THE MARK OF TRUE BELIEVERS
We can know that we are really part of God’s house if we are “holding fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” The one who falls away never belonged in the first place (cf. 1 John 2:19). “If you abide in My word,” Jesus said, “then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31). Apparently, there were many Jews who had fallen away when the book of Hebrews was written.
THE TRAGEDY OF NEGLECTING SALVATION (2:3)
This passage addresses those that are well aware of the good news of salvation provided in Jesus Christ but are not willing to commit their lives to Him. Therefore, they drift past the call of God into eternal damnation.
TEACHING DEMANDS A RESPONSE
Despite the rejection of His own people, their hardness of heart, and their history of persecuting God’s messengers, Jesus nevertheless ached for the salvation of the Jews. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). On another occasion he told His Jewish listeners, “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). He had a compassionate concern that His hearers respond.
WARNING TO THE INTELLECTUALLY CONVINCED
“How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard.” (2:3)
This warning cannot be directed to true reborn Christians or to those who have never heard the gospel. It was therefore directed to the non-Christian Jews who were intellectually convinced of the gospel but who failed to receive it for themselves. They were not willing to confess Him as Lord and Savior. The message, of course, is not restricted to Jewish nonbelievers.
DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS (3:7-19)
“Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice,” (3:7)
To hear the Holy Spirit and know the truth and not accept it brings worse judgment than never to have known it at all. To enforce the warning, the Spirit uses an Old Testament story very familiar to Jews. Hebrews 3:7-11 is a quotation of Psalm 95:7-11 that speaks about the time of Moses and describes Israel’s disobedience and rejection of God in the Exodus wanderings. The basic warning from the psalm (“Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts”) is used three times in Hebrews 3 (vv. 7-8, 13, 15) and once in chapter 4 (v. 7).
The word, “Today,” of course, indicates urgency. “For He says, ‘At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you’; behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’ ” (2 Cor. 6:2). Today signifies the present time of grace. Nobody knows how long that time of grace for them will be before they die.
THE ILLISTRATION OF ISRAEL
“Do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness.” (3:8)
Israel had been in Egypt for more than 400 years, the last 200 years or so as slaves. They left under Moses’ leadership. After they arrived for the trial in the wilderness, God continued to bless them with miracles. After each blessing they were satisfied only for a brief time. They soon started again to complain and to doubt God. They never really believed. For some forty years they wandered around in circles in a barren, desolate, and oppressive land—because of their unbelief.
“Where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years.” (3:9)
The people of Israel kept testing God, and the day of trial lasted forty years. “They tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’” (17:7) “Don’t be like these people,” pleads the writer of Hebrews. The one who tests God today does so for the same reason as did the Israelites in Moses day—to put Him off, because they love their sin, their own way, their own plans too much to give them up for God’s.
“Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, “They always go astray in their heart; and they did not know My ways”; as I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’” (3:10-11)
God was extremely angry with Israel’s sin. As the Israelites finally neared the Promised Land, God commanded them to send out twelve men to spy it out before they entered. The majority report was extremely negative and pessimistic. As punishment, God said, “Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it” (Num. 14:22-23).
If Israel had more than enough evidence to trust God in Moses’ day, how much more do we have today? We have the evidence that Jesus Christ the Son of God died on a cross, rose again the third day, and lives and saves men. The evidence is in, the evidence is secure. Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, has manifested God. He has declared Him, He has displayed His love, He has displayed His grace, He has sent the Holy Spirit. We do not need a Moses. In addition to all the historical evidence, we have the third Person of the Trinity to reveal Christ.
Even the generation that entered the land never knew God’s rest in the true sense. In A.D. 70 their Temple was destroyed and they have since been scattered across the world. Only in our own day has God begun to gather them back to a homeland. Israel’s final rest will come only in the Kingdom that His Son will build when He returns again.
THE INVITATION: TAKE HEED
“Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God.” (3:12)
The readers of Hebrews should not follow Israel’s example. “Brethren” in this verse is not a reference to Christians but rather refers to racial brothers, unbelieving Jews, as the term does throughout the book of Acts.
No matter how close a person may be to accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, if he never comes to Him, he still has an evil, unbelieving heart. His punishment will be all the more severe because of his knowledge of the living God. If you continue to follow your evil, unbelieving heart rather than the gospel, you will forever depart from the living God, and forfeit salvation rest.
THE INSTRUCTION: EXHORT ONE ANOTHER DAILY
“But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (3:13)
They are especially urged to help their unbelieving Jewish brethren by encouraging them not to harden their hearts but to accept Jesus as the Messiah, while the time for grace still exists.
Sin is deceitful and as the old nature constantly suggests that sin is not as bad and that trust in Christ is not as important as the Bible says.
CONTINUANCE IS PROOF OF SALVATION
“For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” (3:14)
The greatest proof of salvation is continuance in the Christian life. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
THE ISSUE: UNBELIEF
“While it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.” (3:15-19)
The appeal to turn to the Lord without delay is repeated again. The disobedience of unbelief forfeits blessing and brings judgment. Not to trust in Him is fatal.
DULLNESS IN HEARING (5:11-14)
We have come to a section of Hebrews of which there are numerous and often conflicting interpretations, even among evangelicals. The overall passage is 5:11—6:12 and deals with spiritual maturity. The first two parts (5:11-14 and 6:1-8) address unbelievers, whereas the third (6:9-12) is aimed at believers.
“Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” (5:11)
“Him” refers to Melchizedek, who has first been mentioned vv. 6,10. The writer explains the order of Melchizedek in chapter 7.
The first warning (2:1-4) was about the Jews neglecting the gospel, and the second (3:7-19) was about hardening their hearts to it. The third warning concerns spiritual maturity and the danger of staying with the elemental truths and promises of the Old Covenant. All of these warnings were aimed at unbelieving Jews who knew a great deal about the gospel but who had not gone all the way to accepting it for themselves.
The maturity being called for is not that of a Christian’s growing in the faith, but of an unbeliever’s coming into the faith—into the full-grown, mature truths and blessings of the New Covenant. It refers to salvation, not Christian growth.
God’s revelation to man progresses from the Old to the New Testament. The Old Testament was His elementary, foundational teaching. Everything in the Old testament had purpose and benefit for the times for which it was given. But primarily, they were pictures of things to come, which the people were not then ready to understand. They were symbols and shadows of realities in Christ and the New Covenant (Col. 2:17). These Jews now had to move to the solid food of the New Testament.
DULLNESS PREVENTS UNDERSTANDING
The relation of Melchizedek and his priesthood to Christ cannot be understood by unbelievers. “A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God … because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). There was no use going into the deeper things of the New Covenant at that time, because they had become dull of hearing.
These unbelieving Jews could not truly understand the gospel, of course, until they put their trust in the Bearer of the gospel. The more they hear it without accepting it, the more spiritually sluggish and hardened to it they become.
At one time they had been stirred and moved and open. They were once on the brink of salvation. By now, however, they had sunk into a rather settled state of spiritual stupor.
DULLNESS IS UNPRODUCTIVE
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (5:12)
They had been exposed to a great deal of God’s truth, but because they had never truly accepted it, they had not grown in it—and could not grow in it. These Jews not only were unqualified to teach, but needed to go back to kindergarten.
THE FIRST PRINCIPLES OF GOD’S ORACLES
To the Jews, the oracles of God meant the laws and the mind of God as revealed in the Old Testament. They had had considerable exposure to the New Covenant, but they did not even comprehend the Old, as evidenced by their lack of ability to handle deeper truth about Melchizedek.
“Before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:23-24).
The law was a tutor that taught the first and basic truths about God. In the New Covenant we are not under the tutor anymore. We have “grown up.”
PROGRESS OR REGRESS
These Jews were slipping back into spiritual infancy. By neglect and hardness, they had come to the place where they could only handle milk again. They must be fed again like babies. They would have to start again from the bottom up, gradually increasing their spiritual perception and understanding.
“For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.” (5:13)
A spiritual infant is not accustomed (apeiros) to deeper truths. A spiritual child could get some meaning out of the pictures and types of the Old Testament but not out of the word of righteousness of the gospel.
“But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” (5:14)
The mature believer has discernment about what is right and wrong, true and false, helpful and harmful, righteous and unrighteous. Judaism is the infancy they are to leave in order to go on to the maturity of manhood by faith in the New Covenant Messiah.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN (6:1-8)
Persistent rejection of Christ may result in such persons’ passing the point of no return spiritually, of losing forever the opportunity of salvation. By not accepting the gospel when it was still “news,” these first century Jews had begun to grow indifferent to it and had become spiritually sluggish, neglectful, and hard. They were, in fact, in danger of going back to Judaism.
“Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings, and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” (6:1-2)
Leaving and press on to maturity are the first step in these Jews’ becoming spiritually mature. At no time does the Word of God suggest that a Christian drop the basics of Christianity and go on to something else. These Jews therefore had to leave all their ties with the Old Covenant, with Judaism, and accept Jesus Christ as Savior. They needed to abandon the shadows, the types, the pictures, and the sacrifices of the old economy and come to the reality of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
“For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13-14).
INCOMPLETE OLD TESTAMENT FEATURES
(A separate part of our study will address the differences between the Old Testament and Covenant on the one hand, and the New Testament and Covenant on the other, in more detail).
REPENTANCE FROM DEAD WORKS
Repentance of sin was preached in the Old Testament, but the doctrine of repentance becomes mature and complete, in Jesus Christ. Now that the New Covenant is in effect, repentance is meaningless without faith in Jesus Christ. “No one comes to the Father, but through Me,” said Jesus (John 14:6).
FAITH TOWARD GOD
Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6).Peter said, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). There is no way to the Father except through the Son. “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The Old Testament taught repentance from dead works and faith toward God. The New Testament teaches repentance in faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Way to God. The distinction is clear. The Jews addressed in this letter believed in God; but they were not saved.
INSTRUCTION ABOUT WASHINGS
(The King James translation (“doctrine of baptisms”) is misleading, especially since everywhere else, including Hebrews 9:10, the same Greek word (baptismos) is translated washings. The passage is not addressed to Christians.)
The Old Testament predicted that one day, ceremonial cleansings would be replaced by a spiritual one that God Himself would give: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols” (Ezek. 36:25).
LAYING ON OF HANDS
This laying on of hands has nothing to do with the apostolic practices (Acts 5:18; 6:6; 8:17; 1 Tim. 4:14; etc.). Under the Old Covenant the person who brought a sacrifice had to put his hands on it, to symbolize his identification with it (Lev. 1:4; 3:8, 13).
Christians lay hold of Christ by putting your trust in Him.
RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
The Old Testament doctrine of resurrection is not clear or complete. In the New Testament, resurrection is one of the major and most detailed doctrines. Christ said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
“God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Again, in the New Testament we are told a great deal more about eternal judgment.
The point of Hebrews 6:1-2 is simply that the unbelieving Jews should let go completely of the immature, elementary shadows and symbols of the Old Covenant and take hold of the mature and perfect reality of the New.
“And this we shall do, if God permits” (6:3)
“No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). By teacher and seeker alike, God’s sovereignty should always be recognized.
FIVE GREAT ADVANTAGES
“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.” (6:4-5)
1 THEY HAD BEEN ENLIGHTENED
Take notice that this passage makes no reference at all to salvation. Those who have once been enlightened are not spoken of as born again, made holy, or made righteous. The enlightenment spoken of here means to be mentally aware of something and carries no connotation of response—of acceptance or rejection, belief or disbelief.
Seeing God’s light and accepting it are not the same. Consequently, they were in danger of losing all opportunity of being saved, and of becoming apostate. “For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pet. 2:20-21). Because of their unbelief, the light that was given to save them became a judgment against them.
2 THEY HAD TASTED OF THE HEAVENLY GIFT
The heavenly gift could be one of several things. The greatest heavenly gift, of course, is Christ Himself (God’s “indescribable gift,” 2 Cor. 9:15) and the salvation He brought (Eph. 2:8). Sadly, they only tasted it but did not receive it. Eternal life comes from eating the living bread, not simply tasting it.
3 THEY HAD PARTAKEN OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Partakers (Greek, metochos) has to do with association, not possession. These Jews had never possessed the Holy Spirit, although they had seen and even participated in numerous signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thus, they did not have His indwelling.
4 THEY HAD TASTED THE WORD OF GOD
Tasting is the first step to eating. “O taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8). But hey just kept tasting, without swallowing it. Before long, its appealing taste was gone, and they became indifferent to it.
5 THEY HAD TASTED THE POWERS OF THE AGE TO COME
They saw the apostles do signs and wonders like those that will be reproduced in the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ. How guilty they will stand before God in the great white throne judgment.
“and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.” (6:6)
This warning once again speaks to the unsaved who have heard the truth and acknowledged it, but who have hesitated to embrace Christ. They are in danger of losing salvation—in the sense of losing the opportunity ever to receive it. There is no other salvation message they could hear, no evidence of the truth of the gospel they had not seen. They not only reject the gospel, but crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.
Many interpreters, however, hold that the passage teaches that salvation can be lost. If true, it would then also mean that once lost, salvation could never be regained. This is wrong as Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). If by Christ’s death we can be saved, certainly by His life of power and intercession we can be kept saved (Rom. 5:10).
They had turned around and gone back to Judaism. They therefore agreed with those who killed Jesus, and they put Him to an open shame again. Shame here connotes guilt. They declared openly that Jesus was guilty as charged. When a person goes away from Him in full light, he places Him on the cross again, in his own heart, and puts himself forever out of the Lord’s reach. “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29).
“For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” (6:7-8)
All those who hear the gospel are like the earth. The rain falls, the gospel message is heard. The gospel seed is planted but some of the growth is false and unproductive and become good only for burning.
A MESSAGE TO THE BELIEVERS (6:9-12)
“But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (6:9-12)
After the severest of warnings, comes the most loving of appeals and is speaking of things that accompany salvation. First the writer gives a brief word to the believers, who through faith and patience inherit the promises, and who should be imitated by the unbelievers. (The word “beloved” is never used in Scripture to refer to unbelievers.)
ACCOMPANIMENTS OF SALVATION
Many things accompany salvation. They do not reflect external ceremonial religion but internal regeneration, transformation, new life. Their significance comes not from repeated sacrifices but from the one perfect and complete sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The focus in not just on being enlightened but on being made new.
GOD DOES NOT FORGET HIS OWN
“For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.” (6:10)
The proof that the Hebrews addressed in 6:9-10 were true believers was their loving, faithful, and continuing ministry to fellow believers. They had ministered and were still ministering. A Christian’s works are not what saved him or what keep him saved, but they are an evidence of his salvation (cf. John 13:34-35). Our faith is demonstrated by our works (James 2:18, 26).
But an even more significant evidence is love shown toward His name. The key to true Christian service is a burning love for the Lord. To love His name is to have a passionate desire for the glory of all that God is. Speaking of some traveling ministers, John says of them, “For they went out for the sake of the Name” (3 John 7).
God knows who are really His and who are faithful. He will not forget His own or their work for Him and they will not lose their salvation. “A book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the LORD and who esteem His name. ‘And they will be Mine,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘. . . I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him’ ” (Mal. 3:16-17).
“And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, that you may not be sluggish, but be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (6:11-12)
Here, writer is again speaking to the unbelievers, those who had made some sort of profession of faith but who were in imminent danger of falling back into Judaism and of losing forever their opportunity for salvation. They should look at the true believers as an example of true faith to become co-inheritance of the eternal promise. Just as they were sluggish in hearing, they were sluggish in believing. The time for accepting Christ is never later; it is always now. “Now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is the ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2).
(MAIN SOURCE: MACARTHUR NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY – JOHN MACARTHUR)