(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)
This passage yields a variety of interpretations. The following is an edited version of a two-part sermon I gave recently. I am lightly editing it. I hope that it blesses your heart.
Doctrine: When blessed with full revelation, if you fail to accept Jesus as Messiah, you damn yourself to eternal hell.
This doctrine, as such as revealed in this passage, is unrepeatable today. By this I mean, the Jewish people to whom the author is writing had received as much revelation as humanly possible and were still unsure about the Messiahship of Jesus. As John MacArthur notes addresses a similar situation in Matthew 12:31, where he writes, “The sin He was confronting was the Pharisees’ deliberate rejection of that which they knew to be of God (cf. John 11:48; Acts 4:16).” (The MacArthur Study Bible NKJV, 1414)
The topic of the unpardonable sin is a weighty topic. It is a deep doctrine, for its implication is that a sin cannot be pardoned. That is a heavy thought. Which leaves us to ask the questions: Is there a sin that God cannot forgive? Is there a state that man can reach that is beyond the reach of the mercy of God? Men and women have discussed this, argued about it, and contemplated it for centuries. With that knowledge, this is my humble attempt to faithful exegete this passage, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and seeking to apply it to our present lives.
Let us remember the context in which our author is writing. He is writing to Jewish people. Within this larger group of Jewish people are two sects, if you will. One group accepted Jesus as the Messiah. They are, in the words of one author, “completed Jews.” (Gartenhaus, 163) This same author, a Jewish man who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, writes, “Christianity not only does not oppose basic Judaism but it is Judaism itself fulfilled.” (Gartenhaus, 163) The Jewish men and women who accepted Jesus as the Messiah were not leaving Judaism behind, rather they were embracing its biblical essence. However, there was another group, a group that rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Whether blatant rebellion or simple apathy, these individuals reject Jesus.
Our author has spent five chapters developing the doctrines of Jesus. He is God, greater than Moses and Abraham, He is the high priest and faithful minister of the true people of God. It is this thought, the high priesthood of Christ, that creates a switch in the author’s mind. The readers were immature in their understanding and unable to bear deep thoughts on Melchizedek (see chapter 5, specifically verses 12-14). Our author could not speak on the deep things of God due to their immaturity.
This immaturity leads to two assumptions: immaturity due to a failure to grow, and immaturity due to a failure to be reborn (whatever terminology is used, salvation is the point). It is this thought, a failure to be reborn, that is the focus of Hebrews 6:1-8. We will notice several points:
- The basis of Jewish faith- Hebrews 6:1-3
- The danger of rejecting revelation- Hebrews 6:4-6
- The illustration of damnation- Hebrews 6:7-8
We note, first:
- The basis of Jewish faith- Hebrews 6:1-3
Now, as we begin this discussion, it is vital to remember the context. Many individuals who read the first few verses take this as basic Christian doctrine because of the word Christ, but this is referring to the Jewish faith. Our author, who is Jewish, is writing to Jewish people, about the Jewish Messiah. It is inherently Jewish. So why would our author use the word Christ? Simply because this was the Greek version of the Hebrew term Messiah. There are many connections to Hellenistic influence in this letter. The writer frequently uses the Septuagint (commonly abbreviated as LXX). This is the Greek version of the Tanakh. One of the possible authors of this letter is a Hellenistic Jew, meaning he was a Grecian Jew. This follows the logic that he was familiar with the word Christ (anointed one in the Greek) rather than the Hebrew term Messiah (anointed one in the Hebrew). I belabor this point because it must be anchored within that Jewish context to properly interpret this passage. Otherwise, as many people have done, it will be misinterpreted and misapplied.
We will discuss the basis of the Jewish faith by understanding the thoughts behind each concept.
- Repentance from dead works and of faith toward God
The idea behind this concept is repentance and faith. Now, you may immediately think, “Repentance and faith is in the Gospel!” And you are partially correct, for there is an absence of the essential individual. The absence of Jesus leaves this teaching (or doctrine) within the framework of the Tanakh, thus an incomplete picture of repentance and faith. John the Baptist, in introducing the Messiah, preached this same message in Matthew 3:2. He is the last of the prophets (Luke 16:16), still preaching repentance but not yet in the person of Jesus. You see, they repented and had faith but failed to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Messiah, the only Name given under heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Repentance from dead works and faith toward God points to salvific faith in Messiah Jesus.
- Instructions about washings (or baptisms)
The idea here is the washings in the Torah. One need only look at the book of Leviticus. The word wash appears 36 times (in the ESV). Washing was an essential aspect of remaining pure, clean. If you look to the Gospels we are given a wonderful example in Mark 7:1-23. Washing was an aspect that would point to the holiness of God and the necessity for purity among God’s people. It is something that was repeated, many times. However, it was a shadow of the washing by the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5. Also, if you simply search for “Jewish washings” you will still see the influences to present day Judaism.
- The Laying on of hands
Here we may be tempted to place the act of laying hands from the book of Acts in this passage. The apostles and elders of the church were seen throughout the establishment and development of the churches as laying hands on people. However, remember, this is a Jewish book, to Jewish people. What, in the Tanakh, do we see involving laying hands? When you look to Leviticus 1:4; 3:8 and 13 you see a completely different purpose for laying on of hands. This action represented the transference of guilt from the individual to the animal. It is the act whereby the sinner imputes his sin into the innocent victim. This action points to the act whereby Jesus becomes sin for us (Isaiah 53:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
- The resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment
This sounds like Christian doctrine, right? I mean of all the phrases mentioned surely this is Christian. I am afraid not. Resurrection and judgment were doctrines of the Jewish faith. Now, if you were to pick up a handful of books on the Jewish faith you will see a variety of opinions on this subject. Some deny that the Tanakh even addresses life after death. Others see it as essential to the Jewish faith. The Jewish people of Jesus’s day, and even Orthodox Jewish people of today, held this biblical truth. I encourage you to look through Isaiah 35, a passage that develops the teaching on the world to come. You can also check out Ecclesiastes 12:14 as well. Both of these passages illustrate belief in an afterlife and judgment to come.
We see, then, that the framework of Judaism springs one into the presence of the Messiah. We are to repent from dead works and place our faith in Messiah. We are to be washed by the Holy Spirit. We are to accept the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God. Additionally, we are to look to the time when Messiah will come and make all things new. Judaism points directly to Jesus Messiah.
- The desire for growth
Our author makes one final note for this section, that he desires to move beyond this elementary doctrines on to maturity, and for the readers to move on to maturity. But he adds one phrase, “if God permits.” Please remember that God is sovereign, as we can see in Ephesians 1 and 2.
Because of all of this, our author then moves on to the dangerous, precarious situation of these Jewish readers:
- The danger of rejecting full revelation- Hebrews 6:4-6
After this brief review of the “elementary doctrine of Christ (or Messiah)”, our author then brings the point to a stark point: rejecting full revelation brings damnation.
- The finality of rejection- it is impossible
The very first point the author makes it that renewal after rejection of full revelation is impossible. I asked, at the beginning, are there sins that God will not, or cannot, forgive? The biblical answer is yes. Now, before we get too far into this passage let me paint you a broad picture. This rejection of full revelation is not repeatable. That is, this situation was specific to this generation. While we breathe a sigh of relief, please understand that rejection of God’s truth today is no less serious. After looking at our passage in Hebrews, we will turn to Matthew 12:22-32 to see this played out in a narrative fashion.
- The specifics of this rejection:
- Those who have once been enlightened
This phrase seems to suggest salvation. That is how many throughout church history have taken this passage. However, I believe when we examine the context and compare Scripture with Scripture, it refers to Jewish people who had access to full revelation. In other words, these Jewish people had received as much truth as humanly possible without bringing about conversion. Let us look at what this enlightenment entails. Remember the Jewish context. Turn to Isaiah 9:1-2 where the same idea can be found. This divine light shined on all who saw it, but not all who saw it rejoiced in the Messiah. As with the other phrases, this does not imply nor is it used to refer to salvation in a specific way. And since our author has placed every warning within the context of the Tanakh, this passage is no different. You will notice in your sermon notes additional references. I encourage you to look these up as you work your way through this rather difficult passage. There is also an interesting connection to Exodus 13:21 and Nehemiah 9:12.
- Tasted of the heavenly gift
There are two allusions to this idea of tasting a heavenly gift. For one, those that ate of the manna from heaven in Exodus 16:4. They tasted that heavenly gift (a similar word used by our author in Hebrews). Nehemiah 9:15 gives the same idea, as well as Psalm 78:24. Think, as well, of Jesus. In John 6:22-59 where Jesus is the Bread of Heaven, and Jesus graphically states, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” (John 6:47-47) These individuals had tasted of the heavenly gift.
- Shared in the Holy Spirit
Can one share in the Holy Spirit and not be saved? Indeed, I believe Scripture clearly communicates this. Nehemiah 9:20 speaks about this giving of the Holy Spirit. If you can run through your minds all the accounts where “the Holy Spirit came upon” so and so, you get the idea. Numbers 11:16-29 also speaks of this. Unfortunately, we do not have the time to present a full treatment of pneumatology (the doctrine/study of the Holy Spirit). But you can briefly see that the Holy Spirit operated differently in the Old Covenant than in the New Covenant. Think about the life of Jesus, who by the power of the Holy Spirit completed some amazing miracles!
- Tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come
The Israelites (and the people in Hebrews) have tasted the goodness of the Word of God. They experienced God’s goodness through the Tanakh, what we call the Old Testament. They also experienced incredible miracles. This is referenced in Hebrews 2:4. It is an allusion to Exodus 7:3 and the wonders of the plagues against Israel. The powers of the age to come is a reference to the miracles wrought by Jesus on earth (and in the Tanakh by Moses and the prophets), a breakthrough-look to the future kingdom of God in which all wrongs are righted and all sickness, pain, and tears and done away with. In the second sermon in this series we discussed the phrase found in Hebrews 1:2 where the author writes, “…in these last days…”. We discussed the implications of the phrase in regards to the Messianic promises and kingdom to come.
- The Implication of rejection- Crucify Him!
We turn our attention, now, to the verse six. The thought of impossibility begins in verse four. Our author, then, takes the time to discuss the specifics of this rejection. Now we see the implication. What does it mean to reject Messiah? For this, our author describes in a graphic way what happens. He states, “It is impossible….to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Heb. 6:4, 6) When they reject all the revelation presented, all the truth preached, the miracles wrought, and they have fallen away, shout with the crowds: Crucify Him! Crucify Him! By their actions they are claiming Jesus is guilty as charged. The seriousness of this verse cannot be overstated.
One more thought before moving to the illustration of damnation. The idea behind “have fallen away” gives the same ideas found in the other warning passages. Hebrews 2:1 says we must pay attention, lest like a boat, we drift away. Hebrews 3:12 mentions the danger of unbelief leading us to “fall away” (a different Greek word). Hebrews 4:11 states that we must strive to enter the rest of God lest we “may fall”. All the ideas are of gradual, slow, and steady rejection. I used the illustration of Bart Ehrman, a brilliant New Testament scholar who, after witnessing the evil of the world, slowly rejected the idea that God existed. It is a process. Imagine the individuals of whom our author is speaking. They had seen everything, and still rejected Messiah Jesus.
David Klinghoffer’s Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History, discusses the precariousness of rejecting Messiah Jesus. He writes,
If Jesus was the Messiah, then the Jews today are in big trouble, as all their ancestors have been for the past two millennia, along with a lot of gentiles who haven;t grasped what a vital truth the Christian idea is. Even setting aside the belief that the disposition of one’s immortal soul depends on recognizing him in this role, if Christians are right about Jesus, then many generations of Jews and other peoples have missed out on the very climax of history, the ministry and death of Jesus Christ. It happened, but we weren’t paying attention.
Brothers and sisters, we are in the same danger if we reject the truth of God in our lives.
- The illustration of damnation- Hebrews 6:7-8
The author takes the remaining two verses to provide a natural illustration of this biblical truth. We will break it down to the positive response and negative response. Keep in mind, however, the statement made by our author in 6:3, “And this we will do if God permits.” God is sovereign over all.
- The Useful Crop- Heb. 6:7
The rain falls on both types of plants. Just as God’s word, power, miracles, and everything accompanying them did on the hearers and readers of this letter. However, the response is quite different. The useful crop cultivates (the word we get geography from) to the rain and earth to produce food. That is, it takes the enlightenment, the heavenly gifts, the Holy Spirit, the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come and cultivates it with belief and action. This is where we need, must be! We must take the truths of God’s Word and believe and act on it.
- The Worthless Crop- Hebrews 6:8
The same rain falls on this plant as it did with the useful crop. Again, God’s Word, power, miracles, and everything accompanying them did on their hearers and readers of this letter. The worthless crop bears “thorns and thistles”. I am certainly not a farmer, but I do know that if you are growing food (or flowers for that matter) you do not want thorns and thistles. What is the difference? Why did one yield a useful crop and the other yield thorns and thistles?
There are several clues, both from this passage as well as other Scripture, which give us the difference. In our own letter of Hebrews we have seen that our response is to be filled with faith (belief) and action. These two are proper responses to the wonderful revelation given to us by God. However, the language is found in the Tanakh as well. For one, in God’s judgment on Adam and Eve he speaks of thorns and thistles. Genesis 3:14-19 speaks of God’s judgment on the earth. However, all of these aspects of the judgment can be summed up with the words from Genesis 2:17. It is death! From which we know from Ephesians 2:1-8 that it is only by God’s grace that we are brought back to life (If God permit, remember?).
There is one other passage that I think is particularly pertinent for our passage this morning. Deuteronomy 28 is the chapter which presents the blessings for obeying the covenant and the curses for disobedience. At the heart of both obedience and disobedience is belief, whether positive or negative. If they believed the Torah they would obey and be blessed; if they failed to believe the Torah they would disobey and be cursed. As with the Torah, so with the belief in the Messiah, belief and action are essential to holding fast, of true biblical conversion. Failure to respond in biblical faith and action is impossible to repent from. This is the danger that these Jewish people faced. They had been presented the full source of revelation that no one before nor since has had the privilege, and they failed to believe. It is staggering. However, lest we think that we are not able to experience damnation we must take heed. For, while we do not see physical miracles take place, we do not witness the resurrection of dead men and women, we do not taste the powers of the Word of God, we have, as Abraham reminded the rich man in hell, “Moses and the Prophets.” (Luke 16:29) We have something that no one before us had, the Sacred Scriptures. If we reject, constantly, slowly, gradually, the Word of God then we are illustrating that we are the worthless crop that is doomed to be burned.
- The Blasphemous Pharisees- Matthew 12:22-32
This narrative illustrates, in a narrative fashion, what Hebrews 6:1-8 discusses. The Pharisees witness a miracle. Jesus casts a demon out and heals a man. The crowds, witnessing this wonderful event respond, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:23, NKJV) How did the Pharisees respond? “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons.” (Matthew 12:24, NKJV) They maintain that the only way Jesus did miracles was through demonic power.
The Pharisees were privileged to see incredible miracles, hear powerful preaching, and witness God in the flesh (see John 1:1, 14; Hebrews 1:1-3). They enjoyed revelation in a way no other human beings did. What was their response? Unbelief. They remained dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
How are we to apply this, if this passage is time-specific? While the actual passage may not be repeatable, the act of unbelief is. Rejection of revealed truth is dangerous. One is reminded of Paul’s address to the saints at Rome. In Romans 1:18-32 discusses, in graphic detail, what the rejection of truth brings.
Brothers and sisters, do not reject truth. If you are not a Christian, please consider the truth of Scripture, repent of your sins and believe in the Messiah Jesus.