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.