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Who are Those Who Fall Away (Hebrews 6:1-12)

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5:11 On this topic we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food. 13 For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil.

6:1 Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, 2 teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this is what we intend to do, if God permits. 4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt. 7 For the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is useless and about to be cursed; its fate is to be burned. 9 But in your case, dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things relating to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. 11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises (Hebrews 5:11—6:12).1

Introduction

In our last lesson, I attempted to look at the big picture so far as our text in Hebrews 6 is concerned. I was seeking to demonstrate that the difficulty of our text and even the differences in the way we interpret it are by divine design. The author’s goal is to motivate his readers to take the Scriptures more seriously and to move from milk to meat. I think all Christians can agree that our text is surely meat. As a result, many Christians have spent a considerable amount of time and energy seeking to understand the correct interpretation and application of our text.

In this lesson, I will attempt to expound our text in the context of the author’s argument in the Book of Hebrews. I believe there are several prerequisites for a correct understanding of our passage.

Prerequisites for Our Study of Hebrews 6:1-12

First, I believe that we must distinguish between Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:26-31. I do not believe that Hebrews 10 is merely an expanded repetition of chapter 6.

Second, we must grasp the corrupting influence an unbeliever can have upon a group of believers in Jesus Christ.

Third, we must recognize the strong influence (and even control) devout Jews (believers and unbelievers) wielded in the church, and even amongst the apostles.

My Criteria for Identifying the Interpretation of Our Text

I believe that in order for any interpretation of our text to be acceptable it must satisfy the following criteria:

1. The interpretation must fit the flow of the argument of the text.

2. It must make sense of the passage.

3. It must be consistent with the rest of the Book of Hebrews.

4. It must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.

5. It must be consistent with biblical theology.

6. It must explain the use of the key transition words “therefore” (6:1) and “for” (6:4).2

7. It must explain why unbelievers are dealt with (6:4-8) in a context which deals primarily with believers.

8. It must be one that accomplishes the author’s purpose, which is to instill confidence and encourage saints.

Distinguishing Hebrews 6 from Hebrews 10

It is my opinion that Hebrews 10:26-31 is not a reiteration of Hebrews 6:4-8. Thus, we have to interpret these two texts separately, rather than to seek one interpretation that covers both. Allow me to outline the differences between these two troublesome texts and then summarize the differences in chart form.

There is a clear difference in the pronouns employed in chapter 6 and in chapter 10. In our text in Hebrews 6:4-8, the pronouns are third person plural: “those,” “them,” and “they.” These folks are distinguished from the first person plural (“we”) or the second person plural (“you”) of the verses which precede and follow the troublesome words of verses 4-8. In other words, those warned about in 6:4-8 appear to be outside the community of faith, while those warned in 10:26-31 seem to be believers.

On the other hand, the pronouns “we” and “us” occur in the problem text in chapter 10:

26 For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, 27 but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a furyof fire that will consume God’s enemies (Hebrews 10:26-27, emphasis mine).

This certainly gives the appearance that those addressed are inside the community of faith.

Also, the sins committed in these two texts appear to be different. In 6:4-8 there is an open, active, and on-going3 rejection of Christ. It is as though they are persistently re-crucifying Christ and showing contempt toward Him. Such people do not appear to be believers. And yet when we come to chapter 10, we find the warning is addressed to those who “deliberately go on sinning” (verse 26). They, too, show a disregard (even disdain) for Christ and His atoning work (10:29), but it appears to be the contempt of one who has truly been saved.

The judgment of those in Hebrews 6 is that they can never be renewed to repentance, while those in chapter 10 face terrifying judgment. It is also interesting to read that those who “fall away” (6:6) fall “from the living God” (3:12), while those in chapter 10 are said to fall “into God’s hands” (10:31).

When we put this in chart form it looks like this:

Hebrews 6:4-8

Hebrews 10:26-31

“Those,” “them,” “they”

“We”

“Fall away”

“Go on sinning”

Rejecting Christ – no need for grace

Contempt for Christ – Presuming upon grace

Can’t be renewed to repentance

Terrifying judgment

Fall “from the living God” (3:12)

Fall “into the hands of the living God” (10:31)

Recognizing the Negative Impact of Unbelievers on the Church

The “rabble” that accompanied the Israelites from Egypt were sometimes the source of trouble.4 Later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, God warned the Israelites about those who would rise up from within, seeking to persuade them to worship heathen gods:

1 “Suppose a prophet or one who foretells by dreams should appear among you and show you a sign or wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder should come to pass concerning what he said to you, namely, ‘Let us follow other gods’ – gods whom you have not previously known – ‘and let us serve them.’ 3 You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer, for the Lord your God will be testing you to see if you love him with all your mind and being. 4 You must follow the Lord your God and revere only him; and you must observe his commandments, obey him, serve him, and remain loyal to him. 5 As for that prophet or dreamer, he must be executed because he encouraged rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, redeeming you from that place of slavery, and because he has tried to entice you from the way the Lord your God has commanded you to go. In this way you must purge out evil from within. 6 Suppose your own full brother, your son, your daughter, your beloved wife, or your closest friend should seduce you secretly and encourage you to go and serve other gods that neither you nor your ancestors have previously known, 7 the gods of the surrounding people (whether near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other). 8 You must not give in to him or even listen to him; do not feel sympathy for him or spare him or cover up for him. 9 Instead, you must kill him without fail! Your own hand must be the first to strike him, and then the hands of the whole community. 10 You must stone him to death because he tried to entice you away from the Lord your God, who delivered you from the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. 11 Thus all Israel will hear and be afraid; no longer will they continue to do evil like this among you” (Deuteronomy 13:1-11; see also vss. 12-18).

The people who might lead the Israelites astray in chapter 13 appear to be fellow-Israelites. In chapter 19, God warns the Israelites concerning those who would practice pagan means of communication with foreign deities:

9 “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 There must never be found among you anyone who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, a sorcerer, 11 one who casts spells, one who conjures up spirits, a practitioner of the occult, or a necromancer. 12 Whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord and because of these detestable things the Lord your God is about to drive them out from before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God. 14 Those nations that you are about to dispossess listen to omen readers and diviners, but the Lord your God has not given you permission to do such things. 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you – from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:9-15, emphasis mine).

My point in calling attention to these verses is to demonstrate that someone can become a part of the believing community and corrupt it from the inside. Judas is a glaring example of how corruption can occur from within, from an unbeliever. In Matthew 26, we read this account of Mary anointing the feet of her Lord:

6 Now while Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of expensive perfumed oil, and she poured it on his head as he was at the table. 8 When the disciples saw this, they became indignant and said, “Why this waste? 9 It could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor!” 10 When Jesus learned of this, he said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a good service for me. 11 For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me! 12 When she poured this oil on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:6-13, emphasis mine).

As one reads this account, he would not be able to identify any one person as the root of this indignation toward Mary (and even toward Jesus for allowing such “waste”). But John’s Gospel gives us the inside scoop on what happened here:

1 Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 So they prepared a dinner for Jesus there. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was among those present at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took three quarters of a pound of expensive aromatic oil from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.) 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, 5 “Why wasn’t this oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” 6 (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it.) 7 So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She has kept it for the day of my burial. 8 For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me!” (John 12:1-8, emphasis mine)

We know that Judas was not a believer,5 yet he was one of the twelve. In fact, it would appear that Judas was one of the most respected and trusted disciples, for it was he who was the treasurer for the group. Somewhere along the line, Judas began to dip into the money bag, taking some of the money for himself. He may have thought of this as his “commission.” And so John tells us that Judas was a thief and that he was the source of the grumbling of the other disciples. It sounded pious, but Judas was simply angry that such a large gift would never fall within his grasp.

The point I am trying to make here is that an unbeliever can indeed infiltrate a community of believers, undetected. And this unbeliever can become a corrupting influence on those who were true followers of Jesus. I think we can see this in other places in Scripture as well:

13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

Now this matter arose because of the false brothers with false pretenses who slipped in unnoticed to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, to make us slaves (Galatians 2:4).

3 Dear friends, although I have been eager to write to you about our common salvation, I now feel compelled instead to write to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 4 For certain men have secretly slipped in among you – men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe – ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4).

Recognizing the Influence of Judaisers in the Church

This topic is closely related to the last, except for the fact that some “Judaisers” may have been true believers. By “Judaiser,” I am referring to those devout Jews who sought to retain as much as they could of their past traditions and practices and who likewise attempted to impose their Judaism on Gentile converts. In effect, they wanted Gentile believers to be Jewish proselytes. One cannot underestimate the amount of influence these Jews exercised within the church.

In the Book of Acts, we find Peter’s Jewish peers indicting him for going to the home of a Gentile (Cornelius):

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:1-3).

When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey, some of the Jews from Judea boldly challenged Paul and Barnabas, insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised and must keep the law in order to be saved, thus precipitating the first church council:

1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement (Acts 15:1-2).

But the most distressing account of Jewish intimidation in the church comes from Galatians 2. Here we see how strong their influence was:

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. 12 Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13).

Even great men like Peter and Barnabas6 folded under pressure from the pro-circumcision Jews who came “from James.” It took a sharp rebuke from Paul to correct the situation. This was not merely an act of hypocrisy; it was a denial of the gospel. It dealt with Gentile believers as though they were second-class citizens in the kingdom, rather than being part of “one new man.”7

Jewish False Teachers in the Church

The more I study the New Testament, the more convinced I am that the Jew/Gentile issue was one of the greatest problems the New Testament church faced. Think of the adjustments that had to be made, especially by Jewish believers. Temple worship seems to have ended with the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen. It didn’t take long for Jewish Christians to be excluded from the synagogues. Now the church met in homes, without all the splendor of the Temple and Jewish rituals of worship. And worst of all (in the Jewish mind), they had to embrace Gentile believers as equals. Gentiles were to be embraced as part of “one new man,” the church, and not forced to become Jewish proselytes, or to be treated as second-class citizens. It is obvious that there was a major mental adjustment needed, even by the apostles. And sometimes they needed to be rebuked, as we see in Galatians 2. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jewish false teachers would infiltrate the church with their false teachings. This is apparent in various epistles in the New Testament. Let me mention a few instances where Jewish false teachers are addressed.

3 As I urged you when I was leaving for Macedonia, stay on in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to spread false teachings, 4 nor to occupy themselves with myths and interminable genealogies. Such things promote useless speculations rather than God’s redemptive plan that operates by faith. 5 But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. 6 Some have strayed from these and turned away to empty discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently. 8 But we know that the law is good if someone uses it legitimately, 9 realizing that law is not intended for a righteous person, but for lawless and rebellious people, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 sexually immoral people, practicing homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, perjurers – in fact, for any who live contrary to sound teaching. 11 This accords with the glorious gospel of the blessed God that was entrusted to me (1 Timothy 1:3-11, emphasis mine).

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, 2 influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. 3 They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods8 that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. 5 For it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer. 6 By pointing out such things to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, having nourished yourself on the words of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. 7 But reject those myths fit only for the godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness (1 Timothy 4:1-7, emphasis mine).

14 Remind people of these things and solemnly charge them before the Lord not to wrangle over words. This is of no benefit; it just brings ruin on those who listen. 15 Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately. 16 But avoid profane chatter, because those occupied with it will stray further and further into ungodliness, 17 and their message will spread its infection like gangrene. Hymenaeus and Philetus are in this group. 18 They have strayed from the truth by saying that the resurrection has already occurred, and they are undermining some people’s faith. 19 However, God’s solid foundation remains standing, bearing this seal: The Lord knows those who are his,” and “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from evil” (1 Timothy 2:14-19, emphasis mine).9

1 But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God. 5 They will maintain the outward appearance of religion but will have repudiated its power. So avoid people like these. 6 For some of these insinuate themselves into households and captivate weak women who are overwhelmed with sins and led along by various passions. 7 Such women are always seeking instruction, yet never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people – who have warped minds and are disqualified in the faith – also oppose the truth. 9 But they will not go much further, for their foolishness will be obvious to everyone, just like it was with Jannes and Jambres (2 Timothy 3:1-9, emphasis mine).

I find this text especially interesting. These false teachers are likened to Jannes and Jambres, who opposed Moses (verses 8-9). But what is most significant here is that these teachers teach in such a way that their instruction must be repeated, and yet those instructed don’t ever really learn the truth. Granted, those deceived in this manner are said to be women here, but I don’t think gender is the deciding factor at all. Guilt is the cause. Jewish legalists surely impose guilt, as opposed to grace, and thus those instructed by them do not and cannot grow. This is exactly what we found in Hebrews:

11 On this topic we have much to say and it is difficult to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 For though you should in fact be teachers by this time, you need someone to teach you the beginning elements of God’s utterances. You have gone back to needing milk, not solid food (Hebrews 5:11-12).

Here is yet another text which clearly identifies the false teachers in the church at Crete as promoters of Jewish-oriented error:

10 For there are many rebellious people, idle talkers, and deceivers, especially those with Jewish connections, 11 who must be silenced because they mislead whole families by teaching for dishonest gain what ought not to be taught. 12 A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 Such testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith 14 and not pay attention to Jewish myths and commands of people who reject the truth. 15 All is pure to those who are pure. But to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They profess to know God but with their deeds they deny him, since they are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good deed (Titus 1:10-16, emphasis mine).

Those causing division in the church at Corinth were not immediately labeled as Jewish false teachers, but by the time we get to 2 Corinthians, Paul does not pull any punches about their identity:

13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions. . . . 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I (2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 22, emphasis mine).

It is my understanding that the Book of Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus all address Jew/Gentile issues in relation to the church. If this is true, then we would expect that the Book of Hebrews, an epistle written to Jewish converts to Christ, would deal with some of the areas of false teaching that we see addressed elsewhere in the New Testament. We should also see that the pressure to “fall back” into Judaism may not have come merely from outside the church, but may have actually come from within as well.

All of this is to suggest that Hebrews is dealing with false teaching within the church, as well as without. This seems to become more apparent as we approach the conclusion to this epistle. Note these texts related to leadership and Jewish teaching:

15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God, that no one be like a bitter rootspringing up and causing trouble, and through him many become defiled. 16 And see to it that no one becomes an immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that later when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity for repentance, although he sought the blessing with tears (Hebrews 12:15-17, emphasis mine).

We should not overlook the relationship between this text in chapter 12 and what we have just seen in chapter 6:

4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt (Hebrews 6:4-6, emphasis mine).

The warning is against those who “spring up” in the church and then defile others. These are folks that, like Esau, are beyond repentance. Is Hebrews 12:15-17 not talking about those in Hebrews 6:4-6)? This seems to be confirmed in Hebrews 13:

1 Brotherly love must continue. 2 Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them, and those ill-treated as though you too felt their torment. 4 Marriage must be honored among all10 and the marriage bed kept undefiled,11 for God will judge sexually immoral people and adulterers. 5 Your conduct must be free from the love of money12 and you must be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, andI will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” 7 Remember your leaders, who spoke God’s message to you; reflect on the outcome of their lives and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! 9 Do not be carried away by all sorts of strange teachings. For it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not ritual meals, which have never benefited those who participated in them.13 10 We have an altar that those who serve in the tabernacle have no right to eat from. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood the high priest brings into the sanctuary as an offering for sin are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore, to sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp. 13 We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, acknowledging his name. 16 And do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for God is pleased with such sacrifices. 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you (Hebrews 13:1-17, emphasis mine).

In the light of what we find in Hebrews and the rest of the New Testament, we should expect that Jewish false teachers have infiltrated the church and that our author has such false teachers in mind in his warning passage in Hebrews 6. If, in chapter 13, the author instructs the Hebrews to “consider the outcome of their lives” (13:7), then I believe Hebrews 6:4-8 tells us what that outcome is. No wonder such folks are not to be followed.

Tracing the Flow of the Argument

The interpretation of our text (particularly 6:4-8) should be consistent with the author’s development of his argument thus far in Hebrews. So let’s seek to trace the argument, beginning at chapter 1.

The Book of Hebrews begins by emphasizing the authority and finality of the revelation which God has given us in the person of the Son (1:1-4). This revelation is worthy of our attention because of the supremacy of the Son, through whom God has revealed Himself (1:5-2:4). The Son of God is “higher than the angels” (chapter 1), but He also became “lower than the angels” at His incarnation in order to become our Great High Priest (chapter 2). He added sinless humanity to His undiminished deity in order to identify with man and to become a merciful and faithful high priest (2:9-18).

If chapters 1 and 2 set forth the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ as God’s revelation and our High Priest, chapters 3 and 4 demonstrate the deficiency of mankind. This deficiency is exemplified by the unbelief and rebellion of the first generation of Israelites who left Egypt for the Promised Land, led by Moses. The author of Hebrews cites the second half of Psalm 95, in which the psalmist highlights Israel’s failures and exhorts his current readers to learn from them. The author to the Hebrews then exhorts his readers, based upon lessons learned from the past: (1) To be diligent to enter into God’s rest (4:11); (2) to hold fast to their confession (4:14); and (3) to draw near to Jesus, their Great High Priest, for help in time of need (4:15-16).

In chapter 5, the author compares the Lord Jesus and His high priestly ministry with Aaron and his ministry as high priest. Our Lord is not only shown to be qualified to be our High Priest, but it is clear that His priesthood is vastly superior to that of Aaron. His priesthood is of another order, the order of Melchizedek. It is at this point that the readers’ weaknesses become apparent, for this subject is obviously far more difficult to grasp than the spiritual diet to which they have become accustomed. Both in content and in practical application they have become dull and sluggish and inept at discerning the difference between good and evil (5:11-14).

The author’s solution is not to cater to the immaturity of his audience, but to forge ahead with the spiritual meat they need for growth. He moves beyond elementary instruction to that which should come next in their spiritual curriculum (6:1-3). As I understand it, this elementary teaching was that instruction based on the Old Testament which foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah. But now it is time for the fuller and more complete revelation that God has given through the Son (1:1-4; 2:1-4). Because his readers needed to be taken beyond the instruction given them by those who apparently wanted to keep them from growing spiritually, the author of Hebrews is determined to press ahead. And thus he begins verse 1 with “therefore.” He does this not “in spite of” his readers’ spiritual immaturity, but precisely because of it.

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul seems to find it necessary to “speak down” to his readers:

1 So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, 3 for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

It is a different story in Hebrews 6. The author refuses to resort to a mere repetition of the elementary teachings. Why? I believe it is because of those who were teaching these things. By purposely avoiding the fuller and more complete teaching of the New Testament (the very teaching the author was urging his readers to heed with full attention), these teachers could stress the superiority of the Old Covenant, and the Jewish rituals and practices so familiar to them, and so much “better” in their minds.

The author says that his readers in their immaturity have the need for “someone” to teach them these elementary things once again, but he refuses to do so. I believe it is because this is the content that the false teachers are using to promote their Judaising agenda. It is not wrong, but they are unwilling to move beyond the Old Testament revelation to the New. They will avoid texts like Ephesians 2 and 3, or Galatians, because it exposes the error of their ways.

Verse 4 commences the troublesome portion of our text. Note that it begins with the explanatory “for”:

4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 tasted the good word of God and the miracles of the coming age, 6 and then have committed apostasy, to renew them again to repentance, since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt. 7 For the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is useless and about to be cursed; its fate is to be burned (Hebrews 6:4-8).

Since I have already dealt with the major interpretations of this text in our previous lesson, I will restrict my interpretation to that which best seems to fit the context. I believe that those described in verses 4 and 5 are those who have come very close to faith, but who have never embraced the gospel personally for salvation. The most forceful example of this “close, but no cigar” unbeliever would be Judas, a man who heard the gospel from our Lord, who experienced God’s power, but who never really believed in Jesus for salvation. It would seem that the kind of person who is described above is one who has heard the gospel, who has witnessed and perhaps even experienced its power, but who has not come to faith, and who after experiencing the gospel “up close and personal,” has rejected it.

Here, I find myself in essential agreement with most Calvinistic scholars, although I certainly understand and appreciate the merits of the “loss of rewards (and experience God’s earthly discipline)” position. I would go so far as to say that they may be right in interpreting this passage in that way. But I still see our author as addressing two different kinds of people in chapters 6 and 10. Where my interpretation would differ slightly from the classic Calvinistic view is that I see these unbelievers as those who exercise a significant level of authority and influence in the church. I see these folks as being the source of much of the pressure and temptation to revert back to the law-works of unbelieving Judaism.

In verse 12, we read,

So that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:12).

Combined with the exhortation of chapter 13, verse 7, I see our author exhorting his readers to pay attention to those whom they follow. Are they men of faith and perseverance, who look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises? What is the outcome of their life? We know that the outcome of those described in verses 1-6 is not one which should attract us to follow them.

These would-be teachers are those who seem to have grasped the gospel and to have been exposed to it to the degree that they have witnessed (and perhaps experienced) some of its power. But they, like Judas, never crossed the line of faith in Jesus. They chose to remain in the shadows of the Old Testament concerning Messiah, rather than to fully embrace Jesus as the Messiah. They preferred the old rituals and rules to the freedom of the New Covenant. They seemed to prefer a strictly Jewish system rather than the church, composed of Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. And, in my estimation, they sought to persuade others to think and act in a similar manner.

Our author distinguishes the false believers from the true by using an agricultural illustration in verses 7 and 8. Within the church, there were two kinds of soil. Both soils received the benefit of the rains, but while one soil produced a crop, the other produced only thorns and thistles. The good soil receives God’s blessing, while the bad soil is in danger of being cursed, the worthless produce being fit only for the fire.

Those described in verses 4-6 and 8 are the exception, while the majority of the Hebrews are the “good soil” of verse 9. This the author makes very clear in verses 9-12. He begins by calling these believers “dear friends” or “beloved” (verse 9). This is the most intimate reference to these Hebrews so far in the book. He is convinced of better things than what he has just described. These “better things” pertain to what accompanies salvation – the fruit which grows from the soil of salvation.

These Hebrews have evidenced their love by their work in ministering to the needs of the saints, and God has taken note of this fruit. Love for the brethren is one of those powerful witnesses to the presence and power of God in our lives. The author does not wish his believing readers to rest on the laurels of their past deeds; his desire is for them to maintain the same kind of diligence so that they will not be sluggish, but will realize the full assurance of their hope to the very end. He desires for them to imitate those, like Abraham (as we are about to read), who through faith and patient endurance inherit the promises.14

How Does This Interpretation Encourage Christians?

I said at the outset of this message that the correct interpretation of this text should affirm and encourage the faith of believers. Has this interpretation done so, and if, so, how? First, this text encourages Christians by making a clear distinction between those who believe and those who do not. The way some handle this text only raises doubts and fears. “Am I really one of those who believe?” “Is my faith genuine, or will I be found to be an imposter in the end?” These are the kinds of questions which arise when the line between faith and apostasy is fuzzy. It seems to me that the author has clearly distinguished faith from unbelief. To go back to chapter 4, we find that the Word of God makes the important distinctions clear to us (4:12-13).

Secondly, our text holds believers corporately responsible for one another – for discerning and dealing with unbelief, apostasy, and false teaching. In the midst of warning of the danger of unbelief, the saints are encouraged to minister to one another because we have become partakers of Christ:

12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception. 14 For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end (Hebrews 3:12-15).

How can the saints undergird the faith and endurance of others if they maintain doubts about their own standing before God? The fact that we are held accountable for encouraging other saints should serve to undergird our confidence in God and the salvation He has given to us.

Conclusion

So, as we conclude let me be careful to answer the question which I chose as the title for this message? “Who Are Those Who Fall Away?” They are those who have come close to the truth of the gospel, who have benefited from the truth, but in the end have chosen to reject the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to maintain the perceived benefits of the Old Covenant, as though it was superior to the New. These are not believers who fall away, but those who only came close to the truth, only to reject it.

Our text underscores the importance of confidence in our confession, that is in our confidence in the One in whom we have come to trust for our eternal salvation. It is doubt that undermines confidence, and faith that produces confidence. How confident Paul was in his standing before God:

Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day (2 Timothy 1:12, emphasis mine).

Likewise, Paul is confident concerning the faith and perseverance of others who have come to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation:

For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

If confidence is constructive, doubt is destructive and unproductive:

5 But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways (James 1:5-8).

If we know the Lord Jesus Christ, we should “know His voice” and thus be able to discern false teachers:

3 The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. 5 They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice” (John 10:3-5).

Our text cautions us to be careful who we choose as our leaders. We know that the Israelites rebelled against Moses when they rebelled against God. They threatened to kill Moses and to appoint a new leader. Hebrews instructs us about those whom we choose to follow, just as a number of other epistles do. We must be very careful to follow those who are following Christ, for there are those who are on the path to destruction, and they would love to take others with them.

Our text underscores the value of New Testament ecclesiology (church doctrine). Notice that our text holds all believers responsible for ministry to one another and not just a pastor or pastoral staff. Our text assumes a plurality of leaders, and not just one dominant leader. When there is a plurality of leaders, one individual is not as likely to “take the reins” and lead the flock astray.

Our text instructs us to deal with apostasy. We are responsible to be good students of God’s Word so that we recognize error for what it is, and so that we deal with it appropriately. Error is to be dealt with by the church and is to be removed so that it will not corrupt others. There are those who feel obliged to remain in an apostate church – a church that has corporately fallen away from the faith – with the hope of saving it, or some within it. Apostasy corrupts. In my opinion, it is better to remove oneself from an apostate church than to attempt to restore it to genuine faith.

Our text challenges those who are outside the faith to acknowledge their sin and to trust in the sacrifice of Jesus, our Great High Priest, for the forgiveness of their sins. Our text tells us the outcome of unbelief, thus calling for men to repent and to believe in Jesus. If you have never confessed your sin and publicly professed your faith in the work of Jesus at Calvary, I urge you to do so today.


1 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 14 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 12, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 It is indeed unfortunate that the translators of the NIV saw fit to ignore the Greek term gar, which should be rendered “for” as it is in virtually all the best translations.

3 As others have pointed out, the tense of the verbs has been “aorist” elsewhere, but in verse 6 we are dealing with verbs (participles) that are in the present tense. The NET Bible has been careful to translate in a way that makes the durative aspect of the present tense clear: “. . . since they are crucifying the Son of God for themselves all over again and holding him up to contempt” (emphasis mine).

4 See Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4.

5 See John 6:64.

6 Barnabas, who rejoiced greatly when he witnessed the faith of Gentiles who had come to faith at Antioch (Acts 11:20-24), buckled under the pressure of those Jews who felt Gentile believers were inferior, and who distanced themselves from them.

7 See Ephesians 2:11-22.

8 Surely this abstinence from certain foods betrays a Jewish source. And there was also a disdain for marriage. Here we should compare the words of the writer to the Hebrews in 13:4, 9.

9 No direct Jewish connection is specified here, but given the other warnings of the Pastoral Epistles, it seems likely that there was a connection.

10 See 1 Timothy 4:1-3.

11 See 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 (especially when the false teaching is viewed as coming from Jewish teachers).

12 See 1 Timothy 6:3-10; Titus 1:11.

13 See Acts 10-11; Romans 14:1-4; Galatians 2:11-21; 1 Timothy 4:3.

14 Note that folks like Abraham have not yet inherited the promises (see Hebrews 11:13-16), but they will do so, along with us (11:39-40).


Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)