Sin entered the world through Adam. We are all affected by sin, because we are all in Adam. We are all sinful by nature: it’s effectively an inherited trait. Sin brings death, both physical death and spiritual death. Death is not annihilation but separation – in our natural state we are dead to God – we are separated from him. Because God is by nature love, mercy and kindness, he sent Christ Jesus into this world to save sinners.
Sin demands a ransom price which we are unable to pay, but Jesus paid that price on the cross and conquered both physical and spiritual death. Just as we are in Adam through our natural birth we can be in Christ through a spiritual birth. How? This comes simply by two processes: hearing and believing. We hear the message of Jesus, that he died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day and we believe in him to receive forgiveness and eternal life. Having believed, God puts his mark of ownership on us: we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. This seal of the Holy Spirit is a guarantee that the promises of final rescue will be fully realised, it is like a deposit or down payment. The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Ephesus: ‘13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1: 13-14).’ Note the sequence, hear, believe sealed. You will note in all of this, we cannot earn or buy rescue from our inherited sin nature. We simply hear and believe. This is the gospel: good news indeed!
There is a simple test that one can apply to erroneous views of the gospel. Does the gospel on offer require us to be good in order to merit it? All false presentations of God mandate ‘good works’ in order to be acceptable to God. This can sometimes come in various subtle forms: some say something like this, ‘yes, when you believe you are forgiven, but if you sin you can lose it all.’ The bible does not teach this: how can one who is born spiritually be un-born? There are even more subtle variations on this good-works-gospel. Some say that if you sin big time, you were probably not a true believer in the first place. All these good-works-gospels miss the entire point. We are saved from sin by what God has done and by faith plus nothing.
Now we come to Hebrews 6! Many Christians find this chapter difficult as they fear that it contradicts the security that we enter into when we put our faith in Jesus - they believe that Hebrews 6 could mean that if we don’t do good works we will lose our salvation. The solution to their dilemma is not so difficult to find.
- Milk to meat
At the end of chapter 5, the writer indicates that the Hebrews had lacked effort in trying to understand, they were on milk rather than solid food. Solid food was for those ‘who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5: 14).’ This theme continues into chapter 6 as the writer encourages the Hebrews to ‘move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ (verse 1).’ It seems most likely that what the writer is getting at, is a tendency for the Hebrews to return to the Old Covenant rather than fully embracing the New Covenant. An old saying attributed to John Bunyan captures the Old to New Covenant difference: ‘Run, John, run, the law commands, but gives us neither feet nor hands, far better news the gospel brings: it bids us fly and gives us wings.’ The Hebrews were in danger of falling back to a reliance on the law rather than the grace of the New Covenant. It seems to me that the issue was one of collective failure. The Hebrews as a group were in danger of falling back into the old structures and procedures demanded of the law.
The first thing the Hebrews ought to do is to move on from re-laying the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death. When John the Baptist came to preach his message was one of repentance: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3:2).’ Likewise, Jesus’ message was ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17).’ There is no record in history of Israel coming to repentance since the message of John and Jesus was preached. It seems most likely that the intended Hebrew recipients of this letter would be those who were party to a national repentance. The national repentance spoken of was future at the time of writing and remains in the future to this day. This national repentance is described in Zechariah 12 and the apostle Paul indicates that a day would come when Israel would turn back from their hardness and disobedience. Thus, chapter 6 (and the entire letter) seems to be written to Hebrews who are part of a future repentance. These Hebrews would be in danger of going backwards in their faith by repenting again and going back to Old Covenant rituals. The Hebrews need not return to repentance, and faith in God – this they had already done. Neither need they return to the rituals of cleansing rites and ‘laying on of hands.’ In the tabernacle and temple arrangements there was a bronze basin which was specifically for the priests to wash hands and feet before presenting offerings. There was no need to return to these procedures under the New Covenant. Failure to wash before approaching the alter could result in death – the writer urges the Hebrews to move on from this fear of eternal judgment. Why? Because under the terms of the New Covenant the ransom price is already paid, salvation is already secured, eternal judgment is no longer a concern. The prospect of resurrection to judgment was no longer of concern, under the New Covenant there is no condemnation. It was time for the Hebrews to stop looking back and to move on!
- The warning
The writer now describes the progress the Hebrews had made. They had been enlightened, they had tasted the heavenly gift, they had shared in the Holy Spirit and they had tasted the goodness of the Word of God as well as the powers of the coming age. There is no doubt that part of this experience relates to the day of Pentecost. At that time, Hebrew believers experienced remarkable events. They experience the coming of the Holy Spirit and the reversal of the language barrier. Moreover, they experienced a remarkable series of miraculous events: ‘5 As a result, people brought those who were ill into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were ill and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed (Acts 5:15-16).’ In my years as a Christian, I have met many, many Christians who have tried to replicate these events in the church, not once have I observed anything that comes close to the events recorded in the first chapters of the book of Acts. One theologian has wisely noted ‘The day of Pentecost has never been precisely duplicated, and all attempts to do so have resulted in nothing but spiritual disappointment and often disaster (Alva McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, chapter 34).’ As an aside this raises an important question. If such events no longer take place, should this be taken as an indicator of spiritual weakness in the church? A survey of such events in bible history, reveals with some clarity that such events are primarily associated with God’s dealings with Israel and are related to the coming kingdom at which time the Messiah will rule the nations from the throne of David. That kingdom was offered to Israel and at the time it was offered glimpses of the conditions it would bring to the earth were given. Despite this, Israel rejected the kingdom. But back to Hebrews, it seems that verse 4 and subsequent verses clearly indicate that the Hebrews had repented and as a result had experienced not only the indwelling Holy Spirit but tastes of the powers of the coming age. Given this, how could they as a group of God’s people fall back into their old ways without consequences?
In past generations, failure to repent and accept God’s leading resulted in 40 years in the wilderness, 70 years of captivity in Babylon and the present wilderness time for Israel in which they remain in a state of unbelief despite the horrors of the concentration camps and those nations around them who want nothing less than their annihilation. Just a couple of months ago (Dec 2019) Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Deputy Commander for Cultural and Social Affairs, said that the “Islamic revolution in Iran will not back down” from the goal of “wiping out” the Jewish state. In God’s good timing, as the prophet Zechariah has said, Israel will repent and become ready for the coming of the Messiah. The issue being addressed here is how having come so far could they go back without consequences: ‘4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.’ This speaks to the real possibility of another judgment on the generation that could turn their backs on God. The writer goes on to say that a reversal at this stage would be as though they were returning to crucify Christ all over again!
The writer now uses two agricultural pictures to describe the choice that faced the Hebrews. They could be like land that absorbs life-giving rain and thereby produces as useful crop or they could be like land that produces nothing but thorns and thistles, land that is heading for a curse and burning by fire.
Having set out this rather stark warning, the writer offers some encouragement. He is convinced of better things from these Hebrews! Interestingly he encourages them to show diligence to the very end. The very end of what? It seems that this is the end of their time of testing and tribulation when their perseverance would be rewarded with the coming of the Messiah in power and glory. The injunction was that that they should not become lazy. Laziness leads to believers who can only take milk!
There is surely a lesson for us at the end of the church age too. My impression is that the church has become largely made up of lazy believers. We go to church when it suits us, we try to get by on the minimum of effort. I once observed a married couple in which the man expected the woman to do all of the work and he just sat and expected to be waited upon. It was not an attractive thing to observe. Neither is it attractive for Christians to be half hearted, lukewarm and lazy – we have a saviour who died for us!
- God’s promise is certain
For the Hebrews there yet remains a day of national repentance and a day of severe testing, if they are to remain strong until the coming of the Messiah, they need a warning for sure, but they need encouragement too! The writer reminds them of their founding father Abraham. God’s dealings with the Hebrews are founded on his promises to Abraham. It was after Abraham confirmed his faith in God when he was willing to sacrifice his only son that God uttered these remarkable words: ‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ The message is that God himself would provide a substitute in Jesus to replace the first Adam, it would be through this offspring of Abraham’s line that this would be accomplished. The promise not only looks forward to the cross, but it looks forward to a day when the nations would be blessed through Israel. It looks to the day of Israel’s rest, when they are in the land, when the Messiah is reigning over the whole earth from Jerusalem. This was a promise confirmed by an oath. God’s promise is thus absolutely certain. It is through these two unchanging things (the promise and the oath) that the Hebrews could derive certainty: ‘18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged.’ No matter how tough things would get for the Hebrews, they could rely on the promises of God! This hope is like an anchor, it is ‘firm and secure.’ It will not fail, it will not crumble.
The promises to the Hebrews of future rest are certain, and remain certain. The picture of the anchor is connected with the day of atonement in which the High Priest would enter the most holy place to accomplish atonement for the sin of the people. Jesus has now accomplished this once and for all, he is an eternal high priest. As the Hebrews were invited to contemplate God’s promises and his provision they would have been greatly encouraged, and so should we.