Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Hebrews 6:1-8

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings,[a] the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, 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. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

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Last week’s entry discussed the author’s warning against apostasy (Hebrews 5:11-14), in which s/he chided those who were still on the spiritual milk of Christianity when they should have been partaking of meat in their religious journey.

John MacArthur rightly termed such stasis as ‘spiritual stupidity’.

To put it another way, imagine a youngster still being in primary school at the age of 17, when he should be ready to graduate and enter university. What a waste of so many years of education.

Yet, that is what is going on here with Hebrews a) who have converted but are still stuck in the rituals of Mosaic law and b) who have heard the Good News but cannot commit to living a life in Christ.

Our commentators Matthew Henry and John MacArthur differ in their interpretations as to the identity of the target audience in this passage. Henry says the audience is those who have matured spiritually. MacArthur says these verses are intended for those who have not committed their hearts and minds to Christ.

Both are sound interpretations, but I lean towards Henry’s perspective, as the first clause of verse 1 says that the author will now progress to the subject of maturity in Christ.

Henry’s commentary explains (emphases mine):

Why did the apostle resolve to set strong meat before the Hebrews, when he knew they were but babes? Answer. 1. Though some of them were but weak, yet others of them had gained more strength; and they must be provided for suitably. And, as those who are grown Christians must be willing to hear the plainest truths preached for the sake of the weak, so the weak must be willing to hear the more difficult and mysterious truths preached for the sake of those who are strong. 2. He hoped they would be growing in their spiritual strength and stature, and so be able to digest stronger meat.

Henry says that the author did not intend to go through basic Christian doctrine once more, as that should be well established already in both the babes as well as the more mature among them:

neither his time nor theirs must be spent in laying these foundations over and over again.

Henry says the following six principles are essential to Christian doctrine:

These are the great foundation-principles which ministers should clearly and convincingly unfold, and closely apply. In these the people should be well instructed and established, and from these they must never depart; without these, the other parts of religion have no foundation to support them.

1/ Repentance from ‘dead works’ towards works based in faith towards God (verse 1):

Observe here, (1.) The sins of persons unconverted are dead works; they proceed from persons spiritually dead, and they tend to death eternal. (2.) Repentance for dead works, if it be right, is repentance from dead works, a universal change of heart and life. (3.) Repentance for and from dead works is a foundation-principle, which must not be laid again, though we must renew our repentance daily.

2/ Faith towards God — and the works that emanate from it — involves a belief in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We must actively believe in the nature of the Holy Trinity — the Triune God — as well as what Holy Scripture teaches us:

Observe, (1.) Repentance from dead works, and faith towards God, are connected, and always go together; they are inseparable twins, the one cannot live without the other. (2.) Both of these are foundation-principles, which should be once well laid, but never pulled up, so as to need to be laid over again; we must not relapse into infidelity.

3/ The washings of the Christian are different to those mandated in Mosaic law, which were ritual cleansings (verse 2). We have the sacrament of Baptism, which operates both outwardly and inwardly and is received only once:

The doctrine of baptisms, that is, of being baptized by a minister of Christ with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, as the initiating sign or seal of the covenant of grace, strongly engaging the person so baptized to get acquainted with the new covenant, to adhere to it, and prepare to renew it at the table of the Lord and sincerely to regulate himself according to it, relying upon the truth and faithfulness of God for the blessings contained in it. And the doctrine of an inward baptism, that of the Spirit sprinkling the blood of Christ upon the soul, for justification, and the graces of the Spirit for sanctification. This ordinance of baptism is a foundation to be rightly laid, and daily remembered, but not repeated.

4/ The Christian laying on of hands is no longer that of the Old Testament Jew touching his sacrifice in order to make himself one with it (verse 2), but a renewing gesture used in Ordination and Confirmation so that the Holy Spirit and His many divine gifts would come upon that person. In the case of Confirmation, said gesture signifies full membership in the Church. Again, whether Ordination or Confirmation, this is done only once:

This passing from incomplete to complete church membership was performed by laying on of hands, which was extraordinary conveyance of the gift of the Holy Ghost continued. This, once done, all are obliged to abide by, and not to need another solemn admission, as at first, but to go on, and grow up, in Christ. Or by this may be meant ordination of persons to the ministerial office, who are duly qualified for it and inclined to it; and this by fasting and prayer, with laying on of the hands of the presbytery: and this is to be done but once.

5/ The resurrection of the dead (verse 2), meaning the eventual reunification of body and soul in the afterlife, whether rewarded or punished:

The resurrection of the dead, that is, of dead bodies; and their re-union with their souls, to be eternal companions together in weal or woe, according as their state was towards God when they died, and the course of life they led in this world.

This, as Paul’s testimony indicated during his trials at the end of the Book of Acts, was a belief that ran through the Old Testament and was held to by the Pharisees. Only the Sadducees disregarded it.

6/ Our final reward or punishment is for eternity (verse 2):

Eternal judgment, determining the soul of every one, when it leaves the body at death, and both soul and body at the last day, to their eternal state, every one to his proper society and employment to which they were entitled and fitted here on earth; the wicked to everlasting punishment, the righteous to life eternal.

I daresay we do not hear much about the last two principles, which is why it is important to read and study Scripture independently. Some might be able to find a (dreaded) ‘small group’ to do this, but such a group often requires subscribing to a hive-mind of thought, which might go against what the Bible teaches. This is why I advocate that people do it themselves with good commentaries on hand to illuminate and explain difficult truths.

Verse 3 is interesting. Is the author being self-referential or speaking of the audience? John MacArthur rightly asks us to consider both possibilities:

… interpreting verse 3 is very difficult, even though it’s very brief. Well, let’s just look at it from two angles. The power in verse 3, “And this will we do if God permits.” Now, some people say this refers to the writer of Hebrews. The idea is that the Spirit is saying one – possibly this, that the writer of Hebrews is saying, “I will go on and teach you what I want you to know if God permits Me.” The other interpretation is that He’s saying, “You will go on to maturity if God permits you.”

Now, since there’s no way to be sure which, let’s just take both. For whether you’re talking about salvation or service, it’s all energized by the Holy Spirit. And the writer can say, “I want to go on and say more about this if the Spirit wills, or if God permits, and I want you to come to Jesus Christ, all the way to maturity if God permits.”

You see, really everything revolves around the permission of God. Divine enablement is the issue in every case, and the writer acknowledges that.

In verses 4 through 6, the author gives the Hebrews — and us — another warning about apostasy. If we have heard the Gospel, experienced (‘tasted’) the holy gift that comes from hearing it and have shared in the Holy Spirit, then fall away, God will not restore us to the state where we want to repent.

That is very serious. We know from the Bible that all things are possible with God, yet, God will withdraw His infinite mercy if we persist against Him. This goes back to the discourse by the author of Hebrews about Psalm 95, namely verses 7 and 8:

Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

Henry explains that any ability to repent from apostasy must come from God — and that very rarely happens:

The great misery of apostates. [1.] It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. It is extremely hazardous. Very few instances can be given of those who have gone so far and fallen away, and yet ever have been brought to true repentance, such a repentance as is indeed a renovation of the soul. Some have thought this is the sin against the Holy Ghost, but without ground. The sin here mentioned is plainly apostasy both from the truth and the ways of Christ. God can renew them to repentance, but he seldom does it; and with men themselves it is impossible.

The author of Hebrews then makes a chilling statement: apostasy is akin to crucifying Christ all over again (verse 6). Our commentators differ somewhat on the meaning of ‘once again’ in that verse. It is ‘afresh’ in older translations. Henry takes it as figuratively re-committing the act, whereas MacArthur says:

… the word “afresh” is not best there. It’s really put in there because of a preposition that’s connected to the word “crucify,” but it means to crucify up, not afresh. And that simply means to lift up in crucifixion.

However, both men agree that the ultimate meaning is that those who fall away from Christianity, having experienced it, are denying Christ and are no different to those who shouted out for His death and those who crucified Him.

Of apostates, Henry says:

They declare that they approve of what the Jews did in crucifying Christ, and that they would be glad to do the same thing again if it were in their power. They pour the greatest contempt upon the Son of God, and therefore upon God himself, who expects all should reverence his Son, and honour him as they honour the Father. They do what in them lies to represent Christ and Christianity as a shameful thing, and would have him to be a public shame and reproach. This is the nature of apostasy.

MacArthur examines the issue from the perspective of the Hebrews who had converted but were backsliding or those who had heard the Good News but refused to commit to a belief in Christ as the Messiah. Both were spiritually dangerous places to be:

As far as they’re concerned, the Son of God deserves to be crucified. That’s what it’s all about.

In other words, here’s the point: they came all the way up to the edge of faith. They heard it all; they got all the revelation; they turned, went back to Judaism, which had been guilty of killing Jesus Christ. They took their stand with the crucifiers. They said, “That’s the same verdict that we give.”

And consequently, according to them, Jesus should be crucified. Do you see? They are declaring that they have made a trial of Jesus Christ with all the evidence possible and found Him no true Messiah, turned around, gone back to Judaism. Said, “Jesus is an imposter and deceiver, and He got exactly what was coming.” That’s what that means. They agree with those who killed Jesus, that He was a fake. And they put Him to an open guilt. The word “shame” means guilt. They declare openly that Jesus is guilty.

Now, you can imagine what would happen. Take a Jew that came all the way up here. His friends were persecuting him, really rapping him for this. He turns around, forsakes Christ, goes right back to Judaism. He has declared for all time and for everybody around, “With all the evidence in, friends, Jesus is a fake; I’m going back to Judaism.”

As for Christians in that same dire spiritual state, MacArthur says to those who might have been in his church:

If you come to this place tonight, and you hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and you turn your back on Christ, and you walk away, you have done exactly that. You have said, “I’ve heard the evidence. My verdict is the crowd that killed Him was right. I stand with the crucifiers.”

Jesus said, “A man is either for Me, or he’s” – what? – “against Me.” Salvation to that apostate then becomes impossible, for he rejects against full light, and that is incurable. And reserved for such a one is the hottest hell. Everything in this passage could be said of Judas, and his hell must be the hottest of all.

Hebrews 10:29, “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and counted the blood of the covenant, with which he was sanctified, an unholy thing?”

And that’s what an apostate does, comes all the way up and says, “It’s a lot of baloney. Jesus was a fake, and His blood isn’t holy,” turn around and walk back.

You say, “I’d never do that. I’m tolerant. I’ll just kind of stay on the edge for a while.” My friend, if you don’t come to Jesus Christ, eventually you’ll go away from Him. And when you go away from Him in full light, you step into the possibility of impossibility.

In verse 7, the author of Hebrews describes the state of spiritual maturity, as if one’s soul were a field of crops continually refreshed by blessed rain, growing and becoming fruitful in the Lord.

Then he describes the opposite state: the field that is filled with thorns and thistles, fit only for burning (verse 8).

Henry tells us:

God will concern himself no more about such wicked apostates; he will let them alone, and cast them out of his care; he will command the clouds that they rain no more upon them. Divine influences shall be restrained; and that is not all, but such ground is nigh unto cursing; so far is it from receiving the blessing, that a dreadful curse hangs over it, though as yet, through the patience of God, the curse is not fully executed. Lastly, Its end is to be burned. Apostasy will be punished with everlasting burnings, the fire that shall never be quenched. This is the sad end to which apostasy leads, and therefore Christians should go on and grow in grace, lest, if they do not go forward, they should go backward, till they bring matters to this woeful extremity of sin and misery.

MacArthur’s sermon ends with this:

You see, God’s grace falls, but some men bring forth fruit. Others bring forth thorns. I pray God that when the rain of the Gospel of Jesus Christ falls on you, that you’ll issue forth in herbs fit for use.

That, too, is my prayer for all of us.

The exhortation to active faith continues next week.

Next time — Hebrews 6:9-12