The Context of Hebrews 6:4-8
The proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8 must be consistent with its context. Therefore, three aspects of its context are discussed. First, the context of the entire book of Hebrews is summarized. Second, the immediate context of the paragraph (6:4-8) is examined. Third, several Old Testament themes that form the background to the paragraph in Hebrews 6:4-8 are discussed.
General Context of Hebrews 6:4-8
The book of Hebrews was most likely written to a group of Jewish believers who were part of the same house church.1 The location of this house church has been the subject of great debate.2 Fortunately, it is not necessary to specify the exact location of the church in order to interpret Hebrews 6:4-8. It is necessary, however, to clarify three introductory issues. First, what is the purpose and theme of the book of Hebrews? Second, what is the author’s method for accomplishing that purpose? Third, what content does the author of Hebrews use to fulfill his purpose?
Purpose and Theme of Hebrews. There is great difference of opinion as to the purpose and theme of the book of Hebrews.3 Hebrews 13:22 summarizes the book as a “word of exhortation.” This same phrase is used in Acts 13:15 in reference to an encouraging sermon. According to Lane, “ ‘Word of exhortation’ appears to be an idiomatic, fixed expression for a sermon in the Jewish-Hellenistic and early Christian circles.”4 The book of Hebrews appears to be a written sermon intended to encourage its Jewish Christian readers.
What is the author of this sermon encouraging these Jewish believers to do? The author of Hebrews is writing to encourage those associating with a particular New Testament house church to continue to remain faithful to Christ. In other words, do not fall away from true faith. This sentiment is stated in Hebrews 10:35–39,
Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.
Members of this church had faced severe persecution in the past and were about to face it again (Heb. 10:32ff). At the same time, they had failed to mature in their Christian life (5:11–14). They appear to have begun to doubt the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice for their daily living (10:35). The author of Hebrews was afraid that these believers would make a conscious choice to live in their own strength and will and not by faith in Christ’s provision and Lordship when renewed persecution came. Therefore, he exhorted them to strive to mature in their Christian lives by living a life that was committed to Christ. Lane summarizes the purpose of the book of Hebrews:
The purpose of Hebrews is to strengthen, encourage, and exhort the tired and weary members of a house church to respond with courage and vitality to the prospect of renewed suffering in view of the gifts and resources God has lavished upon them. The writer’s intention is to address the sagging faith of men and women within the group and to remind them of their responsibility to live actively in response to God’s absolute claim upon their lives through the gospel.5
Several points merit mention in summary. First, Hebrews was written to encourage Christians. It was not written to warn unbelievers. Second, the general appeal of the book is to remain faithful to Christ and not fall away (i.e., live by faith). The appeal is not to make sure you are saved (i.e., hold on to saving faith). Third, the believers’ lack of maturity caused the author of Hebrews to be concerned about their susceptibility to “falling away.” It was not their lack of saving faith (or regeneration) that concerned the author of Hebrews.
Method of Hebrews. It appears that the author of Hebrews used a form of written sermon to encourage believers to live by faith. How did the author of Hebrews organize his sermon to accomplish this end? The author of Hebrews encourages church attendees to remain faithful to Christ by means of providing a brief study in Christology. There are five main sections in the book which detail theological information about Christ. After each of these Christological sections, there is an explanation as to how the Christology should affect the way that a true believer should live. Therefore, the book of Hebrews shifts back and forth between Christology and Christian life. All of this doctrine and application is given in order to exhort genuine church saints to endure the severe trials and persecution they were about to face so that they would not suffer judgment for abandoning their trust and reliance upon the high priestly ministry of Christ.
The doctrinal sections appear to form the basis for the practical applications (warning passages/parenesis).6. The author’s primary purpose is not to teach the doctrine of Christology. It is to encourage his readers to live by faith. At the same time, some teaching of Christology was necessary to provide the basis of his practical applications. Buist Fanning says,
The writer’s compelling view of Christ is that of God’s Son and High Priest exalted now to the position of greatest honor in God’s presence. This picture of Christ gives the right perspective for seeing who He is and all that He fulfilled in God’s eternal purpose by following the path of obedience set out for Him. It also gives a clear view of what He meant for the readers in their situation. With this view of the exalted Son, they could look in a fresh way at their own difficult circumstances and move forward with renewed hope along the trail He blazed for them.7
In summary, the author of Hebrews interweaves theology and practical application throughout his book in order to encourage believers to live by faith in the face of impending persecution.
Content of Hebrews. Current scholarship offers no agreement on how to divide the book of Hebrew.8 The purpose of this section is to suggest a working outline that adequately describes the interweaving of doctrinal and warning sections. This outline is made with the following presuppositions. First, the warning passages in Hebrews are based on the doctrinal teaching about Christ. Second, the purpose of the book of Hebrews is to encourage believers to live by faith. The following outline is suggested:
This chart merely shows the flow of thought in the book of Hebrews. In order to understand the content of the book, it is necessary to further define each of the divisions in the chart. Introduction—God used to speak via prophets in a number of different ways, but now he speaks to believers through Christ, his Son.
Doctrine 1—Christ has been exalted to the eternal throne, a position that is superior to the angels.
Warning 1—Since Christ has been exalted to the throne of the eternal kingdom, Christians must not drift away from his message.
Doctrine 2—Even though God put everything under the control of Christ, Christ is not ruling on earth at the present time; He humbly gave up control so that He could taste death in order to defeat Satan and provide atonement for sin, and, as a result God crowned Him with glory and honor.
Warning 2—Since Christ humbly submitted to death to atone for sins, Christians must not let their persecution cause them to become hardened by sin and turn away from the benefits of true salvation; instead, they are to remain faithful, and thus, enter into the promised rest of salvation.
Doctrine 3—After Christ learned obedience through suffering on the cross that qualified Him to be a high priest, God appointed Him to be the high priest in the heavenly tabernacle.
Warning 3—Just as Christ learned obedience through suffering before He became high priest, Christians also need to learn obedience through their own suffering; it is not enough to simply avoid falling away, they must also learn and grow in their obedience.
Doctrine 4—Christ’s high priestly sacrifice on the cross was effective in atoning for sins in a way similar to Old Testament sacrifices; however, Christ’s sacrifice was superior to Old Testament sacrifices because Christ as eternal high priest only had to sacrifice once for all to gain permanent access to the heavenly holy of holies.9
Warning 4—Since the blood of Christ’s high priestly sacrifice has made us holy, Christians should not despise His blood and face certain judgment; instead they must do all they can to serve God (and help others serve God) while they await the promise to come.
Doctrine 5—There are many Old Testament examples of believing men and women who served God by faith while waiting for what was promised; they did not fall away even though they did not see the promise fulfilled; New Testament believers have been given something much greater in Christ, so there is even less reason for them to fall away.
Warning 5—In light of these Old Testament examples of believers living by faith, and since Christians have been granted access to the very God of heaven through Christ’s high priestly ministry, they need to persevere in their service to God; they must not neglect or refuse this access (fellowship) to God by rejecting Christ’s high priestly sacrifice or they will face certain judgment.
Final appeal—Since believers are receiving an unshakable kingdom, they must continue to serve God with a proper reverence and awe for his person and his judgment, and with a genuine thankfulness for Christ’s high priestly ministry. Conclusion—the author of Hebrews makes some concluding remarks regarding prayer, his readers’ reception of his exhortation, and his plans to visit his readers.
1 For a good discussion see Lane, Hebrews 1-8, World Biblical Commentary, xlvii-clvii. See also Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 685-735.
2 Several locations have been suggested including Jerusalem, Palestine outside of Jerusalem, Rome, and others. This article works from the assumption that the church was in Rome. However, this does not greatly affect the interpretation of Hebrews 6.
3 Guthrie discusses four possible purposes: “to warn Jewish Christians against apostasy to Judaism,” “to challenge restricted Jewish Christians to embrace the world mission,” “to announce the absolute character of Christianity to mainly Gentile Christians,” and “to counteract an early type of heresy” (New Testament Introduction, 704-710).
4 Lane, Hebrews 1–8, lxx. See also Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 156.
5 Lane, Hebrews 1–8, c.
6 See Lane, Hebrews 1–8, c.
7 Buist Fanning, “A Theology of Hebrews,” in A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody, 1994), 369.
8 Lane says, “There is at the present time no consensus regarding the literary structure of Hebrews” (Hebrews 1–8, lxxxviii).
9 Access to the heavenly holy of holies refers to the believer’s ability to boldly approach God in fellowship. This access is made possible by the high priestly ministry of Christ. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes continual fellowship with God possible. See Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:19–22.
Dr. Andrew Hudson is Professor of New Testament at Maranatha Baptist Seminary. He attended Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan and Fort Wayne Bible College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana and holds the BA from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College and MDiv, ThM and PhD from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota.