FAILURE TO PROGRESS TO GENUINE CHRISTIANITY DOOMS ONE TO THE FRUITLESS LIFE OF IRREVERSIBLE APOSTASY
There are certain basic transitional truths that build upon Old Covenant doctrine and prepare the new Jewish convert to embrace the teachings of Christ. The author of Hebrews is concerned that some in his audience are on the brink of slipping back into Judaism and not pressing on with their Christian commitment. This concern could be expressed as a warning against apostasy (professing believers falling away from their identification with Christ and His church – proving that their faith was never genuine). Or there may be individuals as well who need to be prodded to fully appropriate personal faith in Christ rather than spinning their wheels with mere intellectual knowledge. In either case, there is an exhortation to press on to Christian maturity. Even nature itself offers illustrations that fruitfulness is the proof of genuine healthy life. In your spiritual life, you are either moving forward, or you are falling backward. You cannot just tread water.
Richard Phillips: The warning, therefore, is that, like those who left Egypt as part of Israel, we may have a very real experience of the phenomena of God’s saving power through our participation in the church. By virtue of our affiliation with the people of God, by being in their midst, we can have the very great privileges described in our text and yet not actually enter into salvation . . . That was the very situation with those who left Egypt in the exodus, but who fell away under hardship into rebellion and were judged by God so that they died in the desert. As we saw earlier in our studies, this is as stark a portrait of eternal despair as appears in all the Scripture. (cf. Matt. 7:21-23)
How do people “fall away”? They fall away by doing what the Israelites did in the desert: by removing their trust in the Lord, repudiating his authority and the salvation he offers, and denying him worship.
T. C. Edwards: What gives point to the whole section now to be considered is the connection between development of doctrine and a corresponding development of the moral nature.
I. (:1-3) ADVANCING BEYOND THE ELEMENTARY FOUNDATION
A. (:1a) Exhortation to Spiritual Maturity
1. Build on the Foundation
“Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ,”
Kent: not in the sense of “repudiate,” but in the sense of advancement beyond the first stage.
2. Press on to Maturity
“let us press on to maturity,”
Westcott: The thought is not primarily of personal effort . . . but of personal surrender to an active influence.
Kent: The believer’s responsibility is to stop putting hindrances in the way. By allowing Christ’s priesthood to do its work in our lives, we may arrive at that spiritual maturity (teleioteta) that is expected of each believer within a reasonable time.
B. (:1b-2) Moving Beyond the Foundation of Basic Catechism
1. Soteriology = Initial Response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ
“not laying again a foundation of”
R. Kent Hughes: New Testament scholarship is in general agreement that the six facets [3 sets of 2 items] of “the elementary teachings about Christ” (v. 1) listed in verses 1-3 outline the primitive catechism used in Jewish churches to induct converts. Thus, we get an intimate glimpse of “the basics,” the foundation you would have been taught before being baptized and accepted into a Jewish church 2,000 years ago.
Piper: All these are common Old Testament beliefs or current practices among the Jews. When these readers were evangelized and converted, these things, it seems, had been made foundational as a way of helping them understand the work of Christ. Christ is the goal and fulfillment of all these things. So when verse 1 says they should leave the “elementary teachings about Christ (or literally: “the word of the beginning of Christ”), what I think it means is that they should not occupy themselves so much with the pre-Christian foundational preparations for Christ that they neglect the glory of the gospel and how to use it to grow into maturity and holiness.
“repentance from dead works”
R. Kent Hughes: Turning away from the dead works of the Law and one’s doomed attempt at self-salvation. . . Conversion meant a conscious turning away from the old way of life.
Jeremy Myers: As the book of Acts, Galatians and Hebrews reveals, it has always been difficult for Jewish people to give up trying to obey the law, and turn instead to depend solely on the grace of God. But this is what they must do if they are going to operate under grace rather than the law. They must repent from the dead works of the law, and realize that living by the law will not put them in good standing with God. This is what the Jerusalem council was all about in Acts 15, and what Paul spent so much time explaining to his fellow Jews and writing about in Romans and Galatians. When we are Christians, we must depend upon the grace of God, not upon the works of the law.
“and of faith toward God,”
2. Pneumatology = Instruction in Initial Ceremonial Rites Related to the Holy Spirit
“of instruction about”
R. Kent Hughes: The idea here is that he Hebrew church employed the customary Jewish cleansing rites, as well as the Old Testament customs of laying on of hands, to teach the deeper, ultimate significance of Christian baptism and laying on of hands – namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13) and also commissioning and empowering for Christian service (cf. Acts 13:1-3).
Jeremy Myers: Getting baptized was a way to show that they had died to their past, and been raised to new life and a new way of living. Many Jews would have received the baptism of John, which is a baptism of repentance, as well as the water baptism for the Christian which is an outward symbol of the inner Spirit baptism. It was important for them to understand the difference between the various baptisms, and the significance of each.
b. Laying on of Hands
“and laying on of hands,”
Jeremy Myers: To the Jews, laying on of hands meant identification. In the Old Testament, when they laid their hands on the sacrifice before it was slaughtered to identify themselves with it. When it was sacrificed, it was as if they were being killed with it. Similarly, in the New Testament, when the church laid hands on new converts, it was to show them that they were all one and were all identified with one another (Acts 8:12-17; 9:17; 10:1-7). When they sent out missionaries, they again laid hands on them to show that they were identifying with them in their ministry and mission (Acts 13:1-3).
3. Eschatology = Instruction in Basic Christian End Times Events
a. Resurrection of the Dead
“and the resurrection of the dead,”
Jeremy Myers: One of the ruling segments of Judaism, the Sadducees, did not believe that people were resurrected from the dead (Acts 23:8). There were possibly some Jewish Christians who did not believe in it either, or didn’t know what to believe. But since the resurrection of Christ is so important to Christianity (1 Cor. 15:14-17), it was important that they understand that people are raised from the dead, and Jesus is the firstborn from among the dead. It is also important that they understand the various future resurrections. There are at least three resurrections in the Bible, possibly four. There is first of all the spiritual resurrection that happens to us when we believe in Jesus for eternal life. We die and are raised to new life in Christ (Romans 6).
The next resurrection is actually called the First Resurrection, because it is the first physical resurrection. This resurrection began with Jesus Christ, Who is the Firstborn from among the dead, continues with the rapture and resurrection of all the dead in Christ, and then culminates with the resurrection of all the tribulation and Old Testament Saints after the Tribulation (1 Cor 15:23; 1 Thess 4:16; Rev 20:3-5; Dan 12:2; Isa 26:19).
The third resurrection is the resurrection of all the unsaved dead at the end of the Millennium. They will be raised from the dead, given new bodies because Christ died from them too. But then because they did not believe in Jesus for eternal life, and therefore do not have eternal spiritual life, they will be cast into the Lake of Fire with the devil and his angels. This is also called the second death.
b. Eternal Judgment
“and eternal judgment.”
Leon Morris: 2 topics that went together and were important for Jews and Christians alike. They form a reminder that this life is not everything. We are responsible people, and one day we shall rise from the dead and give account of ourselves to God. This must have been of importance to new converts in a time when many people thought of death as the end of everything.
C. (:3) Enablement by the Sovereignty of God
“And this we shall do, if God permits.”
Kent: an acknowledgment that only God can change the course of a man’s life when it is going in the opposite direction.
Mohler: We cannot assume the future. Anything is done only if God permits. This awareness deepens dependence on God and drives prayerful expectation of perseverance.
Jeremy Myers: After laying down six huge doctrines which Christians should learn and understand so that they can move on the maturity, the author says that we will only learn them and only move on from them, if God permits. Once again, it is all back to God. Growing into maturity is at God’s discretion and by his permission. We are called to know what He wants us to know, and to do what He wants us to do, but moving on to maturity is still on His timetable. We will learn these doctrines if God permits. And even when we learn them, we will only move on to maturity if God permits.
Richard Phillips: That is where you want to be found, firm and secure upon the rock that is the Word of our Lord. Yes, the winds will roar and the rains will beat against you. But standing and building upon that rock, not as infants living on milk alone but as men and women of the faith nourished by the whole counsel of God that is meat indeed, you will prevail until the end.
II. (:4-8) AVOIDING THE DANGER OF IRREVERSIBLE APOSTASY
A. (:4-6) No Second Chance for Apostates
1. (:4-5) Counterfeits Look Like the Real Deal
“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened”
“and have tasted of the heavenly gift”
Wayne Grudem: Inherent in the idea of tasting is the fact that the tasting is temporary and one might or might not decide to accept the thing that is tasted. For example, the same Greek word (geuomai) is used in Matthew 27:34 to say that those crucifying Jesus “offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.” The word is also used in a figurative sense meaning “come to know something.” If we understand it in this figurative sense, as it must be understood here since the passage is not talking about tasting literal food, then it means that these people have come to understand the heavenly gift (which probably means here that they had experienced some of the power of the Holy Spirit at work) and to know something of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come. It does not necessarily mean that they had (or did not have) genuine saving faith, but may simply mean that they came to understand it and have some experience of spiritual power.
“and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,”
Wayne Grudem: By analogy, Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks of people who have been “associated with” the Holy Spirit, and thereby had their lives influenced by him, but it need not imply that they had a redeeming work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, or that they were regenerated. By similar analogy with the example of the fishing companions in Luke 5:7, Peter and the disciples could be associated with them and even to some degree influenced by them without having a thoroughgoing change of life caused by that association. The very word metochos allows for a range of influence from fairly weak to fairly strong, for it only means “one who participates with or shares with or accompanies in some activity.” This was apparently what had happened to these people spoken of in Hebrews 6, who had been associated with the church and as such associated with the work of the Holy Spirit, and no doubt had been influenced by him in some ways in their lives.
“and have tasted the good word of God
and the powers of the age to come,”
R. Kent Hughes: the participation in spiritual realities of those who “fall away,” . . . parallels the privileged experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness who fell away and died in unbelief.
2. (:6a) Counterfeits are Exposed When They Fall Away from the Faith
“and then have fallen away,”
R. Kent Hughes: [Not talking about some hypothetical situation that can never occur; not talking about Christians who actually lose their salvation – ]
The view many, including myself, hold is that those who fall away are not true believers, but rather men and women who only appear so. They are people who have received a thorough exposure to the gospel – for example, the catechized Jewish believers of the preceding verses – and have made an ostensible profession of faith and have been received into the fellowship of God’s people. However, at a later point they have abandoned their profession, even becoming opponents of Christ.
3. (:6b) Condition of Apostasy is Irreversible
“it is impossible to renew them again to repentance,
since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God,
and put Him to open shame.”
Essentially this is the unpardonable sin because you have rejected God despite having been privileged with the greatest possible light.
Piper: This passage says that there is a spiritual condition that makes repentance and salvation impossible. And it says that this condition may look in many ways like salvation, but it isn’t. And it leads to destruction. And so this text is a warning to us not to assume that we are secure when our lives have some religious experiences but no growing fruit. And the reason for showing us this serious situation is so that we will flee from it, and move to solid ground and lasting joy.
Steven Cole: Some in the Hebrew church were in danger of precisely the same sin. They had participated in a corporate sense in God’s abundant blessings of salvation, but now they were tempted to re-turn to Judaism. But to do that would be to fall away from Christ, and even worse, to join those who had crucified Him! In so doing, they would be crucifying Christ all over again, and putting Him to open shame by agreeing with the unbelieving Jews that He is not their Savior and Messiah. To do that would put them close to being cursed, and if they died in this state of renouncing their faith, they would face the fires of eternal judgment. . .
Thus I believe that both the broad and immediate context of Hebrews, plus other biblical texts and examples about apostasy, support the view that the author is talking here about false believers who were associated with God’s people and the blessings of salvation, but who were not truly saved. To fall away means deliberately to reject and repudiate the substantial light that they have been given about Christ and the gospel. In so doing, repentance becomes impossible-not for God (Mt 19:23, 24, 25, 26), but rather, it is morally impossible because by this deliberate rejection of the truth, they harden their hearts and place themselves beyond repentance. Thus we can sum up the main idea of our text:
Repentance becomes impossible when a person has been fully exposed to the blessings of God’s people, but falls away through deliberate unbelief and denial of Christ.
B. (:7-8) Illustration from Nature – Fruitfulness is the Proof of Genuine Life
1. (:7) Fruitfulness Connected to God’s Blessing
“For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it
and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled,”
Westcott: The law of human life, the condemnation which follows form the neglect of blessings, is illustrated by an example form nature.
“receives a blessing from God;”
A. M. Stibbs: It is impossible in the early stages to distinguish between the wheat and the tares, or between the seed that will wither or be choked and the seed that will bring forth fruit unto life eternal. Cf. 1 Cor. 10:P12; 2 Tim. 2:18, 19. Judgment is determined not by the beginning but by the end or fruit (vv. 7, 8). That is why this writer is so concerned that those who have begun to experience the grace of Christ should prove their genuineness by going on to its rue end. Cf. 2 Pet. 1:5-11.
2. (:8) Thorns and Thistles Connected to God’s Cursing
a. Thorns and Thistles
“but if it yields thorns and thistles,”
“it is worthless
and close to being cursed,
and it ends up being burned.”
Morris: Land that produced nothing but weeds faced nothing but fire.
Piper: So the picture is not of a field that had life and vegetation and then lost it. The picture is of two different kinds of fields — one is fruitful and blessed; the other is barren and cursed. I think the point is this: if we have sat in church with the light and the Spirit and the word and the work of God coming to us and blessing us and even shaping us in some degree, but then turn our back on it, we are like a field without vegetation and will come into judgment. The rain we have drunk (light, Spirit, word, powers) produced no life in the field.
Westcott: The judgment on the land, fruitful only for ill, is given in three stages.
– It is rejected: such land cannot any longer be reckoned as land for fruitful service
– It is nigh unto a curse: it presents the outward features of the curse (Gen. iii. 17 f.)
– Its end is burning.
Mohler: Happily, Hebrews does not end with this warning. The author assures believers that he had to write the warning for the unbelievers in the church needing to hear it. Pastorally, he is not seeking to put insecurity in the hearts of Christians. Believers who are faithfully following Christ’s commands can be confident in their salvation. If we seek assurance of our faith, we will find it by doing the things faithful Christians do. We will grow out of the elementary things and into maturity.