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Let us be very clear as to this. The urge of the Spirit here is not to leave earlier Christian experiences and go on to a deeper work of grace, as some put it. Neither is it to cease from being occupied with the elementary truths of Christianity and go on to deeper things. It is a call to leave the typical for the actual; the shadow for the substance; the partial revelation of Judaism (using this word in its very best sense) for the full unfolding of the truth of the new dispensation. Judaism is called “the word of the beginning of Christ,” as in the marginal reading of the first part of ver. 1. This of course includes the entire Mosaic revelation, the teaching of the prophets, and the ministry of John the Baptist. “The law and the prophets were until John, but now the kingdom of God is come and every man presseth into it.” In six items the Spirit of God epitomizes these preliminary principles whereby the godly in Israel were prepared for the coming of the Christ. These are:
1. Repentance from dead works.
2. Faith toward God.
3. The doctrine of baptisms; or, literally, a teaching concerning ceremonial washings.
4. The laying on of hands (in connection with the sacrificial offerings).
5. Resurrection of the dead.
6. Eternal judgment.
Here then we have all that was basic in the former dispensation.
Throughout the Old Testament and in the ministry of John the Baptist, the people were called to repentance from dead works and urged to put their faith in God, the God of Israel. Through the ceremonial baptisms or washings of the law (as in Hebrews 9:10; Hebrews 9:13) the people were taught the need of cleansing, in order that they might have fellowship with God, a cleansing which was from physical defilement alone, “the putting away of the filth of the flesh,” as Peter puts it. The laying on of hands has no reference whatever either to the laying on of the apostles’ hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit as in Acts, or to ordination to the Christian ministry, as many have supposed. There is no doctrine of the laying on of hands to be found anywhere in the New Testament. Practice and doctrine are not the same thing. But under the Levitical economy when the offerer laid his hands upon the head of the sacrifice which was presented to God on his behalf, he was picturing a tremendous truth upon which this Epistle strongly insists. It was the identification of the offerer with the victim, and practically involved the transference of the offerer’s sins to the offering which was put to death in the stead of the sinner. Resurrection of the dead is a cardinal Old Testament doctrine, denied indeed by worldly-minded Sadducees, but insisted upon by the Pharisees, and recognized by the apostle Paul as eminently scriptural, when he declared himself in this respect still a Pharisee after he had been converted to Christ for many years. Eternal judgment, too, is part of the former revelation. “God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Now let us note the contrast between these six items and the outstanding truths of Christianity. In the later revelation we have:
1. Repentance toward God (Acts 20:21).
2. Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21).
3. The cleansing of the conscience from dead works to serve the living and true God by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.
4. The one offering of our Lord Jesus Christ which which every believer is fully identified.
5. The out-resurrection from among the dead (Philippians 3:11, Gk.).
6. No judgment for the believer in Christ.
Note how vividly the contrast is developed in the New Testament.
The believer not only repents from dead works, but there is a complete change of attitude toward God. Faith is now in the Lord Jesus Christ definitely set forth as the sinner’s only Saviour. No outward cleansing will suffice; no washings with literal water or sprinkling of the blood of animal sacrifices, but cleansing from every sin by the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ and the washing of water by the Word applied in the Spirit’s power. In place of the laying on of hands upon oft-repeated sacrifices, the believer can now say in the words of the well-known hymn:
“My faith would lay her hand
On that blest head of Thine;
While like a penitent I stand,
And there confess my sin.
“My soul looks back to see
The burden Thou didst bear,
When hanging on th’ accursèd tree,
And knows her guilt was there.”
Then we have today the blessed unfolding of the truth that there are two resurrections; not as some put it, a general resurrection of the dead at the last day, but the resurrection from among the dead at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for all His own. And as to judgment we now know, or at least we should know, that the believer shall not come into judgment but has already passed out of death into life. It is, then, to this full unfolding of New Testament truth that these Hebrew believers are called to “go on.” This is Christianity, and Christianity is here designated as “perfection,” distinguishing it from the imperfect or partial revelation of former days.
This, then, clears the way for the perplexing passage in Hebrews 6:4-8. There were many Hebrews who in the beginning professed to acknowledge the Messiahship of Jesus and were eye-witnesses of the marvelous things that took place at Pentecost and afterwards. But as the Lord did not return and the promised Kingdom was not immediately established, it was easy to understand how many of these, if lacking personal faith in Christ as Saviour, would eventually give up the Messianic confession and go back to Judaism which they knew to be a divinely revealed religion. This was a very serious thing, and yet it was something to which all these Hebrews would be exposed if they did not make a clean break with Judaism and go on to the perfection of Christianity. As to those who had already apostatized, it was too late to help them. They had made their choice and acted accordingly; and having experienced so much that was new and wonderful and then turned away from it all, they would be the hardest people on earth to change again. It is impossible, we are told, to renew again to repentance those once enlightened. It is important to notice that the word “renew” does not imply, as J. N. Darby has pointed out, a renewal or change, but to make what is entirely new. This could never be true again of those who had given up their Christian profession. It is not a definite statement that there is no possible hope for the recovery of such, but it is a declaration that they could never now come into all the blessing of Christianity as a new thing. They had already tried it out, they would tell you, and had deliberately given it up. Such must be left with God, whereas those who really valued the truth were urged to press on to fuller knowledge.
Some object to the thought that anyone could go as far as these apostates had gone without being regenerated, but Hebrews 6:9 is proof positive that such is the case. Notice the five things that are stated of these who had turned back:
1. They had been at one time enlightened as to the claims of Jesus the Messiah.
2. They had tasted the sweetness of the heavenly gift, but this does not in itself imply that they had eaten of the Living Bread.
3. They were made partakers of Holy Spirit. The definite article is purposely omitted in the original. It was not that the Holy Spirit as a divine Person had ever indwelt them, but they had participated in the blessing that the Spirit had given.
4. They had tasted the good Word of God, having listened to the good news of the gospel and to a certain extent appreciated the message that it brought.
5. They had been eye-witnesses of the works of power of the coming age, as were all who beheld the mighty miracles wrought by our Lord and His apostles.
Now as we consider each one of these items separately it will, I think, become clearly manifest that all might be true of persons who had never experienced the regenerating grace of the Spirit of God.
Everyone who listens to the message of the new dispensation is thereby enlightened, for “the darkness is passing and true Light now shineth,” and that Light illuminates all who come under its gracious influence. But, alas, men may refuse the Light and, by turning away from it, go back into darkness. How many there are who have been deeply stirred as they heard of the Gift of God’s Son from Heaven and yet have never, like the Samaritan woman, judged themselves in the presence of the Lord and truly eaten this Sacred Food. To be a “partaker of Holy Spirit” is not at all the same thing as to be born of the Spirit, sealed by the Spirit, indwelt by the Spirit, anointed by the Spirit, baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ, or filled with the Holy Spirit. It is simply to be made aware of the mighty power of the Spirit working upon the hearts and minds of men bringing conviction, and wooing the heart toward Christ. One might tremble under this supernatural power and yet turn away from the message of the Spirit which if truly believed would bring life and peace. Many, too, who have listened eagerly to the Gospel, the good Word of God, and have recognized to a certain extent the preciousness of the message, have failed to eat the Word. Jesus did not say, “He that tasteth of Me shall live by Me,” but, “He that eateth Me shall live by Me.” It is a definite act of faith which becomes a habit of life. Then it is important to notice that the powers of the coming age (not the world to come, merely) are the works that will characterize the return of our Lord and the millennial kingdom; in other words, miracles which were given as a sign to the Jews in order to authenticate the ministry of our Lord and His apostles. We read in John of many who believed on Him when they saw the signs that He did, yet who went back and walked no more with Him. And so it seems clear that these apostates were persons who had an outward acquaintance with Christianity but never knew what it was to receive the Lord Jesus as their own personal Saviour. Definitely authenticated by works of power as He was, they still turned away from Him, and in so doing crucified for themselves the Son of God afresh, making a show of Him. This would be true of all who turned back from Christianity to Judaism.
In the two verses that follow, the apostle uses a parable to make clear what is in his mind. He depicts two pieces of ground; both have been cultivated in the same way; both are warmed by the same sun; both drink in their share of the same rain; but one produces useful herbs for those for whose sakes it has been tilled, thus partaking of blessing from God. The other brings forth only the fruit of the curse, thorns and briars; it is worthless, and in danger of being completely give up when its good-for-nothing fruit is burned. What is the difference between these two pieces of ground? In the one case, you have good soil into which has fallen good seed. In the other, there is barren soil and the good seed has not fructified. The lesson is plain. Here are two Jews, let us say, who have been brought up side by side. Both have been interested in the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. Both have entertained the Messianic hope. Both have listened to the preaching of devoted servants of Christ. Both have become deeply interested in the Gospel. Both have been astounded at the mighty signs following the proclamation of the new message. Both make a profession of Christianity. Both are baptized and take their places in the Christian company. One of them bears the fruit of the Spirit in his life and becomes a devoted follower of the Saviour. The other manifests no evidence of new life at all, and eventually repudiates Christianity and goes back to Judaism. He is not actually cursed as yet, for in the mercy of God he may eventually realize his fearful sin, but it is most unlikely. He has made his choice, and is therefore nigh unto cursing. Now what is the difference between these two men? The one has truly turned to God in repentance, and the incorruptible seed of the Gospel has fallen into the prepared soil of an honest upright heart. The other has become intellectually acquainted with and interested in Christianity, but the good seed has fallen upon an unrepentant heart and has borne no fruit.
That we have not been mistaken in applying the passage in this way is definitely settled by the statement of Hebrews 6:9. The apostle says, “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” They needed the warning and the urge to go on, but he was assured that those to whom he was addressing himself were truly saved people. If he saw in them better things than he had already referred to in Hebrews 6:4-5, it is evident that one might have the experience of the privileges there enumerated and not have salvation.
The proof of their reality was seen in their faithful service and love to fellow-saints leading to self-denying ministry. This gracious spirit he desires them to show to the end in the full assurance of hope, not giving way to slothfulness, but imitating those in past ages who, through faith and patience, became inheritors of the promise. He instances the case of their father Abraham to whom God sware by Himself, “Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee,” but to whom the promise was fulfilled only after long waiting. The word and oath of God were all that Abraham had for many years, but he held on in faith because he knew that God could not be untrue to His promise. And so we too have strong encouragement to press on counting upon God-we who, like the man-slayer of old, have fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before us; that is, the hope of final and eternal salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. This hope is to us the soul’s anchor, not cast into the hold of the ship, that is, dependent upon our own frames and experiences, nor resting upon the shifting sands of human systems of thought; but fastened to the propitiatory, the mercy-seat, inside the veil. This anchor has been carried in by Jesus our Forerunner. So that though we be here on earth tossed about upon the sea of time, “our anchor holds within the veil.” It has been pointed out by others that the word translated “forerunner” was a nautical term used to designate a small boat. The mouths of many of the Greek harbors were not passable at low tide by ships of heavy draught on account of the sand bars, and so it was customary to place the anchor in the forerunner and, rowing over the bar, to cast it in the harbor, thus securing the ship until the tide should rise. The figure is readily applied to the soul’s relation to our ascended Lord, who now ministers in the Holiest on our behalf, a High Priest according to the order of Melchisedec. He has entered into the very presence of God as our Representative, and His presence there is the pledge that we shall soon follow.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Hebrews 6". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30