After having encouraged the readers to press on to maturity (5:11-6:3), the author of Hebrews then follows with a strong warning towards the audience (6:4-8).
Before we will get into the exposition of the single verses some preliminary remarks concerning this passage have to be made. The writer of Hebrews has several warning passages throughout his epistle, but “nowhere are the readers more strikingly admonished of this peril [i.e., apostasy] by which they are threatened than in chapter 6:4-6” (Hughes, Hebrews 6, 137). Hughes further summarizes that the warning passages are given
in terms of drifting away from what we have heard, careless unconcern for the great salvation that is ours in Christ (2:1-3), the development of an evil, unbelieving heart causing one to fall away from the living God, being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and failing to hold our first confidence in Christ firm to the end (3:12-14), being excluded by disobedience from the rest promised to the people of God (4:1,6,11), sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth and thereby facing a fearful prospect of judgment (10:26f., 31), abandoning the Christian struggle because of hardship and affliction (12:1, 3, 7, 12f,, 16f.), rejecting Him who warns from heaven (12:25, 29), and being led away by diverse and strange teachings (13:9) (idem.)
Here we see the development of the argument intensifying from a “drifting away” (2:1-3) to mere rejection of God and gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (12:25, 29).
A further remark is that the author uses OT quotations and allusions throughout his epistle and it is more than arguable that he does the same in this passage. Many passages have been suggested to fit the context and we will briefly touch on those in the subdivisions.
A last remark is that the author may not talk about individual salvation but about a faith community. “When we examine the Old Testament passage referred to here [in Verbrugge’s eyes Isa. 5], we will note that the primary concept in the author’s mind is that of a covenant community and not the individual child of God” (Verbrugge, 62). Such a corporate idea is not foreign to NT teaching (cf. Rev. 2:5 where an entire congregation is addressed as well). This then would lead us to a different interpretation than that of the impossibility/possibility of loss of an individual’s salvation (though that concept would not be excluded by such a reading of the text).
It might be of help to diagram the passage (esp. vv4-6) in order to understand it better:
4 For it is impossible,
i. in the case of those who have once been enlightened,
ii. who have tasted the heavenly gift,
iii. and have shared in the Holy Spirit,
iv. 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,
v. 6 and then have fallen away,
to restore them again to repentance,
vi. since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Through this diagram we see that the main thought is that “It is impossible to restore to repentance” those who i.-v., because of vi.
One question which comes up as one ponders the meaning of this passage is where that impossibility of restoration of such an apostate lies. Or in other words: For whom is it impossible to restore those who have fallen away? Is it with, (a) the Christian community and/or the teacher (Bruce, 144, n. 35) or (b) with God Himself (Ellingworth, 319) or even (c) with the apostate (Lane, 142)? Lane makes the crucial observation that the apostate renounces Christ and thus embraces the impossibility of restoration. This fits well with the hardening of the heart and (c) seems therefore to be a good interpretive guide to go with. Though it might as well be an exclusive and absolute impossibility (cf. Hughes, Hebrews 6, 144; O’Brien, 219) as implied in the other occurrences of the word “impossible “ – i.e., 6:18; 10:4; and 11:6; cf. also the parallel warnings in 10:26-31 and 12:16-17 where there is talk of God’s judgment.
O’Brien suggests that the “impossibility” lies with God. This has to be understood, however, not in an inability but in a refusal on God’s side to bring an apostate to a state of repentance (226; he also lists 6:18 where we read that it is “impossible for God to lie” and argues that He does have the power to do so, but refuses to lie).
Note that the author of Hebrews shifts from “we” and “you” to a “those”-language. “The change is significant: our author does not explicitly identify those who have fallen away with the listeners of Hebrews” (O’Brien, 219; emphasis original).
We will now turn briefly to each single Roman numeral (i.e., i.-vi.) and elucidate some of the crucial components.
Ad i.: The ones who have been “enlightened” are those who had some kind of “spiritual and intellectual illumination” (Lane, 141) which can lead to faith (cf. John 1:9-13). This enlightening or illumination brings light into darkness and thus removes ignorance. “The light of the gospel has broken in upon these people’s darkness, and life can never be the same again; to give up the gospel would be to sin against the light […] which buy its very nature is incurable” (Bruce, 146).
[Note also the parallels to Exod 13:21 (cf. Neh 9:12) where God gives light to the Israelites in the wilderness wandering. This enlightenment then might very well correspond to Hebr 10:26 “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,” and v. 32 “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.”]
Ad ii.: Those “who have tasted the heavenly gift” are those who may have partaken in the Eucharist (Bruce, 146), yet “[t]he language of the present passage is not specific enough either to limit the reference to the eucharist, or to exclude such a reference entirely” (Ellingworth, 320). As the former phrase of illumination has referred to baptism in later Christian circles, so this expression might talk about the Lord’s Table. But if the author has this in mind is not clear.
Wuest writes to this, “They ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’ (6:4). The Holy Spirit enables the unsaved who come under the hearing of the gospel to have a certain appreciation of the blessedness of salvation. These Hebrews were like the spies at Kadesh-Barnea who tasted the fruit of Canaan and yet turned away from it” (Wuest, 48). The manna came from heaven (Exod 16:4) and was described as God’s gift (Neh 9:15) and thus another linkage to the wilderness experience of Israel is established (cf. 3:7-4:13; as the former expression to illumination might as well point to the pillar at night in the wilderness; i.e., a theophany).
Ad iii.: “Sharing in the Holy Spirit” signifies that the Holy Spirit through “spiritual gifts confirmed the truth and power of the gospel when it was proclaimed to those to whom this letter is addressed” (Hughes, Hebrews 6, 141). The next phrase may even shed more light on that issue.
Ad iv.: They “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Tasting is a colorful picture of personal experience. Lane actually suggest that the last phrases “describe vividly the reality of the experience of personal salvation enjoyed by the Christians addressed” (Lane, 141). If this necessitates in “personal salvation” is not for sure, but that there is a personal and intense experience of the Holy Spirit (either by the individual internal state or his association with a believing community) is beyond doubt. The word which has been preached (rhēma) is the gospel which they all have heard (2:3).
Ad v.: The author writes now that those who were among the believing community left the household of God and thus they cannot be restored to repentance. Here the specific sin in mind is that of apostasy (parapiptō means “to fail to follow through on a commitment, fall away, commit apostasy” BDAG, 770). Here we can also see the “pilgrimage motif” of falling away (O’Brien, 224). “Apostasy is a radical break with each salvation experience described in vv. 4-5” (idem.).
Ad vi.: Peterson explains this passage well when he writes: “Such people are crucifying the Son of God all over again, rejecting him as deliberately as his executioners did, and subjecting him to public disgrace, openly putting themselves in the position of his enemies” (in loc.).
Hughes, in speaking of David as not being an apostate even though he committed sins like adultery and murder, mentions that it is a “life that once was lived to the glory of Christ but now openly blasphemes his name and denies his gospel is the mark of the apostate” (Hebrews 6, 147); thus it is not a “specific sin” but an attitude of the heart (which fits the context of chs. 3-4 very well). The author maintains that “Christ has died once for all [see e.g. 7:27]; it is therefore unthinkable to crucify him again” (Ellingworth, 324).
The author then (verses 7-8) gives an explanatory image from agriculture to stress his point. Verbrugge sees this as being taken from Isa. 5 others like Mathewson see a more broad Deuteronomistic picture being employed to stress the blessing and curses. The tree and vineyard motives in the OT corresponds to Israel as a nation. Further, the tree motif in the gospel (cf. Matt. 21:18-22; Mk. 11:2-14) takes the nation of Israel as a whole, an “entire-nation-theme” is also introduced in chs. 3-4 already and thus makes such an interpretation quite explainable (Verbrugge, 66).
So the agricultural picture is going back to OT Israel and the author of Hebrews uses once again the people of Israel as a picture of what might happen if we “harden our hearts.” Though this was a stern warning passage, the author is of better confidence towards his audience (verses 9-12 which will be covered in the next post).
Many Christians have been troubled by this passage and wondered if they are those who have fallen away. It is an “encouragement”, however, to see that the author is not talking about sin in general (which will become even more obvious in 10:26-31), but about the sin of apostasy – the turning away from Christ himself and the deliberate rejection of the once-for-all sacrifice he has made. We hope and pray that we will not be those who reject Christ, but are those who press on to maturity and experience Christ’s salvation in our lives.
Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Ellingworth, P. The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids; Carlisle England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1993.
Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe. “Hebrews 6:4-6 and the peril of apostasy.” Westminster Theological Journal. 35.2 (Wint 1973): 137-155.
Lane, William L. Hebrews. 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary, v. 47A. Dallas, Tex: Word Books, 1991.
Mathewson, David. “Reading Heb 6:4-6 in Light of the Old Testament.” Westminster Theological Journal. 61.2 (Fall 1999): 209-225.
Peterson, David. “Hebrews.” New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Ed. D.A. Carson, et al. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Verbrugge, Verlyn D. “Towards a new interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6.” Calvin Theological Journal. 15.1 (Ap 1980): 61-73.
Wuest, Kenneth Samuel. “Hebrews Six in the Greek New Testament.” Bibliotheca Sacra. 119.473 (Ja-Mr 1962): 45-53.