Category Archives: Bible Study

The Warning from Hebrews 6

 

The nature and difficulty of interpreting the warning from Hebrews 6 lends itself to providing an overview of the warnings, including the Old Testament background, and the context of the preceding verses.  Both of those posts will aid in the understanding of this post.

Additionally, because of the widespread views on this particular warning, the approach for the interpretation below is a bit more in the weeds than would normally be necessary.  In the main, these conclusions are similar to those from the main commentators on Hebrews, Owen, Pink, Calvin, Guthrie, Lane, etc., however, aside from Dave Mathewson, in the footnote below, Guthrie and a dismissive mention from Schreiner, few have noted the connection with the Wilderness Generation, specifically as recapitulated in Nehemiah 9.  However, this relationship is simply unavoidable and as shown in a previous post, falls in line with the pattern of the other four warnings.  That said, below is an exposition of the individual phrases from this central warning from Hebrews.

“in the case of those who have once been enlightened”

Our examination of this 3rd warning found in Hebrews 6 begins with noting the author’s sharp transition from first person plural, “we” to third person plural “those”, seemingly consistent with some of the other warning passages, but nevertheless making a clear demarcation to whom the attention is directed.**

Much of the theological debate that surrounds the warning passages has to do with to whom they are directed, but this is the wrong approach to take.  As stated last time, the warning passages are for true believers AND those who have made a false profession.  However, as we will see, far from being a treatise on whether or not a person can “lose their salvation” these warning passages, and specifically chapter 6, are meant to serve as a clarion call to wake up and they have as their principle object the negative example of the “Wilderness Generation”, who, as we have seen, displayed evidence of disingenuous faith despite being members of the Old Covenant community and experiencing many of the blessings that it offered.

This first phrase from the passage cited above has typically driven the interpretation of the entire warning passage and the error has generally been led by the assumption that enlightened is equated with salvation.  Combining this thought with the author’s use of “those” and this view is often taken to mean that “those who have been saved” are the group in mind that have had these experiences, yet fall away or apostatize. Not only does that interpretation fail to recognize the pattern of Old Covenant/New Covenant lesser to greater argument, but it’s unlikely that enlightened is ever used in a salvific context anywhere in Scripture.[1]

Returning to our theme of Old Testament examples and experiences, it may appear that one is not being referenced here. However, there are verbal parallels used in this passage that correspond favorably with those found in Nehemiah 9, a passage that recounts the history of Israel specifically during the time of Moses and the Wilderness Generation, which as we have seen is referenced extensively in the context of Hebrews.

In the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Guthrie, relying on the work of Mathewson, concludes that “the author’s language in 6:4-6 is colored by OT references by means of allusion and echo apart from direct citation.”[2] Guthrie goes on to draw similar conclusions to that found in Mathewson’s cited work[3], “Thus, the description of those who have fallen away, descriptions so elusive and divisive in the history of interpretation, stem from the ‘wilderness wandering’ passages, continuing an exhortation dynamic begun in 3:7-4:2.”[4]

Turning our attention to Nehemiah 9, we find those previously mentioned verbal parallels in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.[5] Specifically we find the key word from our first phrase, enlightened, in Neh. 9:12 LXX (KJV), “And thou guidedst them by day by a pillar of cloud, and by night by a pillar of fire, to enlighten for them the way wherein they should walk.” Additionally in Neh. 9:19 LXX, “…nor the pillar of fire by night, to enlighten for them the way wherein they should walk.” Concluding the thought from the “lesser” experience we see that those who were of the Wilderness Generation had been enlightened by the pillar of fire with which God guided them by night.

Is there a greater New Covenant experiential counterpart to such enlightenment that would be familiar to the audience of the Hebrews? There is according to John 1:9, “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.” Further, Jesus makes the connection between the pillar of fire and himself in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world” a statement made around the time of the Feast of Booths, a celebration remembering the guidance provided by God during the wilderness wandering. Those enlightened by this greater light have been exposed outwardly to the knowledge of God as revealed in Christ. Their enlightenment to this knowledge came by way of hearing the Word of God, through the ministry of Christ, then the apostles, now through the Bible.

Fascinatingly, each of the previous warnings employ the language of hearing and an expectation of responding in faith and obedience to God’s Word. Despite the lack of a clear OT example from this third warning compared with the other warnings, the intention is the same through the use of OT echos and allusions, namely to give the warning that experiential, external religion is insufficient for salvation.  Those who have been enlightened are those who have heard or been instructed in the knowledge of God, particularly as it pertains to the Gospel, but it does not mean they have embraced the Gospel by faith through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. See King Felix in Acts 24:22.

Moving to the second controversial phrase, we read of those “who have tasted the heavenly gift.” Since we have our Old Testament footing firmly planted in the wilderness wandering, it isn’t difficult to make the connection with the manna that God provided to the Israelites from heaven. This wording is very similar to what is found in Nehemiah 9:15 LXX, “And thou gavest them bread from heaven for their food” and also in Neh. 9:20, “and thou didst not withhold thy manna from their mouth.” Again, using our lesser to the greater argument, the Wilderness Generation were partakers of the miraculous provision of manna from heaven. As it pertains to those who have been exposed to the blessing of the New Covenant, Jesus draws parallel with the manna in the wilderness to Himself,

31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” John 6:31-35

The conclusion is one relatively easy to make, Christ says that those who have eternal life are the ones who “feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood”, not merely those who have an experiential taste or even a temporal meal as in the feeding of the 5000, but a perpetual, ongoing reliance upon the sustenance that is found only in Christ.  A.W. Pink adds that “the ‘tasting’ is in contrast from the ‘eating’ of John 6:50-56.”[6] As in Hebrews 2:9 tasting is equivalent with experiencing. Whereas the first description was hearing the instruction of the Gospel, this second description is an experiential response to this instruction, such as receiving it with joy as in Matt. 13:20-21.

In the third phrase from this warning we read of those who “have shared in the Holy Spirit.” At this point you may be asking, “The New Covenant experiences that you have mentioned are fine and perhaps easy to see, but why belabor the point of contact with Nehemiah 9 and the experience of the “Wilderness Generation?” Context and consistency of the argument aside, the primary reason for discussion of the Old Testament background is to provide a clue regarding the nature of the warning. Is the intention to assert that those who have experienced salvation and all of its benefits can fall away and “lose their salvation”? Or is the pattern in chapter 6, the same as in the other warnings, namely that those who have fallen away from the living God (Heb. 3:12) in the Old Testament examples despite their associations and blessings within the covenant community are those who have an evil, unbelieving heart, not those who have been giving a new heart through the regeneration of the Spirit and faith in Christ?  Simply stated, the latter question is asserting that despite experiencing the blessing of the New Covenant community by external association, their profession of faith is proven to be false through their rejection of Christ.

If we are on the right track so far in seeing the Old Testament used as negative examples and typologically relating their similar experiences to those of the audience in Hebrews as we have seen in the other warnings, then we have no reason to lean toward the interpretation that assumes salvation is in view in this warning, particularly with respect to the phrase “partaking of the Holy Spirit”. Those under the Old Covenant partook of the Holy Spirit, but it is clear from Hebrews 4 that they failed to enter the rest of God because of unbelief in the gospel. For an example of their participation in the activities of the Holy Spirit we may again turn to Nehemiah 9, “And thou gavest thy good Spirit to instruct them.” Neh. 9:20 LXX This is the same community that was previously declared guilty of unbelief and disobedience and here again we see it is despite their experiences with the Holy Spirit of God.

How then would those associated with the New Covenant community have a similar albeit greater experience in partaking of the Holy Spirit? Certainly we may say that those who have heard the Word of God have been under the instruction of the Spirit, yet not savingly. Additionally, we see numerous examples during our Lord’s earthly ministry of those who had been witnesses to gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, yet went away from our Lord in unbelief. Space prohibits the many detailed examples of the Spirit’s work in the book of Acts that people like Simon the Magician were witnesses of, yet remained unconverted. Perhaps the clearest statement on associations with the Spirit come from within Hebrews at an earlier warning statement, “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” Heb. 2:4 Finally, we know through Stephen’s speech that unbelievers can be exposed to the work of the Spirit and actively resist Him, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.”   Nevertheless, the conclusion must be that partaking of the Spirit involves an external association or sharing in the benefits of “His supernatural operations and manifestations.”[7]

“and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”

It is difficult to discern whether the last two phrases in the description section of this warning should be treated separately or combined. They both, i.e. the word of God and the powers of the age to come, seem to be objects of “tasted”. Likewise, it is reasonable to see the relationship with those descriptions already addressed as again tasted is used along with a reference to the Holy Spirit. Let’s assume for a moment that the author is not using repetition for the sake of driving home his point, but is instead mentioning these as additional experiences.

Though there are several passages that declare God’s word to be sweet to the taste, which may be in view here, a closer inspection reveals that “word” is not the expected Greek word logos, but is instead rhema, which means declaration. This particular word is used three other times in Hebrews, 1:3, 11:3, 12:19. The first two correspond with the declaration of initiation and sustainment of creation. The latter use however is in the context of God speaking to Moses, and the Wilderness Generation at Sinai, “and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them.” Heb. 12:19  That would appear to correspond favorably with how it is being used here.

Turning again to Nehemiah 9 LXX (KJV) we read in verse 13, “Also thou camest down upon mount Sina, and thou spakest to them out of heaven, and gavest them right judgments, and laws of truth, ordinances, and good commandments.” Both of these passages would surely seem to be examples of God’s good word. However, as Mathewson notes, additional consideration should be given to the fulfillment of God’s good promises through statements made in Joshua upon the entrance into the Promised Land by the children of the Wilderness Generation. Note Joshua 21:45 and 23:14 cited below:

“Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”

And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.”

Collectively, all of these statements concerning God’s good word likely form the Old Testament backdrop for the author’s use in Hebrews 6:5.  However we may also draw on similar, albeit greater experiences for those associated with the New Covenant community. The good promises of God have been fulfilled clearly in Christ. This would be an especially stinging indictment to those in the Hebrew audience who were contemplating sliding back into Judaism after being “enlightened” to the realities of the promised Messiah.

Finally, tasting the powers of the age to come is closely related to the passage from Hebrews 2:4 cited earlier, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” providing for us a New Covenant, heightened example of signs and wonders, namely those that accompanied the spread of the Gospel in the Apostolic era. During the time of Moses, the many miracles and works that he performed were also referred to as signs and wonders. Citing Rengstorf, Matthewson concurs with the following observation, “When the OT speaks of God’s signs and wonders…the reference is almost always to the leading of the people out of Egypt by Moses and to the special circumstances under which the people stood up to the passage of the Red Sea and in all of which God proved Himself to be the almighty and showed Israel to be His chosen people.”[8]

Bringing together the two streams from the Old Covenant community and from the New Covenant community (again, even those by association) we may summarize, “like the wilderness generation who experienced God’s mighty acts and miraculous powers, within the context of the new covenant community the subjects of Heb. 6:5 have witnessed and experienced the miraculous powers of God, the in-breaking of the eschatological powers of the age to come.”[9]

With this we bring to conclusion the exposition of the experiential descriptions of those who fall away making it impossible to restore them again to repentance. It is to the last experience, that of falling away, that we will turn our attention to next time.

 

Footnotes:

**The introductory phrase translated by the ESV, “in the case of” is not actually present in the original Greek and is likely an interpretive decision by their committee supporting the notion that a distinct group or example is in view.  Note also how this interpretive loop is closed by the ESV in verse 6:9, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved.”  While the translation may be less than word for word, I agree with the theological interpretation that the ESV committee is making as explained in the exposition above.

[1] see Grudem in Still Sovereign p. 141

[2] Beale, Greg and D.A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 962.

[3] Mathewson, Dave. “Reading Heb. 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament.” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 209-25.

[4] Beale and Carson, p. 962

[5] This would comport well with many scholars suggestion that the author of Hebrews is intimately familiar with the Septuagint (LXX).

[6] Pink pg. 291 baker 1970 Grand Rapids Michigan

[7] Pink 291

[8] Matthewson, p. 219 citing the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. VII, 216.

[9] Ibid, 220.

The Context of the Warning Passage from Hebrews 6

 

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.

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, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. 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, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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.” Heb. 5:11 – 6:6

Upon first glance, it would seem that this particular warning is an anomaly to all that has been said before regarding Old Covenant examples, experiences, and the argument from lesser to the greater. It’s likely this has contributed to such a wide range of opinions and interpretations on this warning, as opposed to the others which are generally unchallenged in their meaning[1]. Verses 5:11-14 have been discussed in some detail already, and verses 6:1-3 while posing their own interpretive challenges may in fact have an underlying lesser to greater framework that was discussed somewhat in depth previously. However, some additional comments are warranted.

If we understand correctly that the chief challenge before the Hebrew audience is their temptation to resort back to Judaism and its ceremonial practices, it perhaps becomes clear that these verses (6:1-3; 4-6) are intended to point out areas of continuity and discontinuity from Old to New. This would make sense in the flow of argument throughout Hebrews, particularly from the warnings. The first 2 make no explicit mention of the New Covenant, though it is certainly implied, while the latter 2 warnings from chapter 10 & 12 make explicit reference to New Covenant inaugurated by the blood of Christ and mediated through His High Priestly office.

Logically, this is understandable because it isn’t until chapter 8 that the argument of the New Covenant is set forth. Much like with the pending discussion of Melchizedek, it is introduced somewhat vaguely, before going into greater detail later in the book. The same would appear true with the doctrinal development of the New Covenant in Hebrews. With this in mind, we may reasonably say that the warning of Chapter 6 is meant to serve as a transition not only in the book, but also in the minds of the original hearers who are living in a transitional age between the completion of the Old Covenant and the inauguration of the New Covenant, beginning with Christ’s ministry, death, mediation as High Priest, but following to the pending destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.

As all this relates to interpreting verses 1-3, we can see some correlation and overlap between the experiences that the audience had likely seen or participated in under the continuation of the Old Covenant, namely a foundation of faith and repentance[2], teachings on baptisms (ceremonial washings[3] and their man-made traditions, see Mark 7:3-4 and John 2:6), laying on of hands[4], the resurrection from the dead[5], and eternal judgment. New Covenant correspondence with these teachings should be fairly obvious. Baptisms (washings) are evident from John’s baptism (Mark 1:4; Acts 18:25-28) to the baptism performed by the disciples, the one by the Spirit at Pentecost, and the ones performed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as an outward confession of faith in Christ. Likewise, the laying on of hands can be seen in the commissioning of Apostles (Acts 6:6; 13:3), imparting of the Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6) and healings (Acts 9:12-17; 28:8).

As seen in footnote 5 below, the resurrection of the dead was apparently disputed even during the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry. However, it is clear that others understood and embraced the resurrection before Christ’s death (John 11:24; Acts 2:32), but especially after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 4:2, 33; 24:15ff; 1 Cor. 15). Eternal judgment is perhaps the most nebulous of the Old Covenant correspondences. As with the resurrection of the dead, its doctrinal development is somewhat limited in the Old Testament. However, Jesus speaks more on eternal judgment than any other subject and provides perhaps the clearest transition of Old Testament understanding to New Testament understanding in Luke 16:19-31.

This path set before us, both in understanding how the author of Hebrews employs the Old Testament in his development of the warning passages and understanding the transitional nature of the verses just prior to the 3rd warning, is now cleared for undertaking interpretation of the heart of the warning found in Heb. 6:4-6. The intention of this passage is probably best summarized by combining the first part, “For it is impossible…” with the latter part, “…to restore them again to repentance….” The phrases in the middle are descriptive of their experience and subsequent phrases are descriptive of the consequences. We will deal with the list of experiences individually in the next post.

[1] Note here the schools of interpretation which are used as a grid for all of the warnings; an overview of these will be discussed in detail later.

[2] Some have seen these verses as a series of 3 couplets. After contemplation of this view, I’m inclined to a see 2 + 4 pattern, with repentance and faith being foundational and distinguished from the list of doctrinal teachings.

[3] Priestly washings: Ex. 19:10; 29:4; 30:19-21; 40:12; Lev. 16:28

Washings for contact with dead animals: Lev. 11; Lev. 17

Washings for diseases: Lev. 13:1-14:54

Washings for bodily discharge: Lev. 15:1-32

Washings for eating blood: Lev. 17:15-16

[4] Priestly: Sacrifices – Lev. 1:4; 3:2,8,13; 4:4,24,29,33; 16:21; Oil- Lev. 14:18,14:29

Set apart: Num. 27:18

[5] The fact that this is an underdeveloped doctrine in the Old Testament is largely undisputed. Apparently the Sadducees had already developed their own doctrine disputing any notion of resurrection by the time of Christ (see Mark 12:18; Acts 17:32; 23:6-10)

Hebrews Warnings, the Old Testament, and the Challenge of Chapter 6

 

The heart of the third warning passage in Hebrews lies in chapter 6 verses 4-6 and it is undoubtedly one of the more difficult and disputed passages in Scripture.  That being said, clues to its proper interpretation lie not only in the surrounding verses of the passage, but in the way that the author uses the previous and subsequent warnings in his exposition.  The latter will be addressed first before moving on to the context of the surrounding verses, followed by exposition of the 3 verses in question.

As previously stated, this particular warning is the 3rd of 5 warnings.  The first occurs in verses 2:1-4.  Various efforts to identify the components of this, and the other warnings for that matter, have been made and generally involve 1) audience 2) sin 3) exhortation and 4)consequences, however an element often missing is the Old Testament component.

In interpreting the book of Hebrews, it’s important to keep in mind one of the major themes is the argument from the lesser to the greater.  This is particularly true in how the author uses the Old Testament, more specifically elements under the Old Covenant as the lesser, in comparison to Christ as the greater  This is most clearly seen in references to the prophets, angels, Adam, Moses, the Aaronic (High) Priesthood, Melchizedek, the tabernacle of the Wilderness Generation, etc.

However, this same principle seems to generally hold true in the warning passages. Here there is also a principle of lesser to greater that flows from the relationship of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, namely the experiences, expectations, and punishments for each respective covenant community.   Bear in mind that this relationship is not 1:1, meaning that the experiences or punishments under the Old Covenant are not equal to those under the New Covenant. Rather, the relationship is one of type (lesser) to antitype (greater). A thematic example of this is the judgment that God so often promises and then ultimately unleashes on the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Their sin is spiritual adultery, yet the punishment is often indicated in terms of physical death, famine, and disease. Conversely, this punishment by way of typology is pointing forward to a far greater punishment, namely eternal damnation, for those who are idolaters at heart.

In Hebrews, particularly the warning passages, the lesser often represents the experiences of the Israelite Wilderness Generation under the mediated Old Covenant who are by external association part of its covenant community. On the other hand, the greater are the experiences of the audience of Hebrews who are by way of external association OR internal membership under the mediated New Covenant.  This will become more clear as we survey the examples below, but let me briefly explain how there are two possibilities under the New Covenant because this is likely the source of confusion for not only the book of Hebrews, the warnings, and typology in general, but also understanding the nature of biblical covenants.

Entrance into the Old Covenant was by way of external sign, namely circumcision. There was a divine expectation of obedience to the law of the covenant, but there was no divine assistance afforded the Old Covenant community to help in their obedience, thus the sacrificial system and very visible, physical punishments for those who “apostatize”. Entrance into the New Covenant is also by way of circumcision, but of the heart not the flesh. So where the Old Covenant was external the New is internal. This internal circumcision of the heart is what’s called regeneration, a new heart, or being born again. With it, God has provided to those in the New Covenant all the divine assistance needed, by way of His indwelling Holy Spirit, for obedience. [Edit: Keep in mind that there were those under the Old Covenant who also received the benefits of the New Covenant by way of prospective faith in Christ.] Not only that, but as we will see in Hebrews He has provided the final sacrifice, namely His Son, toward which all of the Old Covenant sacrifices were pointing. Not only that, but Christ satisfied the demands of the law for us. Not only that, but Christ took the punishment for disobedience that we deserved. It is not difficult to see then how much greater this New Covenant really is, yet how the Old Covenant informs us of this superiority.

However, just as there were those during the ministry of Christ who were interested in seeing signs, wonders, and miracles, but not truly interested in believing in Him, there are those who by way of external association attach themselves like barnacles to the New Covenant community. They may travel through the same waters, share the same experiences, and may even look like they belong on the ship, but they are not part of it. [Edit: Summarily, this is the distinction between the visible/invisible Church] When the warning bell sounds forth from these passages it is a divine grace for both groups. The true hear the warnings and press on to perseverance by the power of the Holy Spirit. The false may have their eyes open to the fraudulence of their profession or they may suffer the punishment for apostasy that is so clearly warned about.

With this in mind, Hebrews 2:1-4 provides the Old Testament example, or better the Old Covenant example, as being the reliable message declared by the angels. Likewise, the just retribution that was received by those who disobeyed or transgressed it.  It’s most likely that this message declared by angels is the Law (Mosaic Covenant), see Deut. 33:2, Acts 7:53, Gal. 3:19.  Obviously, those who transgressed or broke the law of the Old Covenant were punished accordingly.  This is the lesser, as seen so clearly in the comparative statement from verse 3, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation.”  This latter message was not declared by angels, but by the Lord Himself, attested by those who heard, given evidential support by God through signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Keeping this framework before us, we now turn to the second warning, that from Hebrews 3 and 4.  Technically, the warning begins in 3:7, however we see elements of warning and exhortation in 3:1, “consider Jesus” and “hold fast our confidence” before the introduction of the Old Covenant example, namely that of the Wilderness Generation.  They provide for us the lesser example through the rest of God that was offered to them upon entrance into the Promised Land and the judgment that fell on them by way of their physical death preventing them from entrance. Though they received the same good news (gospel) that we have (4:2), their failure was to receive this good news by faith followed by obedience, which the author specifically warns his audience against. The greater punishment is failure to enter the eschatological rest of God as a result of neglecting the same word of good news, not uttered by prophets, but by the Lord Jesus Himself (Heb. 1:1-2).

Before looking at the specific warning passage under our consideration from chapter 6, a brief observation of the final two warnings will be made to see if the Old Testament pattern of examples are present in them as well, those occurring in Hebrews 10 and 12 respectively.  In the former, the Old Covenant example is “anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses”, corresponding well to those examples listed earlier, while the judgment or punishment was that they die “without mercy on the evidence or two or three witness.” Heb. 10:28  Perhaps the clearest evidence of the lesser to the greater argument being employed in these warnings can be seen in the verse that follows this Old Covenant example, “How much more worse punishment do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” Heb. 10:29  Setting aside the truths of the Covenant that Christ mediates is a worse crime and is deserving of the greater punishment, namely falling into the hands of the living God.

Finally, In Hebrews 12 we arrive at the last warning and find a couple of older examples, beginning first with Esau, in verse 16, who sold his birthright and found no chance to repent (more on this later) and secondly those who trembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, bringing up for us again the context of Moses and the Wilderness Generation.  The third example held up before us is that of Mt. Zion, far superior to Sinai, and the mediator of this New Covenant, namely Jesus, is far superior to Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant.  The warning of lesser to greater judgment occurs in Hebrews 12:25, “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”

Understanding the way the New Testament uses the Old Testament will go a long way in helping us to interpret especially difficult passages, not to mention those which on the surface appear to be more immediately clear.  As it relates to Hebrews, it more than any other New Testament book (except perhaps Revelation) relies on an implicit understanding of the Old Testament, specifically the time of Moses the mediator of the Old Covenant and the Wilderness Generation.

In each of the warning passages mentioned above, there is an Old Testament example held up as a mirror before the faces of the Hebrew audience that informs them of the danger in hearing the word of God, seeing His miraculous works, even participating in His many benefits, yet it is clear that these associations are unable to overcome their unbelief, hardness of hearts due to sin, and disobedience.  Surely this is a witness for us that a mere association with church, or believers, or even participation in ministry or programs is insufficient for salvation.  God has never been interested in external worship, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hos. 6:6 Keeping these thoughts and interpretive principles before us will allow for a more accurate understanding of the third and most disputed warning of Hebrews and it is towards this warning that we will turn our attention next time.