“A SUPERIOR COVENANT”:- Hard Saying in Hebrews!!

In engaging the exegesis of Hebrews 6:1-12, the New American Standard Bible was selected as the version of the Bible that will be referenced primarily due to its readability and its maintenance of the integrity of the original Greek meanings and innuendos and nuances. Particular attention will be given to verses 4, 5 and 6.

Heb 6:1-12

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do, if God permits.4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, 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.7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. 9 But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. 11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

Introduction

The pressures and trials of life sometimes cripple the faith of believers to the point that they feel disappointment with the faith they hold and even with the God of their faith. Consequently, many faint in the walking out of this faith. Some refer to this state as a state of backsliding and others see this state as a turning away from God and a consequent loss of salvation.

The book of Hebrews seems to be a book that contains many difficult passages as it relates to soteriology. There is the warning against: “Doubt” (3:12-19); “Denial” (4:1-5:14); “Drifting” (6:1-20), among others. Many use those passages as arguments against eternal security, claiming lucid evidence to substantiate their points-of-view. Others argue that those seemingly difficult passages can easily be reconciled with the wider context of scripture as well as considering the historical context of the book and the circumstances that warranted the writer’s sharp warnings to his audience.

Any careful exegete of scripture will, from the historical context of the time in which the book was written; the general message from the book of Hebrews; the immediate context of chapter six and the meanings of the key words used within the passage under review, draw the true meaning of the same passage and its implications for our present context as we seek to live out our faith.

Historical Background of Hebrews

The book of Hebrews is said to be like no other New Testament epistle. It is described as a book that has problems peculiar to itself. In form of construction, style, in argument, and in relation to other books of the Bible, Hebrews stands apart.[1] In addition, unlike the first nine epistles (Romans to 2 Thessalonians), which are addressed to Christian churches (primarily gentile audiences), Hebrews (the first of the final nine epistles) is clearly written to Jews.[2] The book’s address could have meant that the people to whom the book was written spoke Hebrew as in the case of Acts 6:1. However, if the title is a deduction of the contents of the book then it can be accepted that it is referring to members of the Jewish nation, who believed themselves to be specially chosen by God. But it is clear that from the letter itself that the letter is written to Christians – Jewish Christians.[3]

Why was the Letter Written?

The writer calls his/her letter an exhortation (13:22). The Greek word used for exhortation may also be translated ‘encouragement’ or ‘appeal’. The letter itself may justify those three translations as it contains passages of warning, encouragement and strength to Christian loyalty. The letter is really an argument for the superiority of Christ over the tenets of Judaism- Christianity supercedes Judaism.[4]

Why was important for such exhortation, encouragement or appeal? Though it is arduous to fix a date in which the epistle must have been written, it is plain that the book was written some time before A.D. 70, which was before the destruction ofJerusalem. It will help to understand the context of the letter, if we understand the general atmosphere at the time of its writing.

Christians were suspected and consequently punished by religious bodies-particularly the Jews-and by Roman authorities. As such, those Christians may have been pressured to the point of refusing to live out their faith and reverting to Judaism. Hence, according to Davies, a letter stressing the finality and all sufficiency of Christianity would strengthen them.

Furthermore, all Christians knew that the Old Testament was God’s covenant made with Israeland out of it; a new covenant was made in Jesus Christ. Their dilemma was now whether they should be Jews as well as Christians and how must they now relate to non-Christian Jews. Such confusion may have weakened their faith. The overwhelming persecution and confusion they experienced may have caused some to arrive at the brink of apostasy (refuge could not be sought in the Law or Judaism, which was rendered obsolete by the finished work of Christ on Calvary).[5]

Authorship

Though the name Paul is often linked with this book, there is much debate over its authorship. The book is anonymous. Paul often attached his name to his writings. The early church suggested it was Barnabas, Luke, Silvanus, Philip, Priscilla or Clement.[6] There is no internal or external evidence as to the author of the letter but what is clear is that the writer understood both the implications of the law and the deep theological realities of Christ’s sacrifice.

Background of Hebrews 6:1-12

Hebrews 6:1-3 picks up on the spiritual dryness of the Hebrews. The chapter begins with an appeal by the author to move on to spiritual maturity.[7] The Hebrew Christians must abandon the rudiments of the law[8] because they have a far better provision inCalvary and a superior priest in Christ. Since the total book of Hebrews is about the ‘Superiority of Christ’, chapter six seeks to present the superiority of Christ as a sacrifice versus that of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament.

Verse one calls for the abandoning of temple sacrifices and its attending rituals intimating a once and for all action as part of the warning echoed but also beginning a case for the Superiority of Christ’s finished work and thus encourage the Hebrews not to return to Judaism or apostasies.[9]

Furthermore, the writer makes a point by focusing on the words “leaving” and “pressing on” in the opening verse. The word “leaving” is a verb that mean to “put or place” with a preposition prefixed which means “off” or “away” (aphiemi). The preposition implies separation. The various meanings and shades of the word may imply: “to send away”, “let go” “to send from one’s self”, “to let be” or “to disregard”. On the other hand “pressing on” or “let us go on” is an aorist participle, which shows that the action of the aorist participle precedes the action of the leading verb  and thus the tense of the word will suggest a once and for all action. Hence from verse one, one gets the understanding that it is impossible for one to have truly moved forward if one has not been first separated from that which one was attached to. Verses 1-3 therefore tells the Christians that they need to separate themselves from the teachings of salvation through keeping the law and move on to faith in the finished work of a more superior sacrifice- Christ Jesus-a once and for all action- that saves once and for all.[10]

The question that still remains to be answered at this point though, in chapter six, is that if the believers had already abandoned Jewish Customs-the Old Covenant sacrifices, why does the writer still feel the need to admonish them to abandon same? According to Wuest (1947), based on verse four of chapter six, the Holy Spirit had already enlightened them so that they saw the sacrifices were abolished at the cross and  that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was the only way to salvation. They had acted on that realization and had abandoned the dependence on the works according to the Old Testament sacrifice. Their former dependence did not yield  to salvation.

“4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, 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.” Since salvation could not have been obtained through the sacrifice of any of the Judaistic rudiments and is only made available through Christ, who had made them partakers of the Holy Spirit and of the Heavenly gift, then to depart from that path means that there is no other source of  appeal for salvation. It will be, therefore, impossible for such a person (if it were possible) who turns away to be afforded the opportunity to repent because it will mean that Jesus Christ will have to again be crucified.[11]According to Williams (1926), if, after having come to acknowledge a crucified Messiah, they turned back from these realities to Mosaic rudiments, it would be impossible that they restart at John’s baptism and once again advance to Christ’s salvation for they had abandoned that road there would remain no other way of life and blessing.[12]

Verses seven and eight, according to Ryrie, will seem to suggest that a refusal to move on to maturity is inevitably going to lead to loss of reward; also supported in 1 Corinthians 3:15[13] while, verses nine to twelve seem to be sending the message that the sharp warning was to stir up a faith that persevered despite the persecution and the tendency to want to revert to Judaism-be steady in faith! A steady faith will assure them that even thought they are enduring the pressures now, they have a blessed hope because of the salvation experienced through a superior relationship with Christ (verse 11).

Exegesis on Hebrews 6:4-6

The most troubling part of the chapter however, is from versefour to six. It has been one of the points of departure for discussions on eternal security and loss of salvation through apostasy. For clearer understanding and proper exegesis of these verses, the general context of the book of Hebrews, the theme of the chapter under review, the meanings and nuances of critical words and the wider context of biblical teachings must be considered.

6:4 Ἀδύνατον *)adu/naton γὰρ ga\r τοὺς tou\s ἅπαξ a(/pac φωτισθέντας, fwtisqe/ntas, γευσαμένους geusame/nous τε te τῆς th=s δωρεᾶς dwrea=s τῆς th=s ἐπουρανίου e)pourani/ou καὶ kai\ μετόχους meto/xous γενηθέντας genhqe/ntas πνεύματος pneu/matos ἁγίου a(gi/ou 6:5 καὶ kai\ καλὸν kalo\n γευσαμένους geusame/nous θεοῦ qeou= ῥῆμα r(h=ma δυνάμεις duna/meis τε te μέλλοντος me/llontos αἰῶνος, ai)w=nos, 6:6 καὶ kai\ παραπεσόντας, parapeso/ntas, πάλιν pa/lin ἀνακαινίζειν a)nakaini/zein εἰς ei)s μετάνοιαν, meta/noian, ἀνασταυροῦντας a)nastaurou=ntas ἑαυτοῖς e(autoi=s τὸν to\n υἱὸν ui(o\n τοῦ tou= θεοῦ qeou= καὶ kai\ παραδειγματίζοντας

a rough translation of the verse may sound like: “It is impossible for the ones once being enlightened, besides tasting of the gift of the heavenly and being partakers the Holy Spirit and the good tasting word of God besides the powerful works of the impending world and falling aside again to be renewing into after mind, they crucifying to themselves the Son of the God and holding up to shame.”

Ἀδύνατον (adunaton)= Impossible

ἅπαξ (apax) = once (and for all- permanence)

φωτισθέντας (photisthentas) = being enlightened (from the word “photizo”meaning light) it is in the Aorist passive Accusative plural. The passive tone here suggests that the audience were recipients of the enlightenment (it was nothing they had done to achieve it) from God and connotes the message of genuine salvation experience.

Παραπεσόντας (parapesontas)- falling away/aside (Aorist Active Accusative Plural) past action with continuing implications. It is a linear tense.

παραδειγματίζοντας (paradeigmatizontas)= holding up to shame (Present Active Accusative plural). There is continuous sense of the action.

There is the sense that the writer uses a hypothetical situation to express the warning that he did. Clearly he makes a case for impossibility. It is impossible to have the process of enlightenment (regeneration expressed in Ephesians 2:1) and being made to receive the Holy Spirit (with whom we are sealed unto the day of redemption Ephesians4:30) twice. It will mean that Christ will have to crucified again because the work of salvation, described in verses four and five is once and for all. Hebrews 1:3 says that after he made purification for our sins he sat down; signaling the finality of his sacrifice over that of the old covenant. The implications for the Hebrews therefore was to consider what they were giving up (a superior covenant) for one that was impossible to bring salvation. Of course, such an argument will encourage them in a time of great confusion and temptation to turn back that they were really giving up the “real deal” for that which is only a shadow (Colossians 2 16:17). Furthermore, the writer summed up his argument in verse 12 of chapter 6 by telling them of the inheritance to be gained for persevering through persecution.

Application

Within many of our churches in the world, there is the sense that struggle with one’s faith and to the point of failure to practice its tenets leads to the loss of one’s salvation. Consequently, the person may be beyond redemption because of the impossibility of repentance after such. To hold to such a view therefore not only causes persons to remain in that state of backsliding longer than they should, it removes the assurance and hope one has in restoring fellowship with one’s saviour. As a consequence the Christian life becomes one that abolishes the idea of second chances. Further, it leaves no place for those who become weak in faith.

On the contrary, to understand and appreciate the passage in its truest sense, allows for an appreciation of the fact that the salvation which we have been made partakers of is so rich and precious. It leads the believer into a life of gratitude that we have, through the Christ and His work on the cross, we have eternal life. Our salvation is superior to that of the Old Covenant. I don’t have to be worried about keeping the law which according to Romans5:20was added so that sin may abound (that we realize how incapable we are of keeping same).

In the midst of our suffering, we can look to Hebrews 6 and when tempted to allow persecution and suffering to draw us away from our commitment to God we can say like Peter, “to whom shall we go.” We have a superior relationship in Christ, why not endure suffering to the end?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Baxter J. Sidlow. 1960 “Explore the Book”, Zondervan Publishing House,Grand Rapids,Michigan,USA

Davies , J.H.. 1967 “The Cambridge Bible Commentary-A Letter to the Hebrews”,CambridgeUniversity Press.

Pfeiffer, Charles. 1962. Everyman’s Bible Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews, Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois

Pfeiffer, Charles F. and EverettF. Harrison. 1962“The Wycliffe Bible Commentary”, The Southwestern Company,Nashville,Tennessee,USA.

Phillips, John. 1977. Exploring Hebrews. Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois.

Williams, George. 1926. The Student’s Commentaryon the Holy Scriptures. Kregel Publications,Grand Rapids,Michigan. Pg. 978.

Wuest, Kenneth S. 1947. Hebrews in the Greek New Testament. W.M. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.Grand Rapids,Michigan. Pgs 108-109.


[1] Pfeiffer, Charles F. and Everett F. Harrison. 1962“The Wycliffe Bible Commentary”, The Southwestern Company,Nashville,Tennessee,USA. Pg. 1401

[2] J. Sidlow Baxter. 1960 “Explore the Book”, Zondervan Publishing House,Grand Rapids,Michigan,USA. Pg. 259.

[3] J.H.Davies. 1967 “The Cambridge Bible Commentary-A Letter to the Hebrews”,CambridgeUniversity Press. Pg.3

[4] Ibid. Charles Ryrie agrees that the letter was a word of exhortation and posits that it was so because some of the believers were in danger of abandoning faith in Jesus Christ and reverting to Judaism. Ryrie sites persecution as a reason for why some may have sought to revert to the Judaism. Ryrie, Charles C. 1995. Ryrie Study Bible (NASB), Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois.

[5] J.H.Davies. 1967 “The Cambridge Bible Commentary-A Letter to the Hebrews”,CambridgeUniversity Press.

[6] Pfeiffer, Charles. 1962. Everyman’s Bible Commentary: The Epistle to the Hebrews, Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois. Pg.7. The author’s familiarity with Jewish teachings and customs suggests that he or she was Jewish but the anonymity of the letter may allude to female authorship. If the contents were to be taken seriously it could not have been a female author, hence it is alleged that is why the author chose to remain anonymous.

[7] Phillips, John. 1977. Exploring Hebrews. Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois. Pg. 89.

[8] These include animal sacrifices, keeping of the Sabbaths and all other rituals accounted for righteousness according to custom.

[9] Phillips, John. 1977. Exploring Hebrews. Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois. Pg. 89.

[10]. Wuest, Kenneth S. 1947. Hebrews in the Greek New Testament. W.M. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.Grand Rapids,Michigan. Pgs 108-109.

[11]Wuest, Kenneth S. 1947. Hebrews in the Greek New Testament. W.M. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.Grand Rapids,Michigan. Pgs 108-109.

As it is impossible for the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to be done again, it will be impossible for anyone to be brought into salvation through any other means since Jesus sacrifice is the superior of the two systems the writer to the Hebrews continues to compare. Of-course his is a hypothetical scenario. The careful exegete must remember that the central theme of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ.

[12] Williams, George. 1926. The Student’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Kregel Publications,Grand Rapids,Michigan. Pg. 978.

[13] Ryrie, Charles C. 1995. Ryrie Study Bible (NASB), Moody Press,Chicago,Illinois.