Specific Context of Hebrews 6:4–8
Now that the general context has been established, it is helpful to discuss the specific context of Hebrews 6:4–8. In order to define the specific context of this paragraph, it is necessary to discuss the section in which it is located (5:1–6:20). The following outline is suggested:
I. Christ was Appointed by God as High Priest in the Heavenly Temple (5:1-10)
A. Every high priest is chosen from among the people to represent the people before God (5:1-3)
B. Jesus did not appoint Himself high priest, but God gave Him this position after Jesus experienced human suffering that qualified Him for the position (5:4-10)
II. How Should I Live Then? Just as Christ learned obedience through suffering before becoming high priest–you also need to learn obedience from your persecution; it is not enough to simply avoid falling away, you must also learn and grow in your obedience (5:11-6:20)
A. There is much more to learn by Christ’s high priesthood, but your lack of maturity has made it difficult for you to understand (5:11-14)
B. Abandon your spiritual laziness so that we can leave the elementary teachings and go on to teach you (Lord willing) a mature presentation of Jesus’ priesthood (6:1-20)
1. Be diligent in your spiritual life so that we do not have to teach you the elementary foundation of your faith again (6:1-3)
2. The reason you need to be diligent in these elementary things is because there is no other adequate foundation on which to grow, and failure to do so will result in certain judgment (6:4-8)
a) Christians who fall away (return to a sacrificial system) cannot move on to spiritual maturity because they are denying the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, and they lay a false foundation (6:4-5)
b) Christians who fall away do not produce the fruit of the Spirit and are in grave danger of judgment that is similar to the curses of the Mosaic covenant (6:7-8)
3. We are confident of better things for you than judgment; we trust that you will diligently mature until the end, and then receive the inheritance promised to you (6:9-20)
In summary, Hebrews 6:4–8 provides some motivation for the believer to press on to maturity. Hebrews 5:11–14 describes the spiritual laziness that the believers were demonstrating. In 6:1–3, the author of Hebrews appeals for these apathetic Christians to press on to spiritual maturity. Verse 4 begins with the word “for” (γaρ), indicating that what follows is a reason why the believer should press on to spiritual maturity. Donald Hagner says,
The manner in which this section is connected with the preceding material, with the logical connective “for” (untranslated in the NIV), suggest that if the readers do not “go on” into fullness of Christian doctrine, they will be in grave danger of falling away altogether, back into Judaism, thereby committing apostasy. In their present state, indeed, even their grasp of the “elementary truths of God’s words” (5:12) is questionable. Thus, as further motivation for the readers to press on to a mature understanding of their Christian faith, the author points out the seriousness of apostasy.1
Hebrews 6:4–8, then, appears to be motivation for a believer to abandon spiritual laziness and press on to spiritual maturity.
The Old Testament Background of Hebrews 6:4–8
The book of Hebrews makes frequent comparisons between the Old Testament Mosaic system and the New Testament believer. A proper understanding of the Mosaic system is a prerequisite for a proper interpretation of the book of Hebrews. Several aspects of this system are relevant to the interpretation of Hebrews 6:4–8. These aspects are: the high priesthood, the purpose of the tabernacle, the purpose of animal sacrifices, and the concept of blessing and cursing.
OT high priesthood. The high priest in the Mosaic system was the mediator between God and his people. He was responsible for all of the sacrificial responsibilities of the tabernacle (and later the temple). McCready summarizes the high priest’s duties:
The primary function of the high priest was to administer and direct the sacrificial system. He alone was allowed to go behind the veil of the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2). He dealt with the sin offerings whose blood was brought into the sanctuary of the temple (Lev. 4:3–21). The high priest’s responsibilities included all the sacrificial activities that took place inside the temple, either with his direct involvement or under his supervision.2
The author of Hebrews calls Christ a high priest throughout the book.3 Christ functions as the high priest for the New Testament believer. Christ has entered the heavenly holy of holies on the believer’s behalf to provide continual, permanent access to God (Heb 6:14–16; 10:19–21). Christ the high priest is also presented in Hebrews as Christ the sacrifice (Heb 10:10–12). Mosaic priests offered animals. Christ offered Himself.
Purpose of the tabernacle. After Israel’s exodus from Egypt and their accepting of the Mosaic covenant, God commanded his people to build a tabernacle. The purpose of the tabernacle was to provide a dwelling place for God (Exod 25:8). This dwelling place would be the place where God’s people would come to worship and fellowship with Him. The tabernacle was God’s means for restoring a fellowship similar to the kind man had with God in the Garden of Eden. Several parallels have been suggested between the creation accounts and the construction of the tabernacle.4 Sailhamer concludes, “By depicting the Garden of Eden in conjunction with the tabernacle, the writer [of the Pentateuch] apparently wants to show the purpose of the tabernacle as a return to the Garden of Eden.”5 Man had perfect fellowship with God in the Garden.
While the tabernacle was designed to provide a place for Edenic-type worship, it only had limited success. God took up residence in the holy of holies; only the high priest could enter his presence and that only once each year. This ministry of the high priest is referred to in Hebrews 6:19–20. Christ’s high priestly sacrifice provided a means for the New Testament believer to have continual access to the heavenly holy of holies (and thus, the ability to enter God’s presence to worship). The ordinary Old Testament believer could only worship God through the ministry of the priesthood and could never have direct access to God’s presence.
The Old Testament believer went to the tabernacle to worship God. He did not go to maintain his salvation. The tabernacle was a place of fellowship and worship, not a place to procure salvation.
Purpose of animal sacrifices. Levitical sacrifices were never intended to atone for sin resulting in a person’s salvation. They were only designed to restore fellowship between God and the Old Testament believer when inadvertent or unintentional sins had interrupted that fellowship. Neither were animal sacrifices ever capable of atoning for sins resulting in salvation (Heb 10:4, 11). They were only able to atone for sins resulting in restored fellowship between a believer and God. Carpenter says,
Both Abba and Saydon pointed out the shortcomings of the OT sacrificial system. It was not meant to be final; it had a limited range of effectiveness, operating only within the covenant. Only sins of ignorance or of human frailty were forgiven within this cultic system. No sacrifice could atone for deliberate, rebellious acts against God that were adamantly continued.6
There appears to have been no sacrifice that could atone (restore fellowship) for an intentional sin.7 However, this may not necessarily be the case. The sins listed in Leviticus 6 are surely intentional. They include sins such as keeping something that someone loans you and then lying about it, stealing from someone, and finding something and lying to the person who lost it. These sins are atoned for by a trespass offering. This offering is only given after restitution to the other person is made. It appears that an intentional sin can be moved into the category of unintentional by means of confession and restitution.8 A sacrifice then can be made to restore fellowship with God. Therefore, the only time a sin cannot be sacrificed for in the Mosaic system is when the one who committed the sin is unrepentant.
It is not the person who intentionally sins who is barred from fellowship in the Old Testament, but the person who is not repentant of their sin. Hamilton says that this is exactly what is referred to in the book of Hebrews.
To say this is to echo exactly what is said by Hebrews. Compare the language of Hebrews 6:4, 6, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance … if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God… .” Or this, “if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:26). It is the absence of confession and contrition that bars the way of the backslider into restored, redemptive fellowship with Christ.9
Blessings and Curses. The concept of blessing and cursing is a common theme throughout the Old Testament. Both blessings and curses are recorded in Deuteronomy 28–30 as part of the Mosaic covenant. Blessings and curses were a normal part of the covenant relationship during this time period. Walton and Matthews conclude,
Curses and blessings are standard elements of the ancient treaties of the third, second and first millennia B.C., though they vary in specificity and proportion from one period to another. Since the treaty documents were confirmed by an oath in the names of deities, the curses and blessings were usually those that were to be brought by the deities rather than the parties to the treaty. Here that is of little difference because God is a party to the covenant rather than simply the enforcer of it. Many of the curses found here are found in similar wording in the Assyrian treaties of the seventh century B.C. Similarities can also be seen in the Atrahisis Epic, where, prior to sending the flood, the gods send various plagues on the land. These include the categories of disease, drought and famine, sale of family members into slavery, and cannibalism.10
Blessings were given when a covenant people fulfilled the stipulations of the covenant. Curses were sent when the covenant people disobeyed the stipulations of the covenant. This is also true for the Mosaic covenant (Deut 28:1ff). In the Mosaic system, cursing could be reversed if there was genuine repentance (Deut 30), though the consequences of sin were not always removed.
God chose to incorporate blessings and curses into the Mosaic system to give visible expression to his response to the choices of man. Hamilton says,
Toward the law no believer can be neutral. Either he will choose to live by it or he will choose to ignore it. What Moses is interested in establishing here is the fact of consequences, or retribution, a divine response that is commensurate with the choices made by the individual.11
God used the curses of the Mosaic system to draw Israel back to a place of obedience. Throughout the history of the nation of Israel, there is a cycle of obedience (blessing), disobedience (curses), and repentance (retracted curse/restored blessing). This cycle indicates that Israel never lost her position as God’s covenant people when she rebelled. She only experienced the curses of the covenant.
The blessings included wealth, abundant crops, land, and proliferation of family. Curses included poverty, drought, captivity, and infertility. Sailhamer likens the blessings to the experience in the Garden of Eden and the curses to the experience of the post-fall generation.12 The illustration in Hebrews 6:7–8 is a direct allusion to the Old Testament blessing and cursing concept. Verse 7 refers to blessings for obedience, while verse 8 refers to the curses that result from disobedience. Cursing under the Mosaic system never removed anyone from the covenant community. It is logical, then, to conclude that cursing (God’s response to the disobedient believer) mentioned in the New Testament never removed anyone from God’s people.
1 Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990) 90, 91. Hagner identifies apostasy as the unforgivable sin of Mark 3:29 and 1 John 5:16. Even if “falling away” is defined as something other than apostasy, Hagner’s point is still valid. The content of verses 4–8 provide a motivation for the believer to press on to spiritual maturity.
2 W.O. McCready, s.v. “Priest, High,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 3:962.
3 For example, 2:17; 3:1; 4:14–15; 5:1, 10; 6:20; 7:17, 21; 8:1–2; 9:11; 10:21; 12:24; 13:11–12. Fanning says, “The picture of Jesus Christ as High Priest is the most distinctive theme of Hebrews, and it is central to the theology of the book. As already stated, its doctrine of sonship is foundational to its teaching about Christ’s priesthood. Likewise, its view of salvation, of the Christian life, and of salvation-history are all vitally connected to the theme of His high priesthood” (“A Theology of Hebrews,” 388).
4 See Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 233–234; and John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 300–301.
5 Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 300.
6 Carpenter, s.v. “Sacrifices and Offerings in the Old Testament,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 4: 272.
7 It is sometimes argued that this is what makes Christ’s sacrifice better. His sacrifice atoned for intentional and unintentional sins.
8 Hamilton says “To solve the dilemma—how can deliberate sins be forgiven?—we may turn to a variant of Leviticus 5:14–6:7, the passage in Numbers is that confession is essential in the case of a deliberate sin. It must succeed conviction and precede restitution (Num. 5:7). Thus the sin moves into the category of inadvertent sins and may be expiated” (Handbook on the Pentateuch, 261).
9 Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 262. Hamilton’s point is valid in Hebrews 10 when there is no mention of repentance. But it is off the mark slightly with regard to Hebrews 6:4–8. In Hebrews 6, even repentance cannot prevent the infliction of judgment (see interpretation later in this paper).
10 John Walton and Victor Matthews, The Bible Background Commentary: Genesis–Deuteronomy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 263.
11 Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 455.
12 Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 471. He says, “The nature of the blessings is reminiscent of the blessings in the Garden of Eden—enjoyment of God’s good land… . The description of the curse is reminiscent of the curse after the Fall in the Genesis narratives—affliction and ultimately exile from God’s land.”
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.