Coming to one of the most difficult passages in Scripture, one which has spawned off numerous different interpretations, we set out to answer four questions last week. We are talking about Hebrews 5:11-6:20, in particular chapter 6, verses 4-6.
Why does God inspire difficult texts? And we noticed that God puts them there to make us desperate for understanding, to encourage us to cry out to God for understanding, and then to wrestle hard and long with the Scriptures so that we can understand them. Then we are better able to teach the Scriptures and our process for exegesis to others.
Then we looked at some general principles of interpretation, the most important of which is to seek the author’s intended meaning by examining the passage within its literary and historical/cultural context.
Then we started looking at the context, noting that it was written to a mixed group of believing and unbelieving Jewish Christians, that it is one of five warning passages in Hebrews—indeed, the central one, and then we saw it as part of a larger teaching on Jesus’ superiority as high priest because He came from Melchizedek, and finally, that this section alternates between pessimism and optimism and seems to be addressing two different groups.
As you move through this passage of Hebrews, there are many terms we will have to define. Some of them, which at first glance seem to refer to “Christians” or believers in Jesus Christ, may equally apply to those who have taken some first steps into the Christian community and have had exposure to the Gospel message, have experienced some ministries of the Spirit and have adapted themselves to the Christian lifestyle, yet have not yet come into the fullness of a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Why do I say that?
Well, the fact that there are two groups of people being addressed here is evident. Although Hebrews 5:11-14 is addressed to “you” throughout the passage, the author does distinguish between some who are “still infants” and those who are “mature.”
11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
So, Hebrews 5:11-14 speaks of those who have “become dull of hearing” and remain immature, as contrasted to those who have moved on to eat meat and can discern good and evil because of training, There are obviously two different groups of people here.
Although the language expressing the continuum of immaturity to maturity, of eating milk versus eating meat, can obviously refer to the progress of a Christian from infancy to adulthood (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1-3 and 1 John 2:12-14). Some of the language of the text could incline us to see the “immature” as pre-Christians who have been exposed to elementary teachings, yet have not moved forward and thus are in real danger of moving backwards, away from Christ and back into Judaism.
Then look at Hebrews 6:1-3
1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits.
Here the author shifts to including himself in the picture, by saying in verse 1 “let us leave” and then in verse 3, “we will do so,” a feature which many commentators appeal to as a decisive indication that all who are being addressed are believers. In fact, that could be true in these three verses. Also, it was common in New Testament texts for the writer to include himself in with a group of people in order to identify with them and encourage them, while not necessarily showing that they were all at the same spiritual level.
Notice again that his concern is to “go on to maturity” (6:1), but specifically in this context that has to do with leaving “the elementary doctrine (or teachings) of Christ” and “not laying again a foundation” in some basic issues. The list of six things in verses 1 and 2, although on the surface they could be addressing items of Christian instruction, could also possibly speak of items held in common with Judaism. They needed to move beyond these basic teachings of Judaism and their rudimentary knowledge of Jesus Christ and grasp more about Jesus if they were to go on to maturity. Also, it may be significant that in verse 1 the author speaks of “faith in God” and not “faith in Jesus Christ.” These people had faith in God.
It is then at Hebrews 6:4-12 that we encounter the most difficult passage, and yet even in these verses we can clearly see a demarcation between two groups of people.
Notice that in vv. 4-6 the author is addressing a group of people in the third person, whom he calls “those” and “they.”
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Then, after a supportive illustration from nature with two types of ground in vv. 7-8, notice how the author addresses a different group of people by using the second person pronoun “you” in vv. 9-12 and says specifically concerning them that he is “sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” This group he identifies as clearly saved.
Going back to vv. 4-5 you will notice a list of five benefits “those” people had experienced (six if you include repentance).
The structure of the passage is like this… (from George Guthrie, NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, p. 217).
The key statement is that “It is impossible to renew to repentance again” those who have experienced these things and then had “fallen away.” Why? Because they are “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Those five benefits in vv. 4-5 certainly sound like they would apply to Christians. And it is true that anyone who was a Christian would have or could have experienced these things. However, I hope you will notice that none of the typical language for salvation or conversion is present here. They do not “believe in Jesus Christ.” They do not “repent” of their sins. None of the typical language like “justification,” redemption,” “reconciliation,” “born again,” “regeneration” or “converted” is used here.
While one could argue that the author nowhere uses this kind of vocabulary except for the word “saved” anywhere else in this book, therefore one shouldn’t expect it to be used here. But it is still strange that none of that language is used to indication that these people are clearly saved, is being used here in this passage.
What we will do is to examine each of these beneficial experiences in vv. 4-5 as to whether they clearly identify them as Christians, or whether they identify benefits that anyone even associating with a Christian congregation and possibly being exposed to apostolic teaching could have experienced and their ministries, while yet coming short of actually being saved.
In other words, it is quite possible that these five benefits describe a pre-Christian experience, particularly those coming out of Judaism and being now exposed to Christian teaching. Certainly true believers would have experienced these things, but possibly also all those who had yet to decide for Christ in that congregation. So, in one sense both those who were genuine believers and those who had yet to make that decision for Christ could have experienced all these benefits, but only those who were not yet genuine believers in Jesus Christ were in danger of falling away.
Notice that in the structure of our passage, “having fallen away” is parallel in structure to all these benefits, showing that they not only had experienced the benefits, but these same people have experienced falling away, moving back to Judaism.
If that happens, it is “impossible” (v. 4), “to restore them again to repentance” (v. 6). IF this is referring to the loss or forfeiture of one’s salvation, then this passage is saying that being saved again is impossible. We’ll discuss that further when we get to these verses in chapter 6. For now, I just want you to realize that IF this passage is saying that we can lose our salvation by falling away, then it is also saying that we cannot be “restored again to repentance.”
After giving a short illustration from nature which clearly distinguishes between two types of land (vv. 7-8), thus maintaining our understanding that two different groups of people are in view here, the author addresses the congregation again and says that we are “sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Notice once again the change in pronouns from the third person “they” in vv. 4-6 to the second person “you” in vv. 9-12. The author is concerned about some of “them” falling away, but is “sure” in “your case” that they have exhibited things “that belong to salvation.” Here the author does mention salvation. These people are clearly saved.
In other words, “you” I’m confident of your salvation. But “them” I’m not so sure of and I’m warning them about the very real danger of falling away.
The idea of a mixed congregation in which there were true believers and professing believers existing side-by-side, experiencing many of the same blessings and expressing commitment to some of the same truths, is evident in several passages of Scripture.
Hebrews 3:16-19 already showed us that in ancient Israel, although they had all experienced God’s power and miracles, and having worshipped in a much more tangible way through the tabernacle and sacrificial system, yet most of them failed to enter the promised land because of disobedience and unbelief, or unbelieving disobedience.
1 John 2:19 clearly showed that some within the congregation had not truly been Christ followers. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
And in Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus tells us that even those who ministered in marvelous ways may yet be unbelievers.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Doesn’t it shock you that people who performed miracles and cast out demons “in Jesus’ name” are themselves cast out because Jesus “never knew [them].” Notice Jesus did not say, “I no longer know you” because they had done something sinful, but “I never knew you” because they never truly believed in Him.
It is shocking not because they had lost a relationship they formerly had, but because they had deceived themselves into thinking that they had a relationship with Jesus that they never had.
That is scary, not because it shows we might possibly lose or forfeit our salvation, but because we can do all kinds of religious, even supernatural things, and still be outside the kingdom.
It is only by embracing the righteousness offered through Jesus Christ that we are brought into a relationship in which we know God (and more importantly, He knows us).
Demas and Judas are examples of two men who had been involved in ministry, spent time under excellent biblical teaching (especially Judas), and acted (at least from a human perspective) as if they were Christians, but their apostasy in the end proved they were not.
One group in Hebrews 6 is definitely saved and the author is confident of that and wants them to persevere for the sake of their confidence. Look at verse 11, “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness…” Why? Because they might fall away and no longer be saved? No, but in order to “have the full assurance of hope until the end.” Persevering gives us assurance.
They were secure in Christ and nothing could change that. Our author will talk more about that in vv. 13-20, based on God’s faithfulness. Notice how this hope is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19).
They were secure, but our authors wants them to be sure.
Eternal security is that objective reality that once united to Christ by faith, we have everything in Him. Nothing can sever us from that union.
If you have genuinely embraced Jesus Christ as your Savior, turning away from your sin and transferring your trust so that you totally rely on Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, then you are secure in Christ. You are dressed in His righteousness. You are already glorified, according to Romans 8:30. You can never be separated from His love (Romans 8:38-39) or come under condemnation (Romans 8:1). Why? Because you are “in Christ.”
That is your security.
Your assurance is the subjective feeling you have about that security. Sometimes you feel more assured and sometimes less assured. That’s normal.
Our assurance usually rises and falls based on the strength of our trust or our obedience. Our security is based upon neither of those things, but rather the faithfulness of God.
Ideally, our assurance is built first upon the promises of God that He is faithful to His promises and powerful to keep us saved (1 Peter 1:5). Also, it is built upon the testimony of God’s Spirit, allowing us to confidently address God as Father (Romans 8:17).
But what usually trips us up (and this is the third basis, not the first or second, of assurance) is our behavior. There are times we know we are not acting like God’s children. We know we have sinned. And when we experience sin and doubts, we will not have full assurance as God desires. But all we have to do is confess our sins, and Christ promises to forgive us (1 John 1:9).