Thursday, June 1st, 2023
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible Kelly Commentary
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Kelly, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 1". Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ wkc/ hebrews-1.html. 1860-1890.
Kelly, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 1". Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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The epistle to the Hebrews differs in some important respects from all those which have been before us; so much so that many have questioned whether it be the writing of the apostle Paul, of Apollos, of Barnabas, etc. Of this my mind has no doubt. I believe that Paul, and no other, was the author, and that it bears the strongest intrinsic traits of his doctrine. The style is different, and so is the manner of handling the truth; but the line of truth, though it be affected by the object that he had in view, is that which savours of Paul beyond all: not of Peter, or John, or James, or Jude, but of Paul alone.
One good and plain reason which has graven a difference of character on the epistle is the fact, that it goes outside his allotted province. Paul was the apostle of the uncircumcision. If writing for the instruction of Jews, as here he clearly was, to believers or Christians that had once been of that nation, he was evidently outside the ordinary function of his apostolic work.
There is another reason also why the epistle to the Hebrews diverges very sensibly and materially from the rest of the writings of St. Paul, that it is not, strictly speaking, an exercise of apostleship at all, but of the writer (apostle though he were) as a teacher, and here a teacher clearly not of Gentiles, as he says elsewhere, but of Jews. Now it is plain, if he that was an apostle and preacher and teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth was led by the Holy Spirit to address the saints that were of the old Jewish fold, there must have been a marked departure from his usual methods in the manner of using and presenting the truth of God to these. But we have this blessed result of his acting outside his own ordinary sphere, that it is the finest and indeed the only specimen of teaching properly so called in the New Testament. It is not a revelation given by prophetic or apostolic authority; and for this reason, I presume, he does not introduce himself at all. It is always a failure when the teacher as such is prominent. The point for such an one is, that the reaching (not himself) should arrest and instruct. But in revealing truth the person whom God employs in that work is naturally brought before those addressed; and hence the apostle took particular care, even if he did not write an epistle, to put his name to it, introducing himself at the beginning through the amanuensis that he employed, and with scrupulous care adding his own name at the end of each epistle.
In writing to the Hebrew believers it is not so. Here the apostle is what indeed he was. Besides being apostle of the uncircumcision, he was a teacher; and God took care that, although expressly said to be a teacher of Gentiles, his should be the word to teach the Christian Jews too; and, in fact, we may be assured that he taught them as they never were taught before. He opened the scriptures as none but Paul could, according to the gospel of the glory of Christ. He taught them the value of the living oracles that God had given them; for this is the beautiful characteristic here. Indeed the epistle to the Hebrews stands unique. By it the believing Jew was led into a divine application of that which was in the Old Testament that which they had habitually read in the law, Psalms, and prophets, from their cradle we may say, but which they had never seen in such a light before. That mighty, logical, penetrating, richly-stored mind! that heart with such affections large and deep, as scarce ever were concentred in another bosom! that soul of experience wonderfully varied and profound! he was the one whom God was now leading in a somewhat unwonted path, no doubt, but in a path which, when once taken, at once approves itself by divine wisdom to every heart purified by faith.
For if Peter, as is known, were the apostle of the circumcision pre-eminently, it was through him that God first of all opened the door of the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles; and if the apostle Paul, with the concurrence of the heads of the work among the circumcision, had gone to the Gentiles, none the less did the Spirit of God (it may be without asking those who seemed to be somewhat at Jerusalem) employ Paul to write to the believers of the circumcision the most consummate treatise on the bearing of Christ and Christianity upon the law and the prophets, and as practically dealing with their wants, dangers, and blessing. Thus did God most carefully guard in every form from the technical drawing of lines of rigid demarcation to which even Christians are so prone, the love of settling things in precise routine, the desire that each should have his own place, not only as the proper sphere of his work, but to the exclusion of every other. With admirable wisdom indeed the Lord directs the work and the workmen, but never exclusively; and the apostle Paul is here, as just shown, the proof of it on one side as Peter is on the other.
What is the consequence under the blessed guidance of the Spirit? As the great teacher of the believers from among the Jews, we have, after all, not Paul, but through him God Himself left to address His own, in the words, facts, ceremonies, offices, persons so long familiar to the chosen people. Paul does not appear. This could hardly have been by any other arrangement, at any rate not so naturally. "God," says he, "having in many measures and in many manners spoken in time past to the fathers in the prophets, at the last of these days spoke to us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds." Paul, would show them thus the infinite dignity of the Messiah whom they had received. Never would Paul weaken the personal rights or the official place of the Anointed of Jehovah. Contrariwise, he would lead them on to find what they had never yet seen in their Messiah, and, wonderful to say, he founds his proofs, not on new revelations, but on those very words of God which they had read so superficially, the depths of which they had never approached, nor had they so much as suspected. The facts of Christianity they knew; the linking of all scripture with Christ's person, and work, and glory they had yet to discover.
But mark the manner of the writer. He is careful to establish the thread of connection with God's word and ways of old; and yet there is not a single epistle which more elaborately throughout its entire course sets the believer in present relationship to Christ in heaven; I think one might be bold to say, none so much. From the very starting-point we see Christ, not merely dead and risen, but glorified in heaven. There is no doubt that the writer meant his readers to hold fast, that He who suffered all things on earth is the same Jesus who is now at the right hand of God; but the first place in which we hear of Him is as Son of God on high according toHebrews 1:1-14; Hebrews 1:1-14, and there it is we see Him as Son of man according toHebrews 2:1-18; Hebrews 2:1-18. It was there, in fact, that Paul had himself first seen the Lord. Who then was so suitable to introduce Jesus, the rejected Messiah, at the right hand of God, as Saul of Tarsus? On the way to Damascus that staunchest of Jews had his eyes first opened blinded naturally, but enabled by grace so much the more to see by the power of the Holy Spirit the glorified Christ,
It is to Christ in heaven, then, that Paul, writing to the Christian Jews, first directs their attention. But he does it in a manner which shows the singularly delicate tact given him. True affection is prudent for its object when peril is nigh, and delights to help effectively, instead of being indifferent whether the way of it wounds those whose good is sought. In no way are the former messages of God forgotten in the days of their fathers. Nor would one gather from this epistle that its writer laboured among the Gentiles, nor even that there was a calling of Gentile believers in the Lord Jesus. The epistle to the Hebrews never speaks of either. We can understand, therefore, how active-minded men, who occupied themselves with the surface the method, the style, the unusual absence of the writer's name, and other peculiarities in the phenomena of this epistle, too readily hesitated to attribute it to Paul. They might not attach much moment to the general tradition which ascribed it to him. But they ought to have looked more steadily into its depths, and the motives for obvious points of difference, even were it written by Paul.
Granted that there is a striking absence of allusion to the one body here. But there was one nearer and dearer to Paul than even the church. There was one truth that Paul laboured yet more to hold up than that one body, wherein is neither Jew nor Greek the glory of Him who is the head of it. Christ Himself was what made the assembly of God precious to him. Christ Himself was infinitely more precious than even the church which He had loved so well, and for which He gave Himself. Of Christ, then, he would deliver his last message to his brethren after the flesh as well as Spirit; and as he began preaching in the synagogues that He is the Son of God, (Acts 9:1-43) so here he begins his epistle to the Hebrews. He would lead them on, and this with gentle but firm and witting hand. He would deepen their knowledge lovingly and wisely. He would not share their unbelief, their love of ease, their value for outward show, their dread of suffering; but he would reserve each folly for the most fitting moment. He would lay a vigorous hand on that which threatened their departure from the faith, but he would smooth lightly lesser difficulties out of their way. But when he gained their ear, and they were enabled to see the bright lights and perfections of the great High Priest, there is no warning more energetic than this epistle affords against the imminent and remediless danger of those who abandon Christ, whether for religious form, or to indulge in sin. All is carried on in the full power of the Spirit of God, but with the nicest consideration of Jewish prejudices, and the most scrupulous care to bring every warrant for his doctrine from their own ancient yet little understood testimonies.
It is evident, however, even from the opening of the epistle, that though he does not slight but uphold the Old Testament scriptures, yet he will not let the Jews pervert them to dishonour the Lord Jesus. How had God spoken to the fathers? In many measures and in many manners. So had He spoken in the prophets. It was fragmentary and various, not a full and final manifestation of Himself. Mark the skill! He thereby cuts off, by the unquestionable facts of the Old Testament, that overweening self-complacency of the Jew, which would set Moses and Elias against hearing the Son of God. Had God spoken to the fathers, in the prophets? Unquestionably. Paul, who loved Israel and estimated their privileges more highly than themselves, (Romans 9:1-33) was the last man to deny or enfeeble it. But how had God spoken then? Had He formerly brought out the fulness of His mind? Not so. The early communications were but refracted rays, not the light unbroken and complete. Who could deny that such was the character of all the Old Testament? Yet so cautiously does he insinuate the obviously and necessarily practical character of that which was revealed of old, that at a first reading, nay, however often read perfunctorily, they might have no more perceived it than, I suppose, most of us must confess as to ourselves. But there it is; and when we begin to prove the divine certainty of every word, we weigh and weigh again its value.
As then it is pointed out that there were formerly many portions, so also were there many modes in the prophetic communications of God. This was, beyond doubt, the way in which His revelations had been gradually vouchsafed to His people. But for this very reason, it was not complete. God was giving piecemeal His various words, "here a little, and there a little." Such was the character of His ways with Israel. They could not man could not hear more till redemption was accomplished, after the Son of God Himself was come, and His glory fully revealed. Now when promises were given to the fathers, they did not go beyond the earthly glory of Christ; but known to Him were all things from the beginning, yet He did not outrun the course of His dealings with His people. But as they manifested themselves in relation to Himself, and alas! their own weakness and ruin, higher glories began to dawn, and were needful as a support to the people. Hence, invariably, you will find these two things correlative. Reduce the glory of Christ, and you equally lower your judgment of the state of man. See the total absolute ruin of the creature; and none but the Son in all His glory is felt to be a sufficient Saviour for such.
The apostle was now being led by the Holy Ghost to wean these believers from their poor, meagre, earthly thoughts of Christ from that so common tendency to take the least portion of the blessing, contenting ourselves with that which we think we need, and which we feel to be desirable for us, and there sitting down. God, on the contrary, while He does adapt Himself to the earliest wants of souls, and the feeblest answer to Christ by the Spirit of God working within us, nevertheless has in His heart for us what suits His own glory, and this He will accomplish; for faithful is He who hath promised, and He will do it. He means to have all that love the Saviour like Him; and all that He purposes to do for the Saviour's honour, He has perfectly unfolded to us. No doubt, this supposes the resurrection state, and it never can be till then; but He graciously works now, that we may learn by degrees that only such a Saviour and Lord the effulgence of His glory, and full expression of His substance, the Son of God Himself could suit either God or us.
Accordingly, while he intimates thus that all was but partial, being piecemeal and multiform, in the revelations from God to the fathers, he lets them know, in the next verse, that the same God had, in the last of these days, "spoken unto us in his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds." If such and so great were His glory, what must not be the word of such a Son? What the fulness of the truth that God was now making known to His people by Him? Was this to slight the glory of the Messiah? Let them rather take heed that there be no oversight of Him on their part; none could justly put it to the account of God. For who was He, this Messiah, that they would fain occupy themselves with as a king, and would have confirmed, had it 'been possible, to aggrandize themselves the ancient people of God? The brightness of God's glory, the express image of His substance; the upholder, not of Israel or their land only, but of all things "by the word of his power." But hearken "when he had by himself purged our sins," was not the whole Jewish system blotted out by such a truth? "when he had by himself purged our sins." It is to the exclusion of every other instrument. Help there was not; means there could not be. He Himself undertook and achieved the task alone; and, when He had thus done it, "sat down on the right hand of the majesty on high; being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they."
This furnishes the first part of the doctrine on which the apostle insists. If any beings had special account or stood highly exalted in a Jew's eye, the holy angels were they; and no wonder. It was in this form that Jehovah ordinarily appeared, whenever He visited the fathers or the sons of Israel. There were exceptions; but, as a rule, He who made known the will and manifested the power of Jehovah in these early days to the fathers is spoken of habitually as the angel of Jehovah. It is thus He was represented. He had not yet taken manhood, or made it part of His person. I do not deny that there was sometimes the appearance of man. An angel might appear in whatever guise it pleased God; but, appear as He might, He was the representative of Jehovah. Accordingly, the Jews always associated angels with the highest idea of beings, next to Jehovah Himself, the chosen messengers of the divine will for any passing vision among men. But now appeared One who completely surpassed the angels. Who was He? The Son of God. It ought to have filled them with joy.
We may easily understand that every soul truly born of God would and must break forth into thanksgiving to hear of a deeper glory than he had first perceived in Christ, We must not look on the Lord according to our experience, if there has been simplicity in the way God has brought us to the perception of His glory; we must endeavour to put ourselves back, and consider the prejudices and difficulties of the Jew. They had their own peculiar hindrances; and one of their greatest was the idea of a divine person becoming a man; for a man, to a Jew, was far below an angel. Are there not many now, even professing Christians (to their shame be it spoken) who think somewhat similarly? Not every Christian knows that a mere angel, as such, is but a servant; not every Christian understands that man was made to rule. No doubt he is a servant, but not merely one so accomplishing orders, but having a given sphere, in which he was to rule as the image and glory of God: a thing never true of an angel never was, and never can be. The Jews had not entered into this; no man ever did receive such a thought. The great mass of Christians now are totally ignorant of it. The time, the manner, and the only way in which such a truth could be known, was in the person of Christ; for He became not an angel but a man.
But the very thing that to us is so simple, when we have laid hold of the astonishing place of man in the person of Christ this was to them the difficulty. His being a man, they imagined, must lower Him necessarily below an angel. The apostle, therefore, has to prove that which to us is an evident matter of truth of revelation from God without argument at all. And this he proves from their own scriptures. "For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?" Now it is true that angels are sometimes called "sons of God," but God never singles out one and says, "Thou art my Son." In a vague general way, He speaks of all men as being His sons. He speaks of the angels in a similar way, as being His sons. Adam was a son of God apart, I mean, from the grace of God as a mere creature of God into whose nostrils He breathed the breath of life. Adam was a son of God, angels were sons of God; but to which of the angels did God ever speak in such language as this? No, it was to a man; for He was thus speaking of the Lord as Messiah here below; and this is what gives the emphasis of the passage. It is not predicated of the Son as eternally such; there would be no wonder in this. None could be surprised, assuredly, that the Son of God, viewed in His own eternal being, should be greater than an angel. But that He, an infant on earth, looked at as the son of the Virgin, that He should be above all the angels in heaven this was a wonder to the Jewish mind; and yet what had in their scriptures a plainer proof? It was not to an angel in heaven, but to the Babe at Bethlehem, that God had said, "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee;" and, again, "I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son" words said historically of David's son; but, as usual, looking onward to a greater than David, or his wise son, who immediately succeeded him. Christ is the true and continual object of the inspiring Spirit.
But next follows a still more powerful proof of His glory: "And again, when he bringeth in the first-begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him." So far from any angel approaching the glory of the Lord Jesus, it is God Himself who commands that all the angels shall worship Him. "And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire." They are but servants, whatever their might, function, or sphere. They may have a singular place as servants, and a spiritual nature accomplishing the pleasure of the Lord; but they are only servants. They never rule. "But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows." Not a word is said about His fellows until God Himself addresses Him as God. The angels worshipped Him: God now salutes Him as God; for such He was, counting it no robbery to be on equality with God, one with the Father.
But this is far from all. The chain of scriptural testimony is carried out and confirmed with another and even more wondrous citation. "God" may be used in a subordinate sense. Elohim has His representatives, who are, therefore, called gods. Magistrates and kings are so named in scripture. So are they styled, as the Lord told the Jews. The word of God came and commissioned them to govern in earthly things; for it might be no more than in judicial matters. Still, there they were, in their own sphere, representing God's authority, and are called gods, though clearly with a very subordinate force. But there is another name which never is employed in any sense save that which is supreme. The dread and incommunicable name is "Jehovah." Is, then, the Messiah ever called Jehovah? Certainly He is. And under what circumstances? In His deepest shame. I do not speak now of God's forsaking Christ as the point of view in which He is looked at, though at the same general time.
We that believe can all understand that solemn judgment of our sins on the part of God, when Jesus was accomplishing atonement on the cross. But there was more in the cross than this, which is not the subject of Psalms 102:1-28, but rather the Messiah utterly put to shame by man and the people; nevertheless taking it all for this was His perfection in it from the hand of Jehovah. It is under such circumstances He pours out His plaint. Jehovah raised Him up, and Jehovah cast Him down. Had atonement, as such, been in view here as in Psalms 22:1-31, would it not be put as casting Him down, and then raising Him up? This is the way in which we Christians naturally think of Christ in that which is nearest to the sinner's need and God's answer of grace. But here Jehovah raised Him up, and Jehovah cast Him down, which evidently refers to His Messianic place, not to His position as the suffering and afterwards glorified Christ, the Head of the church. He was raised up as the true Messiah by Jehovah on earth, and He was cast down by Jehovah on earth. No doubt man was the instrument of it. The world which He had made did not know Him; His own people received Him not, neither would have Him. Jewish unbelief hated Him: the more they knew Him, the less could they endure Him. The goodness, the love, the glory of His person only drew out the deadly enmity of man, and specially of Israel; for they were worse than the Romans: and all this He, in the perfectness of His dependence, takes from Jehovah. For Himself, He came to suffer and die by wicked hands, but it was in the accomplishment of the will and purpose of God His Father. He knew full well that all the power of man or Satan would not have availed one instant before Jehovah permitted it. Hence all is taken meekly, but with none the less agony, from Jehovah's hand; and less or other than this had not been perfection. In the midst of Messiah's profound sense and expression of His humiliation to the lowest point thus accepted from Jehovah, He contrasts His own estate, wasted, prostrate, and coining to nothing. He contrasts it with two things. First, the certainty of every promise being accomplished for Israel and Zion He unhesitatingly anticipates; whilst He, the Messiah, submits to be given up to every possible abasement. He then contrasts Himself with the great commanding truth of Jehovah's own permanence. And what is the answer from on high to the holy sufferer? Jehovah from above answers Jehovah below; He owns that the smitten Messiah is Jehovah of stability and unchangeableness equal with His own.
What need of further proof after this? Nothing could be asked or conceived more conclusive, as far as concerned His divine glory. And all that the apostle thinks it necessary to cite after this is the connecting link of His present place on the throne of Jehovah in heaven with all these ascending evidences of His divine glory, beginning with His being Son as begotten in time and in the world; then His emphatic relationship to God as of the lineage of David not Solomon, save typically, but the Christ really and ultimately; then worshipped by the angels of God; next, owned by God as God, and, finally, as Jehovah by Jehovah. All is closed by the citation of Psalms 110:1, which declares that God bids Him sit as man at His right hand on high till the hour of judgment on His foes. It is one of the most interesting psalms in the whole collection, and of the deepest possible moment as preparatory both to what is now brought in for the Christian (which, however, is hidden here) and to what it declares shall be by-and-by for Israel. Thus it is a sort of bridge between old and new, as it is more frequently quoted in the New Testament than any other Old Testament scripture. "Therefore" (as should be the conclusion, though commencing the next chapter) "we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels" clearly he is still summing up the matter "was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward: how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard?" It is striking to see how the apostle takes the place of such as simply had the message, like other Jews, from those who personally heard Him: so completely was he writing, not as the apostle of the Gentiles magnifying his office, but as one of Israel, who were addressed by those who companied with Messiah on earth. It was confirmed "unto us," says he, putting himself along with his nation, instead of conveying his heavenly revelations as one taken out from the people, and the Gentiles, to which last he was sent. He looks at what was their proper testimony, not at that to which he had been separated extraordinarily. He is dealing with them as much as possible on their own ground, though, of course, without compromise of his own. He does not overlook the testimony to the Jews as such: "God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and distributions of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will."
Now he enters on another and very distinct portion of the glory of Christ. He is not only the Son of God, but Son of man; and they are both, I will not say equally necessary, but, without doubt, both absolutely necessary, whether for God's glory or for His salvation to whomsoever it may be applied. Touch Christ on either side, and all is gone. Touch Him on the human side, it is hardly less fatal than on the divine. I admit that His divine glory has a place which humanity could not possess; but His human perfection is no less necessary to found the blessing for us on redemption, glorifying God in His righteousness and. love. This accordingly the apostle now traces. Jesus was God as truly as man, and in both above the angels. His superiority as Son of God had been proved in the most masterly manner from their own scriptures in the first chapter. He had drawn his conclusions, urging the all-importance of giving heed, and the danger of letting slip such a testimony. The law, as he had said elsewhere, was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. He had just said, if it was firm, and every transgression and disobedience received just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation? Outward infraction and inner rebellion met their retribution. The sanction of the gospel would be commensurate with its grace, and God would avenge the slightings of a testimony begun by the Lord, farther carried on and confirmed by the Holy Spirit with signs, wonders, powers, and distributions according to His will.
Now he takes the other side, saying, "Unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come." Whatever may have been God's employment of angels about the law, the world to come was never destined to be subjected to them. It is the good pleasure of God to use an angel where it is a question of providence, or law, or. power; but where it comes to be the manifestation of His glory in Christ, He must have other instruments more suitable for His nature, and according to His affections. "For one has somewhere testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands." Thus we see the first question raised is one as to the littleness of man in comparison with that which God has made; but the question is no sooner raised than answered, and this by one who looks at the Second Man and not at the first. Behold then man in Christ, and then talk, if you can, about His littleness. Behold man in Christ, and then be amazed at the wonders of the heavens. Let creation be as great as it may be, He that made all things is above them. The Son of man has a glory that completely eclipses the brightness of the highest objects. But also He shows that the humiliation of the Saviour, in which He was made a little lower than the angels, was for an end that led up to this heavenly glory. Grant that He was made a little lower, than the angels, what was it for? "We see not yet all things put under him. But we behold Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; so that by the grace of God he should taste death for everything." Nor was this the only object; He was "crowned with glory and honour" as fruit of His sufferings unto death; but it had a gracious object as well as a glorious end; "so that by the grace of God he should taste death for everything;" for thus was the only door of deliverance for what was ruined by the fall, and this because it was the only means of morally vindicating God, who yearned in love over every work of His hands. There can be otherwise no efficacious because no righteous deliverance. It may be infinitely more, but righteous footing it must have; and this the death of Christ has given. Flowing from God's grace, Christ's death is the ground of reconciliation for the universe. It has also made it a part of His righteousness to bring man thus out of that ruin, misery, and subjection to death in which he lay. It has put into the hands of God that infinite fund of blessing in which He now loves to admit us reconciled to Himself.
The apostle does not yet draw all the consequences; but he lays down in these two chapters the twofold glory of Christ Son of God, Son of man; and following up the latter, he approaches that which fitted Him, on the score of sympathy, for the priesthood. I do not mean that Jesus could have been High Priest according to God because He was man. Not His manhood but His Godhead is the ground of His glory; nevertheless, if He had not been man as well as Son of God, He could not have been priest. As for atonement so for priesthood, that ground was essential. But it was for man, and therefore He too must be man. So it is here shown that it "became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one." Remark, it is not "all one." We never reach that height in the epistle to the Hebrews; never have we the body here, any more than unity. For the body we must search into some other epistles of Paul, though unity we may see in another shape in John. But the epistle to the Hebrews never goes so far as either. It does what was even more important for those whom it concerned, and, I add, what is of the deepest possible moment for us. For those who think that they can live according to God on the truth of either Ephesians or of the epistles of St. John, without the doctrine of the epistle to the Hebrews, have made a miserable mistake.
Say what men will, we have our wants, as traversing this wilderness; and although we might like to soar, it cannot long, if at all, prosper. We have, therefore, the adaptation of Christ as priest to the infirmities that we feel, and so much the more because of an exercised conscience towards God, and a realizing of the desert sin has made this defiled scene of our actual pilgrimage.
Accordingly, in the latter part of the chapter, the apostle begins to introduce the great truths which form so large a part of the epistle to the Hebrews. He speaks of Christ, the Sanctifier: "He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one." He means one and the same condition, without entering into particulars. "For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren." There is a common relationship which the Sanctifier and the sanctified possess. It might be supposed, because He is the Sanctifier and they are the sanctified, that there could be no such communion. But there is: "for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren." He never called them so, till He became a man; nor did He so fully then, till He was man risen from the dead. The apostle here most fittingly introduces Psalms 22:1-31, etc.: "Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee. And again, I will put my trust in him." He is proving the reality of this common relationship of the Sanctifier and the sanctified. He, like themselves, can say, and He alone could say as they never did, "I will put my trust in him." Indeed Psalms 16:1-11 was the expression of all His course as man trust in life, trust in death, trust in resurrection. As in everything else, so in this, He has the pre-eminence; but it is a pre-eminence founded on a common ground. It could not have been true of Him, had He not been a man; had He been simply God, to talk of trusting in God would have been altogether unnatural impossible. As for Him then, though the Sanctifier, He and they were all of one. And so further: "Behold! and the children which God hath given me." Here is again a different but equally good proof of mutual relationship.
"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily he took not on him the nature of angels." This last should be, that He does not take up angels; He does not help them. They are not the objects of His concern in the work here described; "but he takes up the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest" here you have the object of all the proof of His being man "in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people." I use the word "atonement, or expiation, as being decidedly preferable to reconciliation." You cannot talk of reconciling sins. It is not a question of making sins right. They are atoned for; people are reconciled. Those who have been sinners are reconciled to God; but as to sins they do not admit of being reconciled at all (which is a mistake). There is need of a propitiation, or expiation, for the sins of His people. "For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted." Temptation to Him was nothing but suffering: He suffered, being tempted, because there was that intrinsic holiness which repelled, but, at the same time, most acutely felt the temptation.
Thus the apostle enters on the vast field that will come before us a little while longer tonight. He has laid the basis for the high-priesthood of Christ. He could not have been such a High Priest, had He not been both divine and human; and he has proved both, in the fullest manner, from their own scriptures.
But before he enters upon the unfolding of His high-priesthood, there is a digression (the two chapters that follow, I apprehend, linking themselves with the two we have considered). Thus, "Christ as Son over his own house" answers pretty much to the first chapter, as the rest of God by-and-by answers to the second chapter; for I hope to prove it is to be in the scene of future glory. In writings so profound as the apostle's, one generally hails the least help towards appreciating the structure of an epistle: let the reader consider it.
Hebrews 3:1-19. We need not dwell long on these intervening chapters. It is evident that he opens with our Lord as "apostle and high-priest of our confession," in contrast with the apostle and high priest of the Jews. Moses was the revealer of the mind of God of old, as Aaron had the title and privilege of access then into the sanctuary of God for the people. Jesus unites both in His own person. He came from God, and went to God. The holy brethren, then, partakers of a heavenly calling (not earthly like Israel's), are told to consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, even Jesus, who is faithful to Him that appointed Him, as also Moses in all his house. Moses, "as a servant," he takes care particularly to say, in everything shows the superiority of the Messiah. "For he was counted worthy of greater glory than Moses, by how much he that built it hath more honour than the house." He becomes bold now. He can venture, after having brought out such glory to Christ, to use plainness of speech; and they could hear it, if they believed their own scriptures. If they honoured the man who was God's servant in founding and directing the tabernacle (or house of God in its rudimentary state), how much more did the ancient oracles call attention to a greater than Moses to Jehovah Messiah, even Jesus. How plainly this chapter pre-supposes the proofs of the divine glory of Christ! We shall see also His Sonship presently. "And Moses was faithful in all his house, as a servant, for a testimony of the things to be spoken after; but Christ, as Son over his house, whose house are we." Christ, being divine, built the house; Christ built all things. Moses ministered as servant, and was faithful in God's house; Christ as Son is over the house; "whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end."
There were great difficulties, circumstances calculated especially to affect the Jew, who, after receiving the truth with joy, might be exposed to great trial, and so in danger of giving up his hope. It was, besides, particularly hard for a Jew at first to put these two facts together: a Messiah come, and entered into glory; and the people who belonged to the Messiah left in sorrow, and shame, and suffering here below. In fact, no person from the Old Testament could, at first sight at least, have combined these two elements. We can understand it now in Christianity. It is partly, indeed, to the shame of Gentiles, that they do not even see the difficulty for a Jew. It shows how naturally, so to speak, they have forgotten the Jew as having a special place in the word and purposes of God. They consequently cannot enter into the feelings of the Jew; and by such the authority and use of this epistle was grievously slighted. It is the self-conceit of the Gentile, (Romans 11:1-36) not their faith, that makes the Jewish difficulty to be so little felt. Faith enables us to look at all difficulties, on the one hand measuring them, on the other raising us above them. This is not at all the case with ordinary Gentile thought. Unbelief, indifferent and unfeeling, does not even see, still less appreciate, the trials of the weak.
The apostle here enters into everything of value for the way. Although it is perfectly true that the Son is in this place of universal glory, and in relation to us, Son over His house (God's house having an all-comprehending sense and a narrower one), he explains how it is that His people are in actual weakness, trial, exposure, danger and sorrow here below. The people are still travelling through the wilderness, not yet in the land. He immediately appeals to the voice of the Spirit in the Psalms: "Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in heart; and they have not known my ways. So I swear in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.) take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; while it is said, Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses."
What is pressed here is this: that the people of God are still in the path of faith, just like their fathers of old before they crossed the Jordan; that now there is that which puts our patience to the proof; that the grand thing for such is to hold fast the beginning of the assurance firm unto the end. They were tempted to stumble at the truth of Christ, because of the bitter experiences of the way through which they were going onward. To turn back is but the evil heart of unbelief; to abandon Jesus is to turn away from the living God. To be fellows or companions of the Messiah (Psalms 45:1-17) depends on holding fast the beginning of the assurance to the end; for, remember, we are in the wilderness. Following Christ, as of old Moses, we are not arrived at the rest of God. "But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief."
This leads us to the very important, but often misunderstood, Hebrews 4:1-16. What is the meaning of the "rest of God"? Not rest of soul, nor rest of conscience, any more than of heart. It is none of these things, but simply what the apostle says, God's rest. His rest is not merely your rest. It is not our faith seizing the rest that Christ gives to him that trusts Himself, as when He says, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He did not say, "I will give you God's rest." It was not the time, nor is it of that nature. God's rest is the rest of His own satisfaction. His rest is a change of all, the present scene of trial and toil, the consequences of sin. Of course the people of God must be formed for the scene, as well as it for them. They are incomparably more to God than that which they are going to fill. But the scene has its importance too. It would not suit God, if it would suit us, to be ever so blessed in such a world as this. He means to have a rest as worthy of Himself as the righteousness we are made in Christ is worthy of Himself now. As it is His righteousness, so will it be His rest. Therefore it is not merely, as Gentiles are apt to suppose, the bringing of comfort into the heart, and the spirit filled with the consciousness of blessings from God and of His grace to us. The Jew, too, had, in another direction, a miserably inadequate conception of it; for it was earthly, if not sensual. Still, what a Jewish believer often staggered at, what he felt to be a serious riddle for his mind, was the contrast between the circumstances through which he was passing, and the Christ of which the prophets had spoken to him. Now the apostle does not in any way make light of the grief by the way, nor forget that the pilgrimage in the desert is the type of our earthly circumstances. He takes the scriptures that speak of Israel journeying toward, but not yet in, the pleasant land, applying them to the present facts, and at the same time he sets before them in hope the rest of God.
Hebrews 4:1-16. "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us were glad tidings preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. For we who have believed do enter into rest." That is, we are on the road. He does not say that we have entered, nor does he mean anything of the sort, which is clean contrary to the argument and aim. It is altogether a mistake, therefore, so to interpret the passage. The very reverse is meant, namely, that we have not entered into the rest, but, as the hymn says, we are on our way, I will not say to God, but assuredly to His rest. We are entering into the rest, having got it before us, and on to that rest we move; but we are not yet there. "We which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest." It is quite true that it is the Holy Ghost's object to bring the rest close to us, so as to make us always conscious of the little interval that separates us from the rest of God; but still, let the interval be ever so short, we are not there yet, we are only going towards it. For the present, our place, beyond controversy, is viewed as in fact in the wilderness. According to the doctrine of this epistle (as of the Romans, the Corinthians, and the Philippians) to present us as in heavenly places would be altogether out of place and season. To the Ephesians he does develop our blessing as in and with Christ in the heavenlies. There it was exactly consonant to the character of the truth; for it is truth, and of the highest order. But as far as the Epistle to the Hebrews goes, we should never have learnt this side of the truth of God, or its appropriation to us; for we are only regarded in our actual place, that is, marching through the desert.
Here objections, which might be founded on the scriptures of the Old Testament, are met. There were two, and only two, occasions of old whence it might be argued that there had been an entrance into God's rest.
The first was when God made the creation; but was there any entering of man into that rest? God, doubtless, rested from His works; but even God is never said then to have rested in His works. Was there anything that satisfied God or blessed man permanently? All was good, yea, very good; but could God rest in His love? Surely not, till all could be founded on the basis of redemption. Before all worlds God meant to have this. Nothing but redemption could bring into His own rest. Consequently, a rest capable of being spoilt, and all requiring to be begun over again in a new and more blessed way, never could meet the heart or mind of God. This, accordingly, is not His rest; it served as a sign and witness of it, but nothing more.
Then we come down lower to the second instance of deep and special interest to Israel. When Joshua brought the people triumphantly into the possession of Canaan, was this the rest of God? Not so. How is it disproved? By the self-same Psalm "If they shall enter into my rest," written afterwards. So wrote David, "Today, after so long a time." Not only after the creation, but after Joshua had planted the people in the land, a certain day is determined in the future. For if Jesus [i.e., Joshua] had brought them into rest, he would not have spoken afterwards about another day. They had not entered into it yet.
The "rest" was still beyond. Is it not future still? What has there been to bring people into the rest of God since then? What is there to be compared with creation, or with His people settled in Canaan by the destruction of their foes? That which Gentile theology has brought into the matter, namely, the work of the Lord on the cross, or the application of it to meet the needs of the soul precious as it was to the apostle, as it must be to faith has no place whatever in the apostle's argument. If so, where does he bring it into the context? The idea that this is the point debated is so perfectly foreign and futile, that to my mind it demonstrates exceeding prepossession, if not looseness, of mind, as well as a lack of subjection to scripture, in those who allow their theories to override the plain word of God, which is here conspicuous for the absence of that infinite truth.
The apostle, therefore, at once draws the conclusion, that neither at creation, nor in Canaan, was the rest of God really come. The latter part of the Old Testament shows us how Israel got unsettled, and finally driven from their land; though it also predicts their future ingathering. The New Testament shows us the rejection of the Messiah, the ruin of Israel, the salvation of believers, the church formed of such in one body, (whether Jews or Gentiles,) but in the stronger contrast with the rest of God. Consequently, the rest is but coming, not come; it is future. This is the application: "There remaineth therefore a rest" (or sabbatism) "to the people of God. For he that hath entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his works, as God did from his own." I must ask you thus to alter the passage, the authorised version giving it wrongly. The emphasis is taken out of one place, and put into another, without the slightest reason.
What he deduces is, "Let us use diligence therefore to enter into that rest." The meaning is, you cannot be labouring and resting in the same sense and time, All must confess that when you rest, you cease from labour. His statement is that now is the time not for rest, but for diligence; and the moral reason why we labour is, that love whether looked at in God Himself, in His Son, or in His children love never can rest, where there is either sin or wretchedness. In the world there is both. No doubt for the believer, his sins are blotted out and forgiven, and hope anticipates with joy the final deliverance of the Lord. But as to the course of this age and all things here below, it is impossible to think or speak of rest as these are, not even for our bodies, as part of the fallen creation. There ought not to be rest, therefore, beyond what we have by faith in our souls. It would be mere sentimentalising; it is not the truth of God. I ought to feel the misery and the estrangement of the earth from God; I ought to go however joyful in the Lord with a heart sad, and knowing how to weep, in a world where there is so much sin, and suffering, and sorrow. But the time is coming when God will wipe away tears from all eyes, yea, every tear; and this will be the rest of God. To this rest we are journeying, but we are only journeying. At the same time we should labour: love cannot but toil in such a world as this. If there be the spirit that feels the pressure of sin, there is the love that rises up in the power of God's grace, bringing in that which lifts out of sin. and delivers from it. So he says, "Let us be diligent therefore to enter into that rest."
Allow me to say a word to any person here who may be a little confused by old thoughts on this subject. Look again a little more exactly into the two chief calls of the chapter (verses 1 and 11), and let me ask you if it be safe and sound to apply them to rest for the conscience now? Are souls who have never yet tasted that the Lord is gracious to be summoned to fear? And how does the call to labour or diligence square with the apostle's word in Romans 4:4-5, where justification by faith, apart from works, is beyond cavil the point of teaching? What can be the effect of such prejudices of interpretation (no matter who may have endorsed them) but to muddle the gospel of God's grace? Thus it seems to me clearly and certainly such a notion is proved to be false. The test of a wrong notion is that it always dislocates the truth of God; often, indeed, like this, running counter to the plainest and most elementary forms of the gospel itself. Thus, take the text already referred to "To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly" the popular misinterpretation sets people working to enter into rest for their conscience. But the doctrine is as false as the written word is true; and the meaning of that which is before us is, not rest now for the soul by faith, but the rest of God, when He has made a scene in the day of glory as worthy of Himself as it will be suited for those whom He loves.
Accordingly, we are next shown the provision of grace, not for the rest of glory, but for those who are only journeying on towards it here below. And what is that provision? The word of God, which comes and searches, tries and deals with us, judging the thoughts and intents of the heart; and the priesthood of Christ, which converts and strengthens, and applies all that is needed here the grace and mercy of our God. "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need."
And now (Hebrews 5:1-14) we enter upon the priesthood; for it is a priest that we want who stand already accepted by sacrifice. Not a priest, but a sacrifice, is the foundation of all relationship with God; but we need ,along the way a living person, who can deal both with God for us and for God with us. Such a great High Priest who passed through the heavens, yet able to sympathize with our infirmities, we have in Jesus the Son of God. How little these Jews, even when saints, knew the treasure of grace that God had given in Him whom the nation abhorred! As previously, the apostle takes the proofs from their own oracles. It is not a question of revealing, but of rightly applying, by the Holy Ghost, the word they had in their hand.
"For every high priest taken from among men is established for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins." It might seem scarcely credible that these words could be applied to Christ But there is nothing too bad for the heart of man; and these are mistakes of the heart. They do not arise from intellectual feebleness. It would be folly so to judge of Grotius, for instance. They spring from unbelief. Call it ignorance of Christ and of the scriptures, if you will, but it is not found only with the ignorant, as men would speak. I am sure we ought to have great compassion for the honest ignorance of simple-minded men. But, as in other sad cases, the error is often combined with ample learning of the schools, though with lamentable lack of divine teaching even in foundation truth. I do not deny that God may deign to use anything in His service; but these men confide in their learning and their powers generally, instead of becoming fools that they may become wise, which is the truest learning according to God, if one may speak of "learning" in respect of that wisdom which comes down from the Father of lights.
Thus men, confident in their own resources, have dared to apply this description of priesthood to Christ. They have failed to see that it is a distinct contrast with Christ, and not at all a picture of His priesthood. It is evidently general, and sets before us a human priest, not Jesus God's High Priest. If there be analogy, there is certainly the strongest contrast here. An ordinary priest is able to exercise forbearance toward the ignorant and erring, since he himself also is compassed with infirmity. "And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins." Did Christ need to offer for Himself, yea, for sins? This blasphemy would follow, if the foregoing words applied to Christ. "And no one taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, even as Aaron. So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest." Now he teaches a point of contact, as the other was of contrast. All you can procure from among men is one that can feel, as being a man, for men after a human sort. Such is not the priest that God has given us, but one who, though man, feels for us after a divine sort. And so, we are told, that Christ, while He was and is this glorious person in His nature and right, nevertheless as man did not glorify Himself to be made an high priest; "but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee; as he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec."
The same God who owned Him as His Son, born of the Virgin, owned Him also as Priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. And in this order too: first, Son (on earth);* next, the true Melchisedec (in heaven, as we shall find). Albeit true God and Son of God, in everything He displays perfect lowliness among men, and absolute dependence on God: such also was His moral fitness for each office and function which God gave Him to discharge. Mark, again, the skill with which all is gradually approached how the inspired writer saps and mines their exorbitant (yet after all only earthly) pretensions, founded on the Aaronic priesthood. Such was the great boast of the Jews. And here we learn out of their own scriptures another order of priesthood reserved for the Messiah, which he knew right well could not but put the Aaronic priesthood completely in the shade. "Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec."
*I see no ground whatever for applying the citation fromPsalms 2:1-12; Psalms 2:1-12 to the resurrection of Christ. Acts 13:1-52, which is usually quoted to prove it, really distinguishes the raising up of Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God here below, from His resurrection which is made to rest on Isaiah 55:1-13 and Psalms 16:1-11. Neither doesPsalms 2:1-12; Psalms 2:1-12 set forth His eternal Sonship, all-important a truth as it is, and clearly taught by John above all.
At the same time, it is plain that there is no forgetfulness of the suffering obedience of Christ's place here below; but He is presented in this glory before we are given to hear of the path of shame which ushered it in. "Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him, called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec The apostle had much to say, but hard to be interpreted, because they were become dull of hearing. It is not that the word of God in itself is obscure, but that men bring in their difficulties. Nor does His word., as is often thought, want light to be thrown on it; rather is it light itself. By the Spirit's power it dispels the darkness of nature. Many obstacles there are to the entrance of light through the word, but there is none more decided than the force of religious prejudice; and this would naturally operate most among the Hebrew saints. They clung too much to old things; they could not take in the new. We may see a similar hindrance every day. What Paul had to say of the Melchisedec priesthood was hard to explain to them, not because the things were in themselves unintelligible, but they were dull in hearing. "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye again have need that one teach you the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God."
There is nothing, I repeat, which tends to make dulness in spiritual things so much as religious tradition. The next to it in dead weight, and in other respects more daringly dangerous, will be found to be philosophy. At any rate, it is remarkable that these are the two occasions of this reproach from the apostle. So he wrote to the Corinthians, who generally admired rhetoric, and had no small confidence, like other Greeks, in their own wisdom. They did not consider Paul, either in style or topics, at all up to the requirements of the age at least in their midst. How cutting to hear themselves counted babes, and incapable of meat for grown men, so that, being carnal, they must have milk administered to them! The apostle had to put them down, and tell them, with all their high-flown wisdom, they were such that he could not discourse to them about the deep things of God. This, no doubt, was a painful surprise for them. So here the same apostle writing to the Hebrew believers treats them as babes, though from a different source. Thus we see two errors totally opposed in appearance, but leading to the same conclusion. Both unfit the soul for going on with God; and the reason why they so hinder is because they are precisely the things in which man lives. Whether it be the mind of man or his natural religiousness, either idolizes its own object; and consequently blindness ensues to the glory of Christ.
Hence the apostle could not but feel himself arrested by their state. He shows also that this very state was not merely one of weakness, but exposed them to the greatest danger; and this is pursued not on the philosophical side so much as on that of religions forms. We have already seen both at work in Colosse, as I have just pointed out the snare that the wisdom of the world was to the Corinthians. But on the Hebrews he presses their excessive danger of abandoning Christ for religious traditions. First of all these hinder progress; finally they draw the soul aside from grace and truth; and if the mighty power of God does not interfere, they ruin. This had been the course of some: they had better be watchful that it be not their own case. He begins gently with their state of infantine feebleness; and then in the beginning of the following chapter he sets before them the awful picture of apostasy. "For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil."
"Therefore," (adds he, inHebrews 6:1-20; Hebrews 6:1-20) "leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, let us go on to perfection." He proves that we cannot safely linger among the Jewish elements when we have heard and received Christian truth; that not merely blessing, not simply power and enjoyment, but the only place even of safety is in going on to this full growth. To stop short for them was to go back. Let those that had heard of Christ return to the forms of Judaism, and what would become of them?
Then he speaks of the various constituents that make up the word of the beginning of Christ ( i.e., Christ known short of death, resurrection, and ascension). He would have them advance, "not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and faith in God, of a teaching of washings and imposition of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." Not that these were not true and important in their place: no one disputed them; but they were in no way the power, nor even characteristic, of Christianity. They go in pairs; and a mere Jew would hardly object; but what is all this for the Christian? Why live on such points? "And this" ( i.e. going on to full growth) "will we do if God permit. For it is impossible [as to] those once enlightened, and that tasted the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and that tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and fell away, to renew [them] again to repentance, seeing they crucify for themselves and expose the Son of God."
It is a question of persons drawn into apostasy after having enjoyed every privilege and power of the gospel, short of a new nature and that indwelling of the Spirit which seals renewed souls till the day of redemption. For them rejecting the Messiah on earth under Judaism God gave repentance and remission of sins; but if they gave up the risen and glorified Christ, there was no provision of grace, no third estate of Christ to meet the case. It is not the case of a person surprised into sin; nay, not even the very awful case of one who may go on in sin, sorrowful to think that it may be so with one of whom we had hoped better things. But here there is another evil altogether. They were those who might be ever so correct, moral, religious, but who, having confessed Jesus as the Christ after the outpouring of the Spirit, had lapsed back into Jewish elements, counting it perhaps a wise and wholesome cheek on a too rapid advance, instead of seeing that in principle it was an abandonment of Christ altogether. The full case here supposed is a thorough renunciation of Christian truth.
The apostle describes a confessor with all the crowning evidences of the gospel, but not a converted man, Not a word implies this either here or in 2 Peter. Short of this he uses uncommonly strong expressions, and purposely so: he sets forth the possession of the highest possible external privileges, and this in that abundant form and measure which God gave on the ascension of the Lord. He says it all, no doubt, about the baptized; but there is nothing about baptism as the ancients would have it, any more than, with some moderns, the progressive steps of the spiritual life. There is knowledge, joy, privilege, and power, but no spiritual life. Enlightenment is in no sense the new birth, nor does baptism in scripture ever mean illumination. It is the effect of the gospel on the dark soul the shining on the mind of Him who is the only true light. But light is not life; and life is not predicated here.
Further, they had "tasted of the heavenly gift." It is not the Messiah as He was preached when the disciples went about here below, but Christ after He went on high; not Christ after the flesh, but Christ risen and glorified above.
But, again, they were "made partakers of the Holy Ghost." Of Him every one became a partaker, who confessed the Lord and entered into the house of God. There the Holy Ghost dwelt; and all who were there became partakers after an outward sort (not κοινωνοὶ , but μέτοχοι ) of Him who constituted the assembly of God's habitation and temple. He pervaded, as it were, the whole atmosphere of the house of God. It is not in the least a question of a person individually born of God, and so sealed by the Holy Spirit. There is not an allusion to either in this case, but to their taking a share in this immense privilege, the word not being that which speaks of a joint known portion, but only of getting a share.
Moreover, they "tasted the good word of God." Even an unconverted man might feel strong emotions, and enjoy to a certain extent, more particularly those that had lain in Judaism, that dreary valley of dry bones. What fare was the gospel of grace! Certainly nothing could be more miserable than the scraps which the scribes and Pharisees put before the sheep of the house of Israel. There is nothing to forbid the natural mind from being attracted by the delightful sweetness of the glad-tidings which Christianity proclaims.
Lastly, we hear of "the powers of the age to come." This seems more than a general share in the presence of the Holy Ghost, who inhabited the house of God. They were positively endued with miraculous energies samples of that which will characterize the reign of the Messiah. Thus we may fairly give the fullest force to every one of these expressions. Yet write them out ever so largely, they fall short both of the new birth and of sealing with the Holy Ghost. There is everything one may say, save inward spiritual life in Christ, or the indwelling seal of it. That is to say, one may have the very highest endowments and privileges, in the way both of meeting the mind, and also of exterior power; and yet all may be given up, and the man become so much the keener enemy of Christ. Indeed such is the natural result. It had been the mournful fact as to some. They had fallen away. Hence renewal to repentance is an impossibility, seeing they crucify for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.
Why impossible? The case supposed is of persons, after the richest proof and privilege, turning aside apostates from Christ, in order to take up Judaism once more. As long as that course is pursued, repentance there cannot be. Supposing a man had been the adversary of Messiah here below, there was still the opening for him of grace from on high. It was possible that the very man that had slighted Christ here below might have his eyes opened to see and receive Christ above; but, this abandoned, there is no fresh condition in which He can be presented to men. Those who rejected Christ in all the fulness of His grace, and in the height of glory in which God had set Him as man before them, those that rejected Him not merely on earth, but in heaven, what was there to fall back on? what possible means to bring them to a repentance after that? There is none. What is there but Christ coming in judgment? Now apostasy, sooner or later, must fall under that judgment. Such is the force of the comparison. "For land which hath drunk in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: but that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is for burning."
"But we are persuaded better things of you, beloved." There might seem too much ground for fear, but of the two ends he was persuaded respecting them the better things, and akin to salvation, if even he thus spoke; for God was not unrighteous, and the apostle too remembered traits of love and devotedness which gave him this confidence about them. But, says he, "We earnestly desire that each of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end that ye be not slothful, but followers of those who through faith and long-suffering inherit the promises." Here is given a remarkable instance of the true character of the epistle; namely, the combination of two features peculiar to the Hebrews. On the one hand are the promises, the oath of God, taking up His ways with Abraham; and, on the other hand, the hope set before us, that enters into what is within the veil. We may account for the former, because the writer was not confining himself to that which fell within the proper sphere of his apostleship. But, again, had he been writing according to his ordinary place, nothing was more strictly his line of testimony than to have dwelt on our hope that enters within the veil. The peculiarity of the epistle to the Hebrews lies in combining the promises with Christ's heavenly glory. None but Paul, I believe, would have been suited to bring in the heavenly portion. At the same time, only in writing to the Hebrews could Paul have brought in the Old Testament hopes as he has done.
Another point of interest which may be remarked here is the intimation at the end compared with the beginning of the chapter. We have seen the highest external privileges not only the mind of man, as far as it could, enjoying the truth, but the power of the Holy Ghost making the man, at any rate, an instrument of power, even though it be to his own shame and deeper condemnation afterwards. In short, man may have the utmost conceivable advantage, and the greatest external power even of the Spirit of God Himself; and yet all comes to nothing. But the very same chapter, which affirms and warns of the possible failure of every advantage, shows us the weakest faith that the whole New Testament describes coming into the secure possession of the best blessings of grace. Who but God could have dictated that this same chapter (Hebrews 6:1-20) should depict the weakest faith that the New Testament ever acknowledges? What can look feebler, what more desperately pressed, than a man fleeing for refuge? It is not a soul as coming to Jesus; it is not as one whom the Lord meets and blesses on the spot; but here is a man hard pushed, fleeing for very life (evidently a figure drawn from the blood-stained fleeing from the avenger of blood), yet eternally saved and blessed according to the acceptance of Christ on high.
There was no reality found to be in those so highly favoured of the early verses; and therefore it was (as there was no conscience before God, no sense of sin, no cleaving to Christ) that everything came to nought; but here, there is the fruit of faith, feeble indeed and sorely tried, but in the light that appreciates the judgment of God against sin. Hence, although it be only fleeing in an agony of soul to refuge, what is it that God gives to one in such a state? Strong consolation, and that which enters within the veil. Impossible that the Son should be shaken from His place on the throne of God: so is it that the least believer should come to any hurt whatever. The weakest of saints more than conqueror is; and therefore the apostle, having brought us to this glorious point of conclusion, as well as shown us the awful danger of men giving up such a Christ as that which we have presented to us in this epistle, now finds himself free to unfold the character of His priesthood, as well as the resulting position of the Christian. But on these I hope to enter, if the Lord will, on another occasion.