The Epistle of Hebrews was written to second generation Jewish Christians who were dispersed throughout the Roman world. This dispersion was a result of the Jewish Wars waged by Rome against the Jewish revolt (AD 66-70). The recipients of this letter had not only been run out of their homeland, but there was also a tension brewing between the converts and their family and friends who did not understand their new faith. In light of this, the author pens this epistle to prevent his readers from abandoning their faith and to encourage them not to go back to Pharisaical Judaism.
In order to accomplish his purpose, the author warns his readers regarding six dangers they potentially faced. They are:
- The danger of neglecting salvation (2:1-4).
- The danger of unbelief (3:7-19).
- The danger of immaturity (5:11-6:3).
- The danger of falling away (6:4-6).
- The danger of apostasy (10:26-39).
- The danger of turning a deaf ear to Christ (12:25-29).
In this article, consideration will be given to the fourth danger, and perhaps the most contentious… the danger of falling away (6:4-6).
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. – Hebrews 6:4-6
Some of the contention is due in part to a misunderstanding of the rules of biblical interpretation. Some contention comes from those who hold their particular theological bent above the revealed truth of God’s Word. Still some contention comes from a desire to willingly ignore the text and make it say something more appeasing to the modern ‘Christian’. In order to form a proper understanding and application of this text, a proper exegesis of the text is necessary.
WHAT THEY WERE
From the outset, the reader is presented with four statements regarding those in danger of falling away. First, they “were once enlightened.” This phrase is in the aorist tense, which means that it was a complete, finished action. The term enlightened (phōtízō) means to illumine; to imbue with saving knowledge, to instruct, to give knowledge to. The Septuagint uses this term to translate the Hebrew terms teach and instruct (Judges 13:8; 2 Kings 12:8). It is clear from John 1:9-12, that giving the Light of salvation to all mankind, does not guarantee salvation for all mankind. During the Second Century, the term enlightenment was used as a synonym for baptism.1 The Peshitta Syriac (a translation of the Bible in the Syriac language dating around AD 150) translates this phrase as those “who have once descended to baptism.”2 Thus, it can be argued that some have an intellectual awareness of the faith and have made a profession. Perhaps they have even gone through the public act of baptism and given testimony of their conversion.
Second, they “have tasted of the heavenly gift.” The term tasted (geuomai) means to feel, make trial of, experience. It is the same word used in John 2:19 when the master of ceremonies at the wedding feast in Cana, tasted the water and discovered that it was indeed wine! That this verb is in the aorist tense, indicates that this tasting was momentary and not ongoing. The heavenly gift is all inclusive of the spiritual blessings given to believers at salvation (Ephesians 1:3) These include, but are not limited to, the gifts, which Jesus gave to the Church (Ephesians 4:7-8), namely apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. Jesus provided those gifts for the purpose of perfecting the saints for the work of the ministry, to edify the body of Christ and to produce unity and perfection within the body of Christ. The ones who have made an outward profession of faith have on some level experienced the spiritual blessings in Christ. They have been welcomed into the local body of believers, enjoyed fellowship with believers, and have been ministered to through the ministry of pastors and teachers.
Third, they “were made partakers of the Holy Ghost.” The phrase were made (gínomai) means to show oneself or prove oneself. The word partakers (métochos) means sharing in, partaking. It is used elsewhere in Scripture to describe those who partner or participate with another (Luke 5:7; Hebrews 1:9; 3:1, 14). In secular Greek, this term is used of one who participates with someone else in a common activity.3 The Greek tense of the participle is in the aorist tense indicating a one time act in the past with no ongoing results. Thus, these individuals had shared in the pre-salvation ministry of the Holy Spirit. They had heard the Gospel, repented of their sins and believed in the finished work of Christ, but they had never experienced the ongoing ministry of the Spirit (i.e. indwelling, sealing, baptizing). There was outward conformity but no inward reality. The truth of this can be seen in their lack of fruit production.
Simon Magus serves as an excellent example. In Acts 8, the reader is introduced to Simon. He is a sorcerer, living in the province of Samaria, He was greatly feared and respected. Philip the evangelist came to Samaria, preached the Gospel and was met with a great number of converts. Acts 8:13 states, “Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.” To all around him, including Philip, he appeared to be a true believer. When Peter and John came to Samaria (to confirm the reports they heard), the believers received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. However, Simon did not received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Instead, he offered to buy it. Peter rebuked him and stated that he has “neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:21). There was outward conformity, but no inward reality. Peter commanded him to repent and pray that God might forgive the sin of his heart. The text is clear though that this is an impossibility.4 Peter made it clear that Simon was still “in the bonds of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). Simon’s only response was to ask Peter to pray for him… sadly, no true repentance was demonstrated on the part of Simon.
Fourth, they “have tasted the good word of God.” Again they have tasted (geuomai) or experienced something. The verb is also in the aorist tense indicating that this tasting was momentary and not ongoing. The term good (kalós) means good, excellent in its nature and characteristics. The term word (rhḗma) refers to that which is spoken… a declaration; thus the Spoken Word. This word is distinguished from the term logos (lógos) which refers to the Written Word. Such individuals have experienced through the declaration of the Scripture the very nature of the Word of God. Perhaps on some level it has brought conviction but like James’ natural man who beheld his face in the mirror, he turned away changing nothing (James 1:23). They are hearers of the Word but not doers.
Lastly, they “[have tasted] the power of the world to come.” This phrase is connected by the conjunction and (kai) to the previous phrase. Therefore, the participle have tasted applies as much to the fifth statement as it does to the fourth. The term power (dúnamis) means capability, might in action. When the plural form of this term is used (as it is here) it refers to the miracles of Jesus. The term world (aiṓn) means age. That it is the age to come, differentiates it from the current or present age. This age to come is the Millennial Age.5 During His first advent, Jesus performed key miracles to identify Himself as the Messiah and King; during His second advent (i.e. the Millennium), He will again perform such miracles. These individuals have verified the validity of the miracles. Perhaps they had even performed the miraculous. Remember the words of Christ, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” It is possible to look like a Christian and act like a Christian, but not be a Christian.
WHAT THEY BECAME
Note the phrase, “If they shall fall away.” This speaks of what they became. This English translation has caused some confusion regarding what the text actually says, due to the addition of the term if. Interestingly, the Greek text does not contain this term, nor does it imply it. The Greek text reads kai parapesovtos. As noted earlier, kai translates as the conjunction and. The term parapesovtos means to fall aside so as to desert; to turn aside. The term is a participle in the aorist tense. A proper translation of this phrase would be “and having turned aside” or “and having deserted.” This is not a conditional phrase that indicates some possibility. This is a statement of past fact; this is what they became. This deserting is an abandoning of the principles of Christianity (i.e. apostasy). A believer’s struggle to overcome sin is not in view here. These individuals willfully turned away from God’s revealed truth and have embraced the godlessness of the age.
Because they have apostatized, “it is impossible […] to renew them again to repentance.” Impossible means simply that, impossible or unable. Renew (anakainízō) occurs only here in the New Testament. However, the Septuagint uses this term for to translate the Hebrew term meaning restore (Psalm 103:5; 104:30; Lamentations 5:21). By joining the verb renew with the term again (pálin), it denotes the idea of restoring back to a previous condition. This previous condition is repentance (metánoia). Repentance is a change of mind where one turns from rebellion to submission to God. It is a change of heart where one turns from hating God to loving Him. It is a change of will or behavior, where one turns from disobedience to obedience. The Scripture is clear: those, who have made an outward profession of faith, gone through all the outward motions and then come to a place where they apostatize and embrace godlessness, cannot be brought to repentance.
Consider Judas Iscariot. For three plus years, Judas followed Christ, making profession, serving and performing miracles yet he apostatized and embraced godlessness. While Judas came to a place of remorse for what he had done, he never repented and went into a Christ-less eternity. Remorse is not genuine repentance. As well, consider Esau. Hebrews 12:16-17 states, “Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” Esau found no place for repentance; that is he could not repent. Esau cried out with remorse, but in his heart he refused to submit to God’s terms. In his heart, he was a fornicator and profane (i.e. immoral and godless). Simon Magus, Judas Iscariot and Esau serve as examples of those for whom it was impossible to restore back to a condition of genuine repentance.
WHAT THEY ARE DOING
Apostasy and godlessness are not without recourse. Indeed the result of one being beyond repentance is due to what they are doing: “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” Both participles crucify and put him to an open shame are in the present tense. This indicates that both actions are currently ongoing. The term crucify (anastauróō) means to raise up and fix upon the cross or to crucify again. The phrase put him to an open shame (paradeigmatízō) means to expose to public disgrace.
This raises two question. First, how does someone crucify… the Son of God afresh? When one turns their back on what the cross accomplished (namely purifying man and making him holy in the sight of God – Titus 2:14) that individual has effectively nailed Christ to the cross once again. Such people are no different then those who actually rejected Him as the Messiah and personally nailed Him to the cross. Christ is no longer Lord and Savior but an imposter. This then answers the next question, namely, how does someone put him to an open shame? If Christ is publicly seen as an imposter, due to the behavior of the apostate, it exposes him to open contempt and public disgrace.
The individuals described here are not true believers who fall away from the truth and lose their salvation. They are not true believers who deny their faith but remain saved, losing only their heavenly rewards. They are not simply hypothetical examples of something that cannot happen but used as a warning to press on. Indeed, the individuals described in this text are in the church and give the appearance of being saved. At some point, they repudiate their faith and return to the world. In so doing, their hearts have been hardened against the truth and thus are unable to ever come to genuine repentance.
Beware of dabbling with the faith only to later reject the light of the truth that has been graciously given. It is sobering to know that one can profess Christ and even appear to others to be one of His and yet not be genuinely saved (Titus 1:16). Beware of producing no fruit. Every true believer bears fruit and every false believer produces only thorns and thistles (Hebrews 6:7-8).
- Justin Martyr, Apology, 1.61.65; Dialogue with Trypho 122
- James P. Murdock, The New Testament: Translated from the Syriac Peshiot Version, (1852)
- Kenneth Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Vol. 2, (1988) p. 115
- “if [repent] perhaps… may be forgiven” – This phrase is a Second Class Conditional clause. A conditional clause states that if something happens then something else will happen. The if part of the clause is known as the protasis and the then part of the clause is known as the apodosis. The Second Class Conditional Clause is the Contrary to Fact Condition clause. It assumes that the protasis as false. The tense of the verb in the protasis must be either aorist or imperfect tense. The verb repent (metanoeson) is in the Aorist Tense. Thus, Peter’s command to repent in order to be forgiven is impossible for Simon.
- Kenneth Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Vol. 2, (1988) p. 116-17
© Rev. Gregory G. Capel, Jr. – 2010, 2016