Hebrews 6:1-12—No Second Genesis
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is someone you know and love—Anonymous. Hebrews is the only book in the New Testament that we can’t be sure who wrote it. Many theologians think Paul, or Barnabas, or Apollos, but we can’t be sure. The internal evidence leads us to believe the author was Jewish, and was a close disciple of the Apostles, thus the book has Apostolic authority. Hebrews was widely used and accepted as inspired by God by all the churches in the first and second century. The theme of the book is the Superiority of Christ. The audience was no doubt primarily Jewish, and professed Jesus as the promised Messiah. The first century Jews who converted to Christ had a tremendous battle to overcome tradition, peer pressure, and the ties to their old religion. Many commentators believe the recipients of this letter were the Jewish community in Rome between 64 and 68 AD. The occasion for the letter was that the author was concerned that some of them were in danger of abandoning their profession of belief in Jesus, and reverting back to Judaism. The Letter of Hebrews is an awesome defense of the superiority of Christ and the New Covenant over the Old Covenant. The priesthood in Jerusalem had to make daily sacrifices for sin, because no animal sacrifice could fully atone for sins; but Jesus as the mediator of a new and better covenant, which “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time”. Jesus then ascended to heaven where He sits at the right hand of God Almighty because His work as the perfect sacrifice for our sins is complete. “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Why hold onto the old system of dead works in an attempt to accomplish your own righteousness when Jesus has already accomplished it for you?
The Most Controversial Passage in the Bible?
Most commentators believe that Hebrews 6:1-12 is the most difficult and controversial passage in the Bible. If you approach it with the belief that there is no security of your salvation (you can lose it), then you will read into this passage that he is warning them of losing their salvation. If you believe in the security of your salvation, then you will understand it refers to only professing believers, and not genuine believers. They are in danger of “falling away” from the knowledge of the truth in Jesus, and not the possession of a relationship with Jesus. Yet another interpretation is that it is a theoretical situation that he warns believers about. The idea of “falling away” is not possible, but he uses it as a warning to progress onward in spiritual growth. Since I alone can approach this passage with an open mind and sound hermeneutics (I’m kidding), I will attempt to discover what the author was trying to say to that audience using primarily the context of what came before and after.
Hebrews Chapter 3 and 4, Kadesh Barnea
In Hebrews 3-4, the author uses the negative example of Israel in the wilderness to warn his audience of the danger of unbelief. After the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, God parted the Red Sea and all the Hebrews walked across on dry land. Then when the Egyptian army tried to follow, God caused the water to come down upon them and wipe out the Egyptians. Exodus 15 is the record of Israel’s great praising and worshipping God. At this point we feel sure all 3 million (plus or minus) of them are believers, but not so fast. Not long after, at Meribah (means griping) they began to complain bitterly, and asked an amazing question, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (EX.17:7). The author of Hebrews quoted from Ps.95 about Israel’s experience in the wilderness of not trusting God (Heb.3:7-11), and his conclusion in Heb.3:12 is that the Hebrews had an unbelieving heart as proven by their disobedience and unbelief during that 40 years. God had promised them that He would make them a great nation set apart from all the others, and that He would give them the land of Canaan as their own possession.
After giving them the promises and the Law at Mt. Sinai, God led them to the southern border of Canaan, and commanded them to go in and take the land. God promised to go before them and give them the land. God promised them “rest” in the land. The author of Hebrews interprets “rest” for us in two ways—rest from our current struggles on earth, and then eternal rest in heaven. At Kadesh Barnea in Numbers 13-14, they sent in scouts or spies from each of the 12 tribes to scout out the land. The scouts came back, and 10 of them advised against going in by warning that the Canaanites were big and strong and well armed with fortified cities. The appearance was that they could never take the land that God gave them. Even though Joshua and Caleb advised that the Lord was with them to give them the land, all the people revolted. They said, “Let’s dump this bum Moses and appoint a new leader to take us back to Egypt where we were happy” (talk about selective memory). Therefore God was very angry with them and promised that they would never go into the land, but all die in the wilderness. Only those under 20 along with Caleb and Joshua would get to rest in the land.
Hebrews 3-4 uses the story of Israel’s unbelief in the wilderness to warn the professing Christians of the danger of unbelief. In Heb.3:18-19, he says that they never got to enter God’s rest because of disobedience, and that disobedience proved their unbelief. He follows this up with even a more definitive statement that they were never saved in Heb.4:2-3, “For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they did also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest.” As Israel in the wilderness proved, there is an outward façade of belief that can be maintained while the heart is actually unbelieving. I think we all just assumed that since they witnessed so many miracles, and even heard the voice of God at Sinai give the 10 Commandments, that they were all true committed believers who were saved, but their failure to go in to the land revealed that they only had intellectual assent or head knowledge. If you follow Israel for that 40 years in the books of Exodus and Numbers, you will discover that they failed every test. It is easy to claim belief when everything looks great, but the true test was when there was a risk. When they were hungry, or thirsty, or faced with an enemy their unbelief was revealed.
I think James said it really well in James 2:18-20, “But someone may say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is God alone. You do well, but the demons also believe that, and shudder.” James’ point was that true faith produces acts of obedience. There is a big difference between intellectual assent and a saving faith that entrusts its life to God. Clearly the author of Hebrews is warning his audience to examine themselves, and make sure that their profession is not superficial like Israel at Kadesh Barnea when they failed to enter the land.
Don’t be Like Mickey
I was just reading about California’s most notorious gangster back in the 1950s, Mickey Cohen. He attended a church service, and actually showed an interest in Christianity. Many Christian leaders began witnessing to him, and soon thereafter he claimed to have become a Christian. Naturally they expected great changes from him, especially that he would give up crime. Over a year passed by, yet he continued a life of murder, prostitution, extortion, etc. When confronted, he explained, “Hey, there are Christian ball players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians—Why not a Christian gangster?”
In Hebrews 5, we find a pivot, as the author suddenly confronts his audience with some harsh words. They are spiritually hard of hearing, they are immature, and there is no evidence of their true belief in Christ. The ultimate insult is to be compared to an adult person who is still in diapers and still nursing. They are adult infants who have never evidenced their belief by growing in the Word.
His audience heard the gospel, appeared to believe it, but he was concerned that their lives did not change. He exhorted them to “press on to maturity”. Get past the basics that he enumerates in v.1-2. These six things he listed were used in the catechism classes for new believers in the first century church. You can’t re-lay a foundation that has already been laid consisting of repenting (change your mind) about being saved by works, receive grace by faith, baptism, laying on of hands (they laid their hands on the temple animal sacrifices before they were made, signifying their sin), the resurrection, and eternal judgment. It sounds like they were still dealing with the basic issues of their initial salvation from the penalty of sin.
So far, everybody is pretty much in agreement on what the author is trying to say, but where they go haywire is in 6:4-6. It appears at first glance that he is speaking of those who have been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, and have been partakers of the Holy Spirit as saved Christians, but in v.6 then have fallen away and it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. I must admit that this sounds like saved Christians who have lost their salvation. But that was exactly the appearance of Israel in the wilderness also. The unbelieving Hebrews had placed blood on their doorposts in Egypt so the angel of death would pass over them. They had eaten the Passover lamb, miraculously crossed over the Red Sea, followed the Shekina glory of God, tasted the miraculous water, been partakers of the manna from heaven, and been enlightened by the Law of God at Sinai; yet they still fell away in unbelief, still went back to idolatry. Using the wording from Hebrews they were enlightened, they were partakers, and they tasted, but then they fell away. According to Hebrews 4:2-3, we know they never had a heartfelt belief, never had a true commitment to the Lord as evidenced by their failure to go into the land. Based on this context, I can’t help but think he meant the same thing for his audience. He was warning them to examine themselves and make sure their belief was genuine, therefore Hebrews 5:11-6:8 is one continuous warning and rebuke. To this author, I don’t think it is an issue of losing your salvation, because everything he has said up to chapter 6 concerns itself with whether they ever believed so as to pass the tests that God puts in their way. At the end of Israel’s 40 years of wandering, when the second generation is camped at the Jordan River preparing to go into the promised land, Moses gave them a recap of the last 40 years in Deut.8:2, “And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, TESTING you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”
How Does This Apply to Us ?
I have seen several polls about what professing Christians (worldwide) actually believe, and apparently over half believe that they are saved by works. They may believe in the grace of God, but see it as just making it possible for us to do enough good works, and be obedient enough to earn salvation. Basically, this is what the author of Hebrews is warning about when he says they need “repentance from dead works”. Repentance means to change your mind or turn away from one belief to another that is true. Therefore, the danger for all is in not totally committing your salvation to the atoning work of Christ on the cross. As long as you place your trust in religion, good deeds, ritual, or just head knowledge like Israel in the wilderness; then it’s about you and not Christ. Paul said it well in 2 Cor.13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”