The author of the book of Hebrews is comparing Jesus to various aspects of the Jewish religion in order to encourage his readers not to abandon their new faith in Christ for their old faith of Judaism. The notion that the Jewish religion is superior because it boasts of the ancient priesthood of Aaron is dealt with by showing that, in Christ, his readers also have a high priest.
- He is a legitimate high priest and qualified to be so because like all high priests He has been appointed by God and He can relate to human weakness.
- He is superior to Aaron because He is already in heaven (by virtue of His resurrection and ascension) and He comes from the eternal order of Melchizedek, not the temporal order of Aaron.
- This should give all believers confidence to come to God without fear because their high priest is already in heaven on their behalf and He understands perfectly their weaknesses.
He begins and finishes the passage with a reference to Melchizedek, a mysterious figure who appears only once in the Old Testament, and uses this as a launching pad to rebuke them concerning their immaturity.
Rebuke - Hebrews 5:11-6:20
Admonishment Concerning Their Immaturity
The author rebukes his readers for failing in two areas: the inability to discern truth from error and the failure to have matured into teachers. The reason for this is immaturity caused by a loss of the desire to "hear" the Word (listen with the intent of obeying with all of one's heart).
11 Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.
He picks up on the theme of Melchizedek from the last section and comments that this concept of Jesus' priesthood based on the type of Melchizedek is an important subject with many implications, but they seem unable to grasp it because they are not "hearing" like they used to. Here, he states the case and the reason; in the next three verses he gives the details of their failure.
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.
They have received much teaching and should by this time be able to teach others. Instead, they need again to be taught the ABC's (elementary principles) of the faith (oracles of God). Milk and solid food is a contrast used to refer to mature teachings and basic teachings in the Christian faith.
13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
One grows in his ability to grasp the more mature matters of the faith by training himself to choose the right way to act and choose this consistently. This learning process begins with the proper response to the ABC's of the faith with movement towards maturity. The author is telling them that because they are still practicing the ABC's of faith (not discerning well and choosing consistently right over wrong, truth from error) they are immature, and he has trouble communicating with them about more mature matters, like the teaching on the person and purpose of Melchizedek.
1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do, if God permits.
He encourages them to settle, once for all, the elementary teachings and their response to these, and go on to more mature teachings. The teaching about Christ encompasses all of these other teachings. These include what they were taught concerning the person of Christ; repentance and one's attitude towards sin; the working, meaning and necessity of faith; "washings" refer to the various water rituals; the purpose and meaning of the "laying on of hands"; the difference between John and Jesus' baptisms; the resurrection, judgment and matters concerning the end times. These constitute basic Christian teachings, and until a Christian understands, accepts and responds to them in a consistently appropriate way, there can be no growth or teaching of more mature matters.
These Christians were inconsistent. They still were not sure of the deity of Christ. They were being careless with sin and had a worldly attitude. They wanted to go back to their old faith, not yet sure that Christ's baptism washed away all sin so that there was no further need for sacrifice. They were not convinced that at the end Christ would return and judge all men. For these reasons the author calls upon them to make up their minds about these things once and for all so they can go on to other matters. His rebuke is that because they are not settled on these basic teachings, they themselves are not teaching others but need to be taught again, and he will do it if God allows (the opportunity and time). What are the more mature matters? Using the Word to build one another up in Christ, and winning others for Christ.
Warning Against Falling Away
The author makes clear the reason why they must press ahead to maturity. Not to go forward means that they are falling back, and to do so is fatal. The next four verses contain one of the most severe warnings to Christians contained in the New Testament. It is evident that he is talking to Christians because of the way he refers to them. He says that it is possible to fall to such an extent that it becomes impossible to repent.
4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,
He says four things that demonstrate that he is talking to Christians:
- "once been enlightened" - Coming to Christ, knowing the gospel, responding to it is the very essence of enlightenment (John 3:19-22). Only Christians have this kind of enlightenment.
- "tasted of the heavenly gift" - He is describing the relief, joy and assurance of salvation. Our experience of salvation causes joy (Acts 8:38-39). This is uniquely a Christian's experience.
- "partakers of the Holy Spirit" - At baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). As Christians we experience His comfort in our lives in a variety of ways: through prayer (Romans 8:26), the struggle/victory over sin (Romans 8:13).
- "tasted the good word...powers of the age to come" - The author refers to the experience a Christian has in hearing and responding to God's word. Seeing the power it has to transform him into a mature spiritual being. In addition to this, in the first century many Christians exercised miraculous powers - powers that belonged to the Christian age (age to come) which would ultimately be consummated by Christ's return.
6a and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance,
The experiences that he is referring to can only be had by Christians. He says that Christians who experience these things and then fall back are in great danger of never being renewed again. He says that it becomes impossible for them to repent. It is important to note that the author is referring to the sin of apostasy (abandoning the faith) not morality.
"It is one thing to yield to sin contrary to the teachings of our new life in Christ, it is quite another to abandon that new life altogether" (N. Lightfoot - Commentary on Hebrews pp.126).
The idea is that a person who practices his faith and repeatedly abandons it and then takes it up again only to reject it once more eventually becomes so hard hearted that he is beyond having any more convictions concerning spiritual life, and thus beyond repentance. He gets to a point where he cannot repent even if he wanted to.
6b since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.
Their crime is enormous. He visualizes their sin by saying that they take Christ into their hearts at conversion, taste the joy of salvation bought with His blood, share the Spirit, see the change and then tear Him out of their hearts to put Him back on the cross to open shame. The idea of "crucifying to themselves" suggests that they do this to their own harm, not to Jesus'. This type of repeated sin hardens the heart to a point where it can no longer respond to the Word in order to repent.
7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
At this point the author uses familiar imagery to describe the fate of these: ground that is prepared, receives rain and brings forth produce is blessed by God (it continues to be farmed). That same ground, however, receiving the same care, should it bring up useless thorns and thistles ends up being burned and receives a curse (it is abandoned).
Christians who grow in wisdom, knowledge and maturity will be blessed by God. If they continually rebel, fall back and refuse to produce good spiritual fruit they will be punished and abandoned.
After warning them against falling away, he comforts and encourages them to "hang on to hope." This is the "hook" word that brings us to the next section.
1. Be Faithful
9 But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.
Even though he is speaking harshly, he is convinced that they are not yet apostate, but in danger of it. He believes that they are producing the fruit of salvation.
10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.
These Jewish Christians had helped Gentile believers who were persecuted, and the writer comments that God also sees this and will remember it. There will be more details given about this in chapter 10:32-34.
11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end.
They had been delinquent in good works and love. He encourages them to exercise the same diligence in their faith towards Christ so that their "hope" (eternal glory), which is based on Him, will be fully realized. And this diligence is to be displayed until the end. Their hope for salvation was directly linked to their faith in Christ. As their faith in Him dimmed, so did their hope of salvation. They needed to keep one strong in order to maintain the other.
12 that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
They needed to do this in order to inherit the promises, just like those who came before them required perseverance and faithfulness to receive their promises. The point he makes is that they should imitate those people in the past who were not sluggish or lazy. In this section he comforts them by commending the good they have done and encourages them to exercise the same kind of perseverance and faithfulness to Christ if they want to inherit the promises like the heroes of old (a billboard word bridging to chapter 11). For the moment, he mentions one of these heroes of faith: Abraham.
2. God's Oath to Abraham
13 For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, 14saying, 'I WILL SURELY BELSS YOU, AND I WILL SURELY MULTIPLY YOU." 15And thus, having patiently waited, he obtained the promise.
God promised that He would bless Abraham, that through his descendants (and he would have many) all nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:4). It took a long time for this promise to even begin to materialize. Abraham wandered; waited a lifetime before Isaac was born; even had to agree to sacrifice him (the quote here taken from this time).
Divine beings don't need to make oaths, but to reassure men who do, God swore by Himself as His own witness (no one greater) in order to guarantee this promise to Abraham. The promise to Abraham was only fulfilled with the coming of Christ, thousands of years later (Galatians 3:14,16,29), but Abraham received a glimpse of the development of the promise as Isaac was born, was rescued from certain death and then was married. Abraham saw this fulfillment in the same way one could see, in the early sprouting of a young tree, its future maturity and glory. Through faith and perseverance he saw the initial fulfillment of his hope and was overjoyed (John 8:56; Romans 4:20-21).
3. Oaths in General
The author talks about oaths in general and the specific oath that guarantees their salvation.
16 for men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute.
In general, an oath is taken by calling on a witness greater than self: parents, state or Deity in order to verify the truth or legality of a matter. When there is a dispute or bargaining, once the oath is taken, it is a confirmation that the matter is settled.
17 In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath
In this case, the promise made to Abraham by God reaching down to all of his descendants is secure (Christians are spiritual descendants of Abraham - Galatians 3:7), and to reassure them, God used the human device of making an oath as a guarantee that the matter was closed and the promise was absolutely sure. The descendants of Abraham will be blessed because God promised and then vowed to keep His promise.
18 in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us.
Their vision of salvation was growing dim, and like sailors trying to reach a safe harbor in the storm, they were becoming discouraged of even making it. The author closes this section by saying that salvation (their hope/harbor) is sure because of two things:
- God is the one who promised it and He never breaks His promises.
- God has made an oath on the matter and it is impossible for God to lie.
Therefore he encourages them to be faithful and thus keep their hope in full view because that hope has been promised and guaranteed by God Himself.
4. Relationship Between Hope / Faith / Christ
19 This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil
Our "hope" is that we will be with God. It is this hope that steadies our souls during times of crisis (anchors steady ships and prevents them from drifting). This hope that Christians have is not wishful thinking. It is sure because it has been promised and guaranteed by God Himself. Even in sickness or pain when we cannot think, pray or even confess our faith, the hope is still sure. It is a hope which expects the greatest of treasures: to be with God, to live forever and to have eternal joy.
"Enters within the veil" - This was a reference to the temple in Jerusalem where the Jews worshipped. It was divided into two main compartments; one part was called the "Holy Place" and was accessible to any qualified priest at any time, the other part, the "Holy of Holies," was separated by a veil and could only be entered once per year by the High Priest on the sacred Day of Atonement when he would offer sacrifice for the sins of the people.
The temple, and more specifically, the Holy of Holies, was the place where God dwelt and all the symbolism of the architecture reinforced the concept that men could not enter and be with God. There was limited access and only by a chosen and highly qualified few (Numbers 6:13). The Levites, who carried the articles of the tabernacle in the desert, were not even allowed to look at the utensils, candlesticks and other items in the Holy of Holies. This under pain of death!
The substance of the hope that the author spoke of was that all men could have free access to God at any time. This is expressed with the image of ordinary people freely entering beyond the veil, into the Holy of Holies. Hope has been personified in Christ as entering the inner sanctuary and bringing His followers with Him to be with God. This is the hope of the Christian, explained to a Jewish mind using Jewish religious ideas.
20 where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
With this verse the author answers an important question: Why should they have hope? It is the conclusion of this section and the bridge or hook to the next. The reason hope is possible is that Jesus, the High Priest like Melchizedek, has entered the Holy of Holies as a forerunner. This answers the question, "Why do we have hope to enter into the presence of God?"
The Jewish High Priest was a representative of the people and entered the Holy of Holies once per year because the people themselves could not enter in (they were unclean sinners). Jesus, however, is a forerunner. He goes not only to represent but also to prepare the way so that all of His followers can go into the presence of God (a function that the human high priest did not and could not have). Christians have hope (confident expectation) because God has promised to bless them, confirmed this promise with an oath and sent Jesus as a forerunner to guarantee their place with Him in heaven. This hope is always in view (giving joy and peace to the soul) so long as faith remains in Christ, but it fades as faith fades.
The author encourages these Jewish Christians by confirming that they are not apostate and have been faithful in the past. He reminds them to imitate the lives of the faithful in the past as they remain true to Christ. He uses Abraham as an example of faithfulness and reviews with them the idea of oaths and how God has confirmed His promise with an oath to ultimately save them (there is nothing as sure as a promise from God). Finally, he assures them that their faith in Christ will ultimately result in their hope of salvation being realized, and explains why this is so (their high priest is already in heaven as a forerunner preparing a place for them).
These people were losing hope, enthusiasm and a vision of heaven which was their source of joy and motivation. This was happening, not because of trials or lack of intelligence, but because their faith in Christ was weakening. Faith and hope are linked. Without hope we have no joy, no desire to grow, no enthusiasm for service, no peace, no satisfaction and no salvation. This is because without faith in Jesus, we lose hope which in turn leads to the loss of these other things. His readers were losing hope because their faith was growing weak. The reason for their loss of faith was that they were becoming dull of hearing the words or teachings of Christ (Romans 10:17).
The lesson for us today is that if we don't hear the words of Christ often, we cannot build our faith. If our faith is weak, our hope is dim. If our hope is dim, we cannot experience the joy, peace and anticipation of the heavenly reward that God has promised and guaranteed to us with an oath. This explains why the church is, at times, immature and weak - we lose sight of our hope because our faith is not strong.
Based on this passage let us remember two important things:
- Every time you wonder if you should come to church service and hear God's Word or not, ask yourself the following questions, "Do I want to build my faith or diminish it? Do I want my hope to increase or decrease?"
- Remember that the promise of heaven is sure and guaranteed by God's Word and oath. Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us (not just any room or the outside courtyard of the Temple where ordinary Jews were restricted because they were not worthy to come any closer to God) inside the Holy of Holies where God dwells. That will be the place for those who maintain a strong faith and do not lose their hope of heaven.