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.

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