AS RELATED PREVIOUSLY IN THE BLOGS ON THIS PASSAGE, 5:11-6:12, THESE VERSES PRESENT THE GREATEST CHALLENGES TO MOST BIBLE STUDENTS. While I cannot deny the likelihood of the accuracy of that statement, I would like to say it is a general truth of the study of Scriptures that God did not reveal His person or His purpose with the intention of confusing His readers. This fact, of course, does not negate the truth there are many difficulties to be surmounted. There are indeed serious difficulties to be surmounted in these verses…
NAS Hebrews 6:4-8 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 upon 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.
“CONTEXT: THE AUTHOR STRONGLY WARNS THE READERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH. The spiritual sluggishness and infancy of the readers is not a neutral state, nor can they continue to live as spiritual infants. They must get to the place where they can digest solid food. In other words they must progress on to maturity so that that fundamental teachings of the faith do not need to be repeated constantly. In verses 4-8 the author explains why the readers should go on to maturity, for if those who have experienced such astonishing blessings fall away and crucify again the Son of God, then there is no room for repentance for them. He compares the readers to land refreshed by the rain falling upon it. If the land produces fruit, it is blessed by God. But if the land yields weeds, then the land will be rejected and is near the time when it will be cursed. Ultimately, it will be burned. So too, if the readers do not press on to maturity, but fall away, then they, like the land, will be rejected and cursed by God. There will be no hope for them on the final day. – Schreiner
NORMALLY, SEVERAL OF THE DIFFICULTIES OF PROPER INTERPRETATION OF THESE VERSES OFTENTIMES CAN BE ANSWERED WITH REASONABLE EASE BY ASKING SEVERAL SIMPLE DIRECT QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT, SUCH AS, TO WHOM IS THE STERN WARNING ADDRESSED? HOWEVER, as is often the case, simple questions often engender complex and debated answers. The question of the recipients of the author’s writing is, for example, a major point of contention among scholars. Were they Jews or Gentiles, or both, as best as we can determine of this 2,000-year-old document? Therefore, before we go further into this basic question, I recommend we all read carefully the excellent overview of these five verses by the Bible Knowledge Commentary, likely the most consistent and reliable conservative two-volume (Old and New Testament) commentary likely on the market, and the book I most heavily relied upon for an in depth, all-encompassing, overview of the Bible when, years ago, I taught Hebrews at the seminary and, years later, when I preached through it at my old church…
THE ALTERNATIVE TO PROGRESS (6:4–8)
In an extremely solemn pronouncement, the author then set forth the tragic alternative to the progress he desired his readers to make. If they did not advance, they would retreat. Should anyone so retreat, his situation would be grim indeed.
6:4–6. This passage has been interpreted in four ways: (1) that the danger of a Christian losing his salvation is described, a view rejected because of biblical assurances that salvation is a work of God which cannot be reversed; (2) that the warning is against mere profession of faith short of salvation, or tasting but not really partaking of salvation (The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1315); (3) that hypothetically if a Christian could lose his salvation, there is no provision for repentance (The Ryrie Study Bible, p. 1736); (4) that a warning is given of the danger of a Christian moving from a position of true faith and life to the extent of becoming disqualified for further service (1 Cor. 9:27) and for inheriting millennial glory. The latter is the interpretation adopted here. The entirety of these verses constitutes a single sentence in Greek as well as in the English of the NIV. The central assertion is: It is impossible for those who have … to be brought back to repentance. Following the words “those who” is a description of the persons whom the writer affirmed cannot possibly be brought back to a state of repentance. The description he gave shows that he had Christians in mind.
To begin with, he described them as individuals who have once been enlightened. This is a natural way to refer to the conversion experience (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3–6). The writer’s only other use of the verb “enlightened,” is Hebrews 10:32, where the reference to true Christian experience can hardly be doubted. In also calling them people who have tasted the heavenly gift, he again employed familiar concepts related to initial conversion (cf. John 4:10; Rom. 6:23; James 1:17–18). The effort to evade this conclusion by seeing in the word “tasted” something less than full participation fails—in view of the writer’s own use of this word (Heb. 2:9)—to describe Jesus’ experience of death. One might also compare 1 Peter 2:3, which quotes Psalm 34:8.
The description is continued with the words who have shared in the Holy Spirit. The underlying Greek employs again the word metochoi, used in Hebrews 1:9 of the “companions” of the messianic King, and in 3:1, 14 of the Christian readers (and is also used in 12:8). The preceding expression evidently led the author to think about those who had received the gift of the Spirit as a result of their conversions. Finally, there are also those who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming Age. Here the thought naturally applies to converts whose instruction in “the Word of God” had given them a genuine experience of its “goodness” and who likewise had known the reality of miracles. The word rendered “powers” (dynameis) in NIV is the usual one in the New Testament for “miracles” and is an apparent allusion back to the experience mentioned in 2:4. In every way the language fits true Christians with remarkable ease. The effort to see here mere professors of the faith as over against true converts is somewhat forced.
There follows, however, the grim expression if they fall away. But the translation does not do full justice to the original language, where there is no hint of a conditional element. The Greek word parapesontas is in fact a part of the construction to which the preceding descriptive phrases belong. Thus a more accurate translation would be: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted … who have shared … who have tasted … and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.” Far from treating the question in any hypothetical way, the writer’s language sounds as if he knew of such cases.
Naturally the words “fall away” cannot refer to the loss of eternal life which, as the Gospel of John makes perfectly clear, is the inalienable possession of those who trust Christ for it. But the writer evidently has in mind defection from the faith, that is, apostasy, withdrawal from their Christian profession (cf. Heb. 3:6, 14; 10:23–25, 35–39). The assertion that such a failure is not possible for a regenerate person is a theological proposition which is not supported by the New Testament. Paul knew the dangers of false doctrine to a Christian’s faith and spoke of a certain Hymenaeus and Philetus who said “that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17–18). The author of Hebrews was a solid realist who took assaults against the faith of his readers with great seriousness. And he warned that those who succumb, that is, “fall away,” after all of the great spiritual privileges they had experienced, could not be brought back to repentance.
The reason is expressed in the words because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace. The words “to their loss” might be better rendered “with respect to themselves.” Those who renounce their Christian faith are, with respect to their own conduct and attitude, taking a step that amounts to a fresh public rejection of Christ. When they first trusted Him, they thereby acknowledged that His crucifixion had been unjust and the result of man’s sinful rejection of the Savior. But by renouncing this opinion, they reaffirmed the view of Jesus’ enemies that He deserved to die on a cross. In this sense, “they [were] crucifying the Son of God all over again.” Since the original Crucifixion was especially the work of the Jewish nation, if the readers were Jews being lured back into some form of their ancestral religion, the writer’s words made a particular point. Their apostasy would be like stepping back over the line again and once more expressing solidarity with their compatriots who wanted Jesus put on the cross. That this was most serious was precisely the writer’s point. Such persons could not be won back to the state of repentance which marked their original conversion to Christianity. In affirming this, the author’s words suggested a deep hardening of their hearts against all efforts to win them back, not to Christian conversion, but to Christian commitment.
6:7–8. An illustration from nature now drives home the writer’s point. Whenever rain-soaked ground is properly productive, it receives the blessing of God. Here the writer compared the spiritual privileges he had just enumerated (vv. 4–5) to a heavenly rain descending on the life of a Christian. Their effect should be a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed—a reference perhaps to the way other Christians benefit from the lives of fruitful believers (cf. v. 10). Such productivity brings divine blessings on fruitful believers’ lives.
But suppose the land that has received this “rain” is unproductive? Though the NIV introduces the word land for a second time in verse 8, the original text seems to relate the statement directly to the “land” mentioned in verse 7. A clearer rendering would be: “But when (or, if) it produces thorns and thistles.…” The point is that when a plot of ground that has been rained on is productive, God blesses it. But if it only produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless (adokimos, “disapproved”; cf. 1 Cor. 9:27) and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. The metaphor recalls God’s original curse on the ground (Gen. 3:17–19) and suggests that an unproductive Christian life ultimately (“in the end”) falls under the severe condemnation of God and is subject to His blazing wrath and judgment (cf. Heb. 10:27).
Naturally the reference to “burned” has caused many to think of hell, but there is nothing in the text to suggest this. God’s anger against His failing people in the Old Testament is often likened to the burning of fire (cf., e.g., Isa. 9:18–19; 10:17). Even this writer could say, with intense metaphorical effect, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). In fact, to think of hell here is to betray inattention to the imagery employed by the author. The burning of a field to destroy the rank growth it had produced was a practice known in ancient times. Its aim was not the destruction of the field itself (which, of course, the fire could not affect), but the destruction of the unwanted produce of the field. Thereafter the field might be serviceable for cultivation.
By choosing this kind of metaphor, the author showed that he did not totally despair of those who took the backward step he was warning against. To be sure, at least prior to severe divine judgment, all efforts to recall such people to Christian faith are futile (6:4–6), but it cannot be said that the impossibility applies in an absolute sense to God Himself. What the author probably meant is that nothing can deter apostates from the fiery retribution toward which they are headed, but once their “land” has been burned it is another matter. Paul believed that those who “have shipwrecked their faith” could profit by the retributive experiences to which they were exposed as a result (1 Tim. 1:19–20). But of course the writer of Hebrews was reticent about the issue of subsequent restoration. That some might not respond to the chastisement was perhaps in mind, but he was mainly concerned about warning against the course of action which leads to such calamitous divine judgment. Nevertheless his deft choice of this agricultural image serves to disclose that the “burning” is both temporary and essentially hopeful.
NEXT WEEK, LORD WILLING, WE WILL LOOK CLOSELY AT THESE FIVE INDIVIDUAL WARNINGS.
– Professor Thomas A. Rohm