
2. (1b-2) Some of the “basics” to go beyond.
Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
a. Not laying again the foundation: These elementary principles are given in three pairs. Repentance and faith go together. Baptisms and laying on of hands go together. Resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment are paired together.
b. Not laying again the foundation: Many people regard this as a Biblical list of important elementary principles for the Christian life. Bible study and discipleship series have been taught developing each one of these topics, with the thought that this is a good list of basic doctrines. But that wasn’t the writer’s point here at all.
i. To understand this list, one must ask basic questions:
· What is distinctively Christian about this list?
· Where is the specific mention of Jesus or salvation by grace alone?
· Could one believe in or practice these things and still not be a follower of Jesus Christ, and not believe Him to be the Messiah?
ii. “When we consider the ‘rudiments’ one by one, it is remarkable how little in the list is distinctive of Christianity, for practically every item could have its place in a fairly orthodox Jewish community… Each of them, indeed, acquires a new significance in a Christian context; but the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as a foundation on which to build Christian truth.” (Bruce)
iii. “It is profoundly significant to observe how little distinctively Christian there is in this statement. Repentance, faith, resurrection, and judgment were certainly Jewish, and on this account the reference seems to be the Jewish foundation, and they are urged to avoid these elementary things which they are to leave for something higher and richer.” (Griffith Thomas)
c. Of the doctrine of baptisms: Not even baptisms, as it is used in this passage, is necessarily Christian. The specific ancient Greek word here translated baptisms (baptismos) is not the word regularly used in the New Testament to describe Christian baptism (baptizo). Baptismos is the word used on three other specific instances to refer to Jewish ceremonial washings (Hebrews 9:10, Mark 7:4, and Mark 7:8).
i. The New English Bible translation reflects this, translating “doctrine of baptisms” as instruction about cleansing rites. The ESV translation has, instruction about washings.
ii. Bruce quotes Nairne: “‘Doctrines of washings’–how unnatural are the attempts to explain this plural as referring to Christian Baptism.”
d. The foundation: In this case, the elementary principles to move beyond are all items in a common ground of belief between Christianity and Judaism. This was a safe common ground for these discouraged Jewish Christians to retreat back to.
i. Because Christianity did grow out of Judaism, it was a more subtle temptation for a Jewish Christian to slip back into Judaism than it was for a formerly pagan Christian to go back to his pagan ways. “Part of the problem facing the Hebrews was the superficial similarity between the elementary tenets of Christianity and those of Judaism, which made it possible for Christian Jews to think they could hold on to both.” (Guthrie)
ii. Of course, these Jewish Christians did not want to abandon religion, but they did want to make it less distinctively Christian. Therefore, they went back to this common ground to avoid persecution. Living in this comfortable common ground, one did not stick out so much. A Jew and a Christian together could say, “Let’s repent, let’s have faith, let’s perform ceremonial washings,” and so forth. This was a subtle yet certain denial of Jesus.
iii. This is entirely characteristic of those who feel discouraged, and wish to give up. There is always the temptation to still be religious, but not so fanatical about Jesus.
3. (3) A statement of hope and dependence on God.
And this we will do if God permits.
a. If God permits: This should not be taken as implying that God may not want them to go on to maturity, past those basics common to Christianity and Judaism.
b. If God permits: Instead, this expresses the believers’ complete dependence on God. If we do press on to maturity, we realize that it only happens at God’s pleasure.
B. The danger of falling away.
Preface: Understanding an approach to controversial passages like this.
a. There is a great temptation to shape a difficult passage in to what we think it should say, according to our theology system or bent. Yet we must first be concerned with understanding what the text says (exposition), before we are concerned with fitting what it says into a system of theology.
b. Systems of theology have some value, as they show how Biblical ideas are connected and show that the Bible does not contradict itself. But the way to right systems begins with a right understanding of the text, not one that bends the text to fit into a system.
i. “We come to this passage ourselves with the intention to read it with the simplicity of a child, and whatever we find therein to state it; and if it may not seem to agree with something we have hitherto held, we are prepared to cast away every doctrine of our own, rather than one passage of Scripture.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “We had better far be inconsistent with ourselves than with the inspired Word. I have been called an Arminian Calvinist or a Calvinistic Arminian, and I am quite content so long as I can keep close to my Bible.” (Spurgeon)
c. Satan knows Scripture, and this passage has rightly been called “one of the Devil’s favorite passages” for the way it can (out of context) condemn the struggling believer. Many Christians feel like giving up after hearing Satan “preach a sermon” on this text.
1. (4-6) The impossibility of repentance for those who fall away after receiving blessing from God.
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.
a. For it is impossible: The word impossible is put in a position of emphasis. The writer to the Hebrews does not say this is merely difficult, but that it is without possibility.
i. Note the other uses of impossible in Hebrews:
· It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18).
· It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats can take away sin (Hebrews 10:4).
· It is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).
ii. “This word impossible stands immovable.” (Alford)
b. Who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come: The writer to the Hebrews speaks of people with impressive spiritual experiences. The big debate is whether this is the experience of salvation or the experience of something short of salvation. Looking at each descriptive word helps see what kind of experience this describes.
i. Enlightened: This ancient Greek word has the same meaning as the English word. It described the experience of light shining on someone, of a “new light” shining on the mind and spirit.
ii. Tasted: The idea of “tasting” may mean to “test” something. But other uses of this word indicate a full, real experience as in how Jesus tasted death in Hebrews 2:9. The heavenly gift is probably salvation (as in Romans 6:23 and Ephesians 2:8).
iii. Partakers of the Holy Spirit: This is an unique term in the New Testament. Since it means “sharing” the Holy Spirit, it has to do with receiving and having fellowship with the Holy Spirit.
iv. Tasted the good word of God: This means they experienced the goodness of God’s word, and saw its goodness at work in them.
v. Thepowers of the age of come: This is a way to describe God’s supernatural power. The writer to the Hebrews describes those who experienced God’s supernatural power.
c. If they fall away, to renew them again to repentance: One of the most heated debates over any New Testament passage is focused on this text. The question is simple: Are these people with these impressive spiritual experiences in fact Christians? Are they God’s elect, chosen before the foundation of the world?
i. Commentators divide on this issue, usually deciding the issue with great certainty but with no agreement.
ii. One the one side we see clearly that someone can have great spiritual experiences and still not be saved (Matthew 7:21-23). One can even do many religious things and still not be saved. The Pharisees of New Testament times are a good example of this principle. These men did many religious things but were not saved or submitted to God. These ancient Pharisees:
· Energetically evangelized (Matthew 23:15).
· Impressively prayed (Matthew 23:14).
· Made rigorous religious commitments (Matthew 23:16).
· Strictly and carefully tithed (Matthew 23:23).
· Honored religious traditions (Matthew 23:29-31).
· Practiced fasting regularly (Luke 18:12).
· Yet Jesus called them sons of Hell (Matthew 23:15).
iii. Yet, from a human perspective, it is doubtful that anyone who seemed to have the credentials mentioned in Hebrews 6:4-5 would not be regarded a true Christian. God knows their ultimate destiny and hopefully the individual does also – yet from all outward appearance, such Christian experience might qualify a man to be an elder in many churches. Yet beyond the knowledge hidden in the mind of God and the individual in question, from all human observation, we must say these are Christians spoken of in Hebrews 6:4-5. A good example of this is Demas.
· Paul warmly greeted other Christians on his behalf (Colossians 4:14).
· Demas is called a fellow worker with Paul (Philemon 24).
· Yet Paul condemned Demas, at least hinting at apostasy (2 Timothy 4:10).
iv. Taking all this together, we see that it is possible to display some fruit or spiritual growth – then to die spiritually, showing that the “soil of the heart” was never right (Mark 4:16-19).
v. Therefore, eternal standing of those written of in Hebrews 6:4-6 is a question with two answers. We may safely say that from a human perspective, they had all appearance of salvation. Nevertheless, from the perspective of God’s perfect wisdom it is impossible to say on this side of eternity.
d. For it is impossible… if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance: Despite their impressive spiritual experience – or at least the appearance of it – these are in grave danger. If they fall away, it is impossible for them to repent.
i. If these are genuine Christians who “lost their salvation,” the terrible fact is that they can never regain it. In the early church some groups (such as the Montanists and the Novatianists) used this passage to teach there was no possibility of restoration if someone sinned significantly after their baptism.
ii. Others explain it by saying that this is all merely a hypothetical warning (in light of the statement in Hebrews 6:9). In this thinking, the writer to the Hebrews never intended to say that his readers were really in danger of damnation. He only used a hypothetical danger to motivate them. However, one must say that there is questionable value in warning someone against something that can’t happen.
iii. Still others think that this penalty deals only with reward, not with salvation itself. They stress the idea that it says repentance is impossible, not salvation. Therefore these are Christians of low commitment and experience who risk a loss of all heavenly reward, saved only “by the skin of their teeth.”
iv. This difficult passage is best understood in the context of Hebrews 6:1-2. The writer to the Hebrews means that if they retreat back to Judaism, all the religious “repentance” in the world will do them no good. Retreating from distinctive Christianity into the “safe” ideas and customs of their former religious experience is to forsake Jesus, and to essentially crucify Him again. This is especially true for these ancient Christians from a Jewish background, since the religious customs they took up again likely included animal sacrifice for atonement, denying the total work of Jesus for them on the cross.
e. If they fall away: There is a necessary distinction between falling and falling away. Falling away is more than falling into sin; it is actually departing from Jesus Himself. For a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again, but the wicked shall fall by calamity (Proverbs 24:16). The difference is between a Peter and a Judas. If you depart from Jesus (fall away) there is no hope.
i. The message to these Christians who felt like giving up was clear: if you don’t continue on with Jesus, don’t suppose you will find salvation by just going on with the ideas and experience that Christianity and Judaism share. If you aren’t saved in Jesus, you aren’t saved at all. There is no salvation in a safe “common ground” that is not distinctively Christian.
ii. If someone falls away we must understand why he or she can’t repent – it is because they don’t want to. It is not as if God prohibits their repentance. Since repentance itself is a work of God (Romans 2:4), the desire to repent is evidence that he or she has not truly fallen away.
iii. The idea is not that “if you fall away, you can’t ever come back to Jesus.” Instead, the idea is “if you turn your back on Jesus, don’t expect to find salvation anywhere else, especially in the practice of religion apart from the fullness of Jesus.”
iv. “This passage has nothing to do with those who fear lest it condemns them. The presence of that anxiety, like the cry which betrayed the real mother in the days of Solomon, establishes beyond a doubt that you are not one that has fallen away beyond the possibility of renewal to repentance.” (Meyer)
2. (7-8) An illustration of the serious consequences of falling away.
For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briars, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.
a. For the earth which drinks in the rain… and bears herbs useful… receives blessing from God: When the earth receives rain and bears useful plants, it fulfills its purpose and justifies the blessing of rain sent upon it. The writer to the Hebrews applies the point: “You’ve been blessed. But where is the fruit?” God looks for what grows in us after He blesses us, especially looking for what grows in terms of maturity.
b. But if it bears thorns and briars, it is rejected: If ground is blessed by rain but refuses to bear fruit, no one blames the farmer for burning it. The idea shows that growth and bearing fruit are important to keep from falling away. When we really bear fruit, we abide in Jesus (John 15:5) and are in no danger of falling away.
C. Don’t be discouraged.
1. (9) The writer admits he is a little more harsh than he needs to be.
But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner.
a. We are confident of better things concerning you: Though he spoke so severely, the writer to the Hebrews was confident His readers would continue on with Jesus. He thinks of their continuation in the faith as one of the things that accompany salvation.
b. Though we speak in this manner: These encouraging words after the strong warning of Hebrews 6:4-8 should not be understood to mean that the warnings in the previous verses are not serious, or that the writer warned of impossible consequences. If anything, verse nine shows how badly these struggling Christians needed encouragement. Their spiritual danger was not so much out of a calculated rebellion, but more because of a depressing discouragement. They need warning, but also needed encouragement.
2. (10-12) Don’t be discouraged because God hasn’t forgotten about you.
For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
a. God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love: When we are discouraged we sometimes think God forgets us and all we have done for Him and for His people. But God would deny His own nature if He forgot such things (He would be unjust). God sees and remembers.
i. Sometimes our fear that God forgot our work and labor of love comes from relying on the attention and applause of people. It is true that some people may forget your work and labor of love, but God never will.
b. We desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end: The writer to Hebrews encouraged like a coach, pressing us to press on. We must keep up our good work; press on with that hope until the end; and imitate those who inherit (not earn) God’s promises. When we fail to do this, discouragement often makes us become sluggish.
c. But imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises: Instead of giving in to discouragement, imitate those who found the key to gaining God’s promises – faith and patience, as demonstrated by Abraham.
i. We are grateful to remember Abraham’s life and to see that he did not have a perfect faith or a perfect patience. If Abraham had some of our weakness then we can have some of his faith and patience.
d. Do not become sluggish: The idea is that we should not let discouragement make us sluggish, leading to the sense that we may as well give up. First we lose the desire to press on; then we lose the desire to go on.
i. Before he was king, David showed a great answer to discouragement: David encouraged himself in the Lord his God (1 Samuel 30:6, KJV). It is a blessing when others encourage us, but we don’t have to wait for that. We can encourage our self in the Lord.
3. (13-18) Don’t be discouraged, because God’s promises are reliable.
For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.
a. After he had patiently endured: A season of patient endurance is a time of spiritual attack. It seems that we may never obtain the promise of God in our life. It is easy to wonder, “Will God really come through in my situation?”
b. After he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise: God came through for Abraham, even sealing His promise with an oath. In fact, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself. This oath showed that God’s promises (like His character) are unchanging. Abraham’s trust in this was the gateway to the fulfillment of the promise.
i. “This passage teaches us…that an oath may be lawfully used by Christians; and this ought to be particularly observed, on account of fanatical men who are disposed to abrogate the practices of solemn swearing which God has prescribed in his Law.” (Calvin)
c. That by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation: The two immutable (unchanging) things are God’s promise and God’s oath. It is impossible for God to lie in either of these two things.
i. The absolute reliability of God’s promise should impress us. “Now, brethren, who among us dare doubt this? Where is the hardy sinner who dares come forward and say, ‘I impugn the oath of God’? Oh! But let us blush the deepest scarlet, and scarlet is but white compared with the blush which ought to mantle the cheek of every child of God to think that even God’s own children should, in effect, accuse their heavenly Father of perjury. Oh, shame upon us!” (Spurgeon)
d. Strong consolation: God isn’t content to give us mere consolation. He wants to give us strong consolation. Spurgeon described some characteristics of strong consolation:
· Strong consolation does not depend upon bodily health.
· Strong consolation does not depend upon the excitement of public services and Christian fellowship.
· Strong consolation can’t be shaken by human reasoning.
· Strong consolation is stronger than our guilty conscience.
i. “It is a strong consolation that can deal with outward trials when a man has poverty staring him in the face, and hears his little children crying for bread; when bankruptcy is likely to come upon him through unavoidable losses; when the poor man has just lost his wife, and his dear children have been put into the same grave; when one after another all earthly props and comforts have given way, it needs a strong consolation then; not in your pictured trials, but your real trials, not in your imaginary whimsied afflictions, but in the real afflictions, and the blustering storms of life. To rejoice then, and say, ‘Though these things be not with me as I would have them, yet hath he made with me an everlasting covenant ordered in all things and sure;’ this is strong consolation.” (Spurgeon)
e. Who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us: This is another reason for encouragement, knowing that God has a refuge of hope set before us. We can think of this refuge of hope are like the cities of refuge commanded by the Law of Moses, as described in Numbers 35.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are within easy reach of the person in need. The place of refuge is of no use if it can’t be reached.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are open to all, not just the Israelite. No one who comes the place of refuge is turned away in time of need.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge were places to live. In time of need, one never came to a city of refuge just to look around.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge are the only alternative for the one in need. Without this refuge destruction is certain.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provide protection only within their boundaries. To go outside the provided refuge means death.
· Both Jesus and the cities of refuge provided full freedom with the death of the High Priest.
· However, there is a crucial distinction between Jesus and the cities of refuge. The cities of refuge only helped the innocent; the guilty can come to Jesus and find refuge.
4. (19-20) Don’t be discouraged, because Jesus will lead us into God’s glory.
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
a. This hope we have as an anchor: The anchor was a common figure for hope in the ancient world. Here the idea is that we are anchored to something firm but unseen (which enters the Presence behind the veil).
i. You don’t need an anchor for calm seas. The rougher the weather, the more important your anchor is.
· We need the anchor to hold the ship and keep it from being wrecked.
· We need the anchor to stabilize the ship and keep it more comfortable for those on board.
· We need the anchor to allow the ship to maintain the progress it has made.
ii. The ship must have hold of the anchor, even as we must lay hold of hope. The anchor itself may have a strong grip, and be secured to the ocean floor, yet if it isn’t securely attached to the ship it is of no use. But there is also a sense in which the anchor has hold of the ship, even as hope has hold of us.
iii. But the anchor analogy doesn’t apply perfectly. We are anchored upward in heaven, not down in the ground; and we are anchored to move on, not to stand still.
iv. “Our anchor is like every other, when it is of any use it is out of sight. When a man sees the anchor it is doing nothing, unless it happen to be some small stream anchor or grapnel in shallow water. When the anchor is of use it is gone: there it went overboard with a splash; far down there, all among the fish, lies the iron holdfast, quite out of sight. Where is your hope, brother? Do you believe because you can see? That is not believing at all.” (Spurgeon)
b. Which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us: This confident, anchor-like hope sees us into the very presence of God. Hope is exactly the medicine discouraged Christians need.
c. The forerunner…even Jesus: We are assured of this access into the presence of God because Jesus has entered as a forerunner. The Old Testament high priest did not enter the veil as a forerunner, only as a representative. But Jesus has entered into the immediate presence of God the Father so that His people can follow Him there.
i. A forerunner (the ancient Greek word prodromos) was a military reconnaissance man. A forerunner goes forward, knowing that others will follow behind him.
ii. “We are told next that as a fore-runner our Lord has for us entered – that is entered to take possession in our name. When Jesus Christ went into heaven he did as it were look around on all the thrones, and all the palms, and all the harps, and all the crowns, and say ‘I take possession of all these in the name of my redeemed. I am their representative and claim the heavenly places in their name.’” (Spurgeon)
iii. Yet if Jesus is the forerunner, we are then the after-runners. There is no forerunner if there are no after-runners. We should follow hard after Jesus, and run hard after Him. He has gone before us and He is our pattern.
d. Behind the veil… having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek: The temple analogy (behind the veil) reminds the writer to the Hebrews of his previous start into the subject of Jesus as our High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (in Hebrews 5:6-10). This thought continues into the next chapter.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission