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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Hebrews 6

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-20

Chapter 6

THE NECESSITY OF PROGRESS (Hebrews 6:1-3)

6:1-3 So, then, let us leave elementary teaching about Christ behind us and let us be home onwards to full maturity; for we cannot go on laying the foundations all the time and teaching about repentance from dead works and giving information about washings, about the laying on of hands, about the resurrection from the dead and upon that sentence which lasts to all eternity. God willing, this very thing we will do.

The writer to the Hebrews was certain of the necessity of progress in the Christian life. No teacher would ever get anywhere if he had to lay the foundations all over again every time he began to teach. The writer to the Hebrews says that his people must be going on to what he calls teleiotes (Greek #5051). The King James Version translates this word perfection. But teleios (Greek #5046), the adjective, and its kindred words have a technical meaning. Pythagoras divided his students into hoi (Greek #3588) manthanontes (Greek #3129), the learners, and hoi (Greek #3588) teleioi (Greek #5046), the mature. Philo divided his students into three different classes--hoi (Greek #3588) archomenoi (Greek #756), those just beginning, hoi prokoptontes (Greek #4298), those making progress, and hoi (Greek #3588) teleiomenoi (Greek #5048), those beginning to reach maturity. Teleiotes (Greek #5047) does not imply complete knowledge but a certain maturity in the Christian faith.

The writer to the Hebrews means two things by this maturity: (i) He means something to do with the mind He means that as a man gets older he should more and more have thought things out for himself. He should, for instance, be able to say better who he believes Jesus to be. He should have a deeper grasp, not only of the facts, but also of the significances of the Christian faith. (ii) He means something to do with life. As a man grows older there should be more and more of the reflection of Christ upon him. All the time he should be ridding himself of old faults and achieving new virtues. Daily a new serenity and a new nobility should be breaking upon life. As the nameless poet has it:

"Let me grow lovely, growing old;

The many fine things too,

Laces and Ivory and Gold and Silks,

Need not be new.

And there is healing in old trees,

Old streets and glamour old,

Why may not I, as well as these,

Grow lovely, growing old?"

There can be no standing still in the Christian life. It is told that on his pocket Bible Cromwell had a motto written in Latin--qui cessat esse melior cessat esse bonus--he who ceases to be better ceases to be good.

This passage enables us to see what the Early Church regarded as basic Christianity.

(i) There is repentance from dead works. The Christian life begins with repentance; and repentance (metanoia, Greek #3341) is literally a change of mind. There is a new attitude to God, to men, to life, to self. It is a repentance from dead works. What does the writer to the Hebrews mean by this strange phrase? There are many things that he may mean, and each of them is relevant and suggestive. (a) Dead works may be deeds which bring death. They may be the immoral, selfish, godless, loveless, soiled actions which lead to death. (b) They may be defiling deeds. For a Jew to touch a dead body was the greatest defilement; to do so rendered him unclean and barred him from the worship of God until he was cleansed. Dead works may be those which defile a man and separate him from God. (c) They may be works which have no connection with character. For the Jew life was ritual; if he observed the proper ceremonies at the right time, he was a good man. But none of these things had any effect upon his character. It may be that the writer to the Hebrews means that the Christian has broken away from the meaningless rituals and conventions of life to give himself to the things which deepen his character and develop his soul.

(ii) There is faith which looks to God. The first essential in the Christian life is the godward look. The Christian determines his actions not by the verdict of men but by the verdict of God. He looks not to his own achievement for salvation but to the grace of God.

(iii) There is teaching about washings. This means that the Christian must realize what baptism really means. The first book of Christian instruction for those about to enter the Church and the first service order book is a little book called The Didache, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It was written about the year A.D. 100 and lays down the regulations for Christian Baptism. Now at this time infant baptism had not yet emerged. Men were coming straight from heathendom and baptism was reception into the Church and confession of faith. The Didachi, begins with six short chapters on the Christian faith and the Christian life. It begins by telling the candidate for baptism what he ought to believe and how he ought to live. Then in the seventh chapter it goes on:

"Concerning Baptism, baptize in this way. When you have instructed the candidate in all these things, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water. If you do not have running water, baptize in any other kind of water. If you cannot baptize in cold water, baptize in warm. If both of these are unobtainable, pour water three times upon the head of the candidate in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Before baptism, let him who is to baptize and him who is to be baptized fast, and let any others who can do so do the same. You must bid him who is to be baptized to fast for two or three days before the ceremony."

That is interesting. It shows that baptism in the early Church was, if possible, by total immersion. It shows that the person to be baptized was either immersed or affused with water three times, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It shows that baptism was instructed baptism, for the account of the Christian faith and life is to be rehearsed before the sacrament of baptism is carried out. It shows that the candidate for baptism had to prepare not only his mind but also his spirit, for he had to fast beforehand. In the early days no one slipped into the Church without knowing what he was doing. So the writer to the Hebrews says: "At your baptism you were instructed in the basis of the Christian faith. There is no need to go back to that. You must erect a fuller faith on the basis you have already laid down."

(iv) There is the laying on of hands. In Jewish practice the laying on of hands had three significances. (a) It was the sign of the transference of guilt. The sacrificer laid his hands upon the head of the victim to symbolize the fact that he transferred his guilt to the animal being offered. (b) It was the sign of the transference of blessing. When a father blessed his son he laid his hands on the son's head as a token of that blessing. (c) It was the sign of setting apart to some special office. A man was ordained to office by the laying on of hands.

In the early Church it always accompanied baptism and was the way in which the Holy Spirit was conveyed to the person newly baptized (Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6). This is not to be thought of in a material way. In those days the apostles were regarded with reverence because they had actually been the friends of Jesus on earth. It was a thrilling thing to be touched by a man who had actually touched the hand of Jesus. The effect of the laying on of hands depends not on the office of the man who lays on the hands but on his character and his nearness to Christ.

(v) There is the resurrection from the dead. Christianity from the beginning was a religion of immortality. It gave a man two worlds in which to live; it taught him that the best was yet to be and thereby made this world the training school for eternity.

(vi) There is the sentence which lasts to all eternity. Christianity was from the beginning a religion of judgment. No Christian was ever allowed to forget that in the end he must face God, and that what God thought of him was infinitely more important than what men thought of him.

CRUCIFYING CHRIST AGAIN (Hebrews 6:4-8)

6:4-8 For it is impossible to renew to repentance those who were once enlightened, those who tasted the free gift from heaven, those who were made sharers in the Holy Spirit, those who tasted the fair word of God and the powers of the age to come, and who then became apostates, for they are crucifying the Son of God again for themselves and are making a mocking show of him. For when the earth has drunk the rain that comes often times upon it and when it brings forth herbage useful to those who cultivate it, it receives a share of blessing from God; but if it produces thorns and thistles it is rejected and is in imminent danger of a curse, and its end is to be appointed for burning.

This is one of the most terrible passages in scripture. It begins with a kind of list of the privileges of the Christian life.

The Christian has been enlightened. This is a favourite New Testament idea. No doubt it goes back to the picture of Jesus as the Light of the World, the Light that enlightens every man who comes into the world (John 1:9; John 9:5). As Bilney, the martyr said, "When I heard the words, 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,' it was as if day suddenly broke in the midst of a dark night." The light of knowledge and joy and guidance breaks in upon a man with Christ. So entwined with this idea did Christianity become that enlightenment (photismos, Greek #5462) became a synonym for baptism, and to be enlightened (photizesthai, Greek #5461) became a synonym for to be baptized That is, in fact, the way many people have read this word here; and they have taken this passage to mean that there is no possibility of forgiveness for sins committed after baptism; and there have been times and places in the Church when baptism has been postponed to the moment of death in order to be safe. That idea we shall discuss later.

The Christian has tasted the free gift that comes from heaven. It is only in Christ that a man can be at peace with God. Forgiveness is not something he can ever win; it is a free gift. It is only when he comes to the Cross that his burden is rolled away. The Christian is a man who knows the immeasurable relief of experiencing the free gift of the forgiveness of God.

The Christian is a sharer in the Holy Spirit. He has in his life a new directive and a new power. He has discovered the presence of a power that can both tell him what to do and enable him to do it.

The Christian has tasted the fair word of God. That is another way of saying that he has discovered the truth. it is characteristic of men that instinctively they follow truth as blind men long for light; it is part of the penalty and the privilege of being a man that we can never rest content until we have learned the meaning of life. In God's word we find the truth and the meaning of life.

The Christian has tasted the powers of the world to come. Jew and Christian alike divided time into two ages. There was this present age (ho (Greek #3588) nun (Greek #3568) aion Greek #165), which was wholly bad; there was the age to come (ho (Greek #3588) mellon (Greek #3195) aion, Greek #165), which would be wholly good. Some day God would intervene; there would come the shattering destruction and the terrible judgment of the Day of the Lord and then this present age would end and the age to come would begin. But the Christian is a man who here and now is tasting the blessedness of the age which is God's. Even in time he has a foretaste of eternity.

"Heaven above is softer blue,

Earth around is sweeter green;

Something lives in every hue,

Christless eyes have never seen;

Birds with gladder songs o'erflow,

Flowers with deeper beauties shine,

Since I know, as now I know,

I am his, and he is mine."

So the writer to the Hebrews sets out the shining catalogue of Christian blessedness; and then at the end of it there comes like a sudden knell, who then became apostates.

What does he mean when he says that it is impossible that those who have become apostates can ever be renewed to repentance? Many thinkers have tried to find a way round this word impossible (adunaton, Greek #102). Esrasmus held that it was to be taken in the sense of difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Bengel held that what was impossible for man was possible for God, and that we must leave those who have fallen away to the mercy of God's singular love. But when we read this passage we must remember that--it was written in an age of persecution: and in any such age apostasy is the supreme sin. In any age of persecution a man can save his life by denying Christ; but every person who does so aims a body-blow at the Church, for it means that he has counted his life and comfort dearer to him than Jesus Christ.

This particular way of putting things has always emerged during and after persecutions. Two hundred years after this came the terrible persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. When peace came after the storm, the one test some wished to apply to every surviving member of the Church was: "Did you deny Christ and so save your life?" And if he had denied his Lord they would have shut the door on him once and for all. Kermit Eby tells of a French churchman who, when asked what he did during the French Revolution, whispered: "I survived."

This is the condemnation of the man who loved life more than he loved Christ. It was never meant to be erected into a doctrine that there is no forgiveness for post-baptismal sin. Who is any man to say that any other man is beyond the forgiveness of God? What it is meant to show is the terrible seriousness of choosing existence instead of loyalty to Christ.

The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say a tremendous thing. Those who fall away crucify Christ again. This is the point of the great Quo Vadis legend. It tells how in the Neronic persecution Peter was caught in Rome and his courage failed. Down the Appian Way he fled for his life. Suddenly there was a figure standing in his path. It was Jesus himself. "Domine," said Peter, "quo vadis? Lord, where are you going?" "I am going back to Rome to be crucified again, this time in your stead." And Peter, shamed into heroism, turned back to Rome and died a martyr's death.

Late in Roman history there was an Emperor who tried to put back the clock. Julian wished to destroy Christianity and bring back the old gods. His attempt ended in defeat. Ibsen makes him say: "Where is he now? Has he been at work elsewhere since that happened at Golgotha?... Where is he now? What if that, at Golgotha, near Jerusalem, was but a wayside matter, a thing done, as it were, in the passing? What if he goes on and on, suffers and dies and conquers again and again, from world to world?"

There is a certain truth there. At the back of the thought of the writer to the Hebrews there is a tremendous conception. He saw the Cross as an event which opened a window into the heart of God. He saw It as showing in a moment of time the suffering love which is for ever in that heart. The Cross said to men: "That is how I have always loved you and always will love you. This is what your sin does to me and always will do to me. This is the only way I can ever redeem you.

In God's heart there is always, so long as there is sin, this agony of suffering and redeeming love. Sin does not only break God's law; it breaks his heart. It is true that when we fall away, we crucify Christ again.

Further, the writer to the Hebrews says that when we fall away we make a mocking show of Christ. How is that? When we sin the world will say: "So that is all that Christianity is worth. So that is all this Christ can do. So that is all the Cross achieved." It is bad enough that when a Church member falls into sin he brings shame to himself and discredit on his Church; but what is worse is that he draws men's taunts and jeers on Christ.

We may note a final thing. It has been pointed out that in the letter to the Hebrews there are four impossible things. There is the impossibility of this passage. The other three are: (i) It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). (ii) It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). (iii) Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

THE BRIGHTER SIDE (Hebrews 6:9-12)

6:9-12 Beloved, even if we do speak like this, we are persuaded of better things for you, yes, things that are bound up with salvation. For God is not unjust to forget your work and the love that you displayed in that you have been and still are active in the service of God's dedicated people. We hope with all our hearts that each one of you will display the same zeal to make your hope come true and that you will go on doing so until the end, so that you may not become lazily lethargic but may copy those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

One thing stands out here. This is the only passage in the whole letter where the writer addresses his people as beloved. It is precisely after the sternest passage of all that he uses the address of love. It is as if he said to them: "If I did not love you so much I would not speak with such severity." Chrysostom paraphrases the thought this way: "It is better that I should scare you with words than that you should sorrow in deeds." He speaks the truth but, however stern it may be, he speaks it in love.

Further, his very form of speaking shows how individual his love is. "We hope," he says, "that each one of you will display the zeal that will make your hope come true." He is not thinking of them as a crowd but as individual men and women. Dr. Paul Tournier in A Doctor's Casebook has a paragraph on what he calls the personalism of the Bible. "God says to Moses, 'I know you by name' (Exodus 33:17). He says to Cyrus, 'It is I, the Lord, who call you by your name' (Isaiah 45:3). One is struck, on reading the Bible, by the importance in it of personal names. Whole chapters are devoted to long genealogies. When I was young I used to think that they could well have been dropped from the Biblical Canon. But I have since realized that these series of proper names bear witness to the fact that, in the biblical perspective, man is neither a thing nor an abstraction, not a fraction of the mass, as the Marxists see him, but a person." When the writer to the Hebrews wrote with sternness he was not rebuking a Church; he was yearning over individual men and women, as God himself does.

There are two interesting things implicit in this passage.

(i) We learn that even if these people to whom he is writing have failed to grow up in Christian faith and knowledge and even if they have been falling away from their first enthusiasm, they have never given up their practical service to their fellow Christians. There is a great practical truth here. Sometimes in the Christian life we come to times which are arid; the Church services have nothing to say to us, the teaching that we do in Sunday school or the singing that we do in the choir or the service we give on a committee becomes a labour without joy. At such a time there are two alternatives. We can give up our worship and our service, but if we do, we are lost. Or we can go determinedly on with them, and the strange thing is that the light and the romance and the joy will in time come back again. In the and times, the best thing to do is to go on with the habits of the Christian life and of the Church. If we do, we can be sure that the sun will shine again.

(ii) He tells his people to be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherited the promise. What he is saying to them is: "You are not the first to launch out on the glories and the perils of the Christian faith. Others braved the dangers and endured the tribulations before you and won through." He is telling them to go on in the realization that others have gone through their struggle and won the victory. The Christian is not treading an untrodden pathway; he is treading where the saints have trod.

THE SURE HOPE (Hebrews 6:13-20)

6:13-20 When God made his promise to Abraham, since he was not able to swear by anyone greater, he swore by himself. "Certainly," he said, "I will bless you and I will multiply you." When Abraham had thus exercised patience he received the promise. Men swear by someone who is greater than themselves; and an oath serves for a guarantee beyond all possibility of contradiction. But on this occasion God, in his quite exceptional desire to make clear to the heirs of the promise the unalterable character of his intention, interposed with an oath, so that by two unalterable things, in which it is impossible that God should lie, we, who have fled to him for refuge, might be strongly encouraged to lay hold upon the hope that is set before us. This hope is to us like an anchor, safe and sure, and it enters with us into the inner court beyond the veil, where Jesus has already entered as a forerunner for us, when he became a High Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.

God made more than one promise to Abraham. Genesis 12:7 tells us of the one made when he called him out of Ur and sent him into the unknown and to the promised land. Genesis 17:5-6 is the promise of many descendants who would be blessed in him. Genesis 18:18 is a repetition of that promise. But the promise which God swore with an oath to keep comes in Genesis 22:16-18. The real meaning of this first sentence is: "God made many a promise to Abraham, and in the end he actually made one which he confirmed with an oath." That promise was, as it were, doubly binding. It was God's word which in itself made it sure, but in addition it was confirmed by an oath. Now that promise was that all Abraham's descendants would be blessed; therefore it was to the Christian Church, for it was the true Israel and the true seed of Abraham. That blessing came true in Jesus Christ. Abraham certainly had to exercise patience before he received the promise. It was not till twenty-five years after he had left Ur that his son Isaac was born. He was old; Sarah was barren, the wandering was long; but Abraham never wavered from his hope and trust in the promise of God.

In the ancient world the anchor was the symbol of hope. Epictetus says: "A ship should never depend on one anchor or a life on one hope." Pythagoras said: "Wealth is a weak anchor; fame is still weaker. What then are the anchors which are strong? Wisdom, great-heartedness, courage--these are the anchors which no storm can shake." The writer to the Hebrews insists that the Christian possesses the greatest hope in the world.

That hope, he says, is one which enters into the inner court beyond the veil. In the Temple the most sacred of all places was the Holy of Holies. The veil was what covered it. Within the Holy of Holies there was held to abide the very presence of God. Into that place only one man in all the world could go, and he was the High Priest; and even he might enter that Holy Place on only one day of the year, the Day of Atonement.

Even then, it was laid down, he must not linger in it for it was a dangerous and a terrible thing to enter into the presence of the living God. What the writer to the Hebrews says is this: "Under the old Jewish religion no one might enter into the presence of God but the High Priest and he only on one day of the year; but now Jesus Christ has opened the way for every man at every time."

The writer to the Hebrews uses a most illuminating word about Jesus. He says that he entered the presence of God as our forerunner. The word is prodromos (Greek #4274). It has three stages of meaning: (i) It means one who rushes on. (ii) It means a pioneer. (iii) It means a scout who goes ahead to see that it is safe for the body of the troops to follow. Jesus went into the presence of God to make it safe for all men to follow.

Let us put it very simply in another way. Before Jesus came, God was the distant stranger whom only a very few might approach and that at peril of their lives. But because of what Jesus was and did, God has become the friend of every man. Once men thought of him as barring the door; now they think of the door to his presence as thrown wide open to all.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 6:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/hebrews-6.html. 1956-1959.


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Tuesday, July 25th, 2017
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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