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)

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