Reposted from The Cripplegate.
One of my favorite Christian stories is Pilgrim’s Progress. First published in 1678, the full title of John Bunyan’s classic is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come.
The well-known allegory follows a man, who comes to be called Christian, as he flees from the City of Destruction and enters through the narrow gate, finding eternal life at the cross, and feeling the heavy burden of his sin fall off and roll away.
As he journeys along the King’s Highway toward the Celestial City, he encounters many dangers and temptations along the way—from Vanity Fair to Doubting Castle until he finally crosses the River of Death and reaches his destination.
One of my favorite scenes takes place when Christian and his traveling companion, Hopeful, make there way to the Delectable (Delightful) Mountains. There they meet a group of shepherds who seek to encourage them as they continue on their journey.
These shepherds take Christian and Hopeful to what Bunyan describes as, “a high hill, called Clear.”
There Christian and Hopeful are given what Bunyan describes as a “perspective glass” (what we might call a telescope), and as they look through the lens from the top of this mountain peak, they get a glimpse of the gates of the Celestial City in the distance.
(Hebrews 6:3-9 with Numbers 13-14)
In the United States, many people who had at one time professed allegiance to Jesus Christ have turned away from their previous commitment. We refer to a person who once knowingly professed the faith — but has since renounced it — as an “apostate” (from the Greek, “one who stands away” from what he once professed). Theologically, how do we account for apostates?
Most of us would agree that people who deny Christ (whether they once professed Him or not) are lost. But what route did these apostates take to earn this “lost” label? Do genuine believers always persevere in their faith? Is our assurance of salvation merely tentative — subject to revision? Bible-believing Christians are divided over this issue. For many, the text of Hebrews 6:3-9 is a deciding factor, and there are certainly a number of interpretative routes we could take.
I would like to demonstrate that interpreting this passage from a Midrash perspective clarifies the controversy. By Midrash, I mean that the writer to the Hebrews is intentionally and consciously drawing principles from Old Testament texts, in this instance Numbers 13:1-14:45. He applies the principles of this text to a current (somewhat parallel) problem within the Hebrew congregation, the result being Hebrews 6:3-9.
Since most Jews had memorized the entire Torah and were fluent in the rest of Old Testament, I would argue that the original readers of Hebrews understood this clearly.
There are two basic views of the nature of the judgment mentioned in Hebrews 6:6–8. Some suggest that the judgment is that of eternal damnation.1 McKnight collates all the information concerning judgment from the entire books of Hebrews and concludes the following: “In light of the final sense of several of these expressions (cf. especially the harsh realities of 10:30–31, 39) and the use of imagery in Hebrews that elsewhere is used predominantly of eternal damnation, it becomes quite clear that the author has in mind an eternal sense of destruction.”2 The second possible interpretation of the judgment in Hebrews 6:6–8 is that it entails loss of God’s blessing and the onset of cursing (up to and including physical death).3 Gleason summarizes, “In light of the Old Testament blessing-curse motif, the judgment in view in Hebrews 6:7–8 is best understood as the forfeiture of blessing and the experience of temporal discipline rather than eternal destruction.”4
There are three words or phrases in Hebrews 6:6 that describe what it means to “fall away.” Each of these is discussed individually.
Fall away. The first word used to describe falling away is “fall away” (παραπεσόντας).1 There are two broad categories of understanding concerning the nature of falling away. Some suggest that falling away is absolute apostasy, a total rejection of Christ and his gospel, an alignment with those who crucified Christ.2 Others suggest that falling away is a serious sin that a believer can commit which is usually identified as a decisive refusal to trust Christ’s high priestly ministry for help in daily living.3 The word “fall away” itself does not help in choosing which view is correct, because it does not have an object in Hebrews 6:6.4 It is uncertain from what one falls away. Neither does its use in the LXX aid one’s decision.5 Gleason concludes,
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)
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.
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?
Several views see those described in Hebrews 6:4-8 as genuinely saved individuals. At least four variations exist within this general category.
Those who hold the hypothetical rejection view suggest that the author of Hebrews desires to shake true believers loose from their moral lethargy by mentioning what would happen if they “fell away.”1 These believers would lose their salvation and face eternal condemnation. According to this view “fall away” means to reject the gospel of Christ, and the judgment that follows is the eternal condemnation of the unsaved.2 However, proponents of this view are quick to point out that this “falling away” is impossible for true believers. The author of Hebrews is merely using a hypothetical impossibility to warn true believers about continuing in their spiritual immaturity. Hewitt states, “The writer by the use of the phrase if they shall fall away does not say that the readers or anyone else had fallen away. He is putting forward a hypothetical case as the RSV translation, ‘if they then commit apostasy,’ suggests.”3