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A Difficult Passage
4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
6:4–5 “Impossible” arrests our attention, abruptly opening a Greek sentence that runs for three verses. The author then builds suspense by withholding the detail of what, precisely, is “impossible” until the middle of verse 6: it is impossible, he finally says, “to restore . . . again to repentance” those who “have fallen away.” But before pronouncing a sober sentence on the spiritual treason from which there is no return, the author lists a series of God’s gracious gifts that compound the gravity of such apostasy. He switches from first- and second-person pronouns of interpersonal conversation (“we” and “you”; 5:11, 12; 6:1, 3) to descriptive third-person pronouns (“those who,” “they”) because he is not accusing his hearers of having passed the spiritual point of no return into curse and condemnation (6:8). Yet the privileges once enjoyed by apostates, the horrific evil of their fall away from trust in the Son of God, and their irremediable ruin are not irrelevant to the original audience in their immaturity, nor to anyone who needs stimulus to persevere to the end.
Four Greek participles—“having once been enlightened” (hapax phōtisthentas), “having tasted” (geusamenous), “having become” (genēthentas), and again “having tasted” (geusamenous)—introduce the spiritual privileges enjoyed by those who are members of the visible church. They were “once . . . enlightened” (6:4) when they heard God’s voice speaking good news (3:7; 4:2) of salvation through the apostles (2:3–4). In the work of Justin Martyr and later Fathers, “enlightenment” became a metaphor for baptism; but none of the uses of phōtizō in the NT refer explicitly to baptism (Luke 11:36; John 1:9; 1 Cor. 4:5; Eph. 1:18; 3:9; 2 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 18:1; 21:23; 22:5). Rather, those who are “enlightened” seem to be those who are exposed to God’s saving light through hearing the gospel proclaimed.
The other participial constructions focus on the primary means of grace, the apostolic word, and the Holy Spirit’s miraculous deeds that confirmed the apostles’ testimony. The pairing of the apostolic word and the Spirit’s confirmatory testimony is repeated twice, first in generalities and then more specifically:
(A) Having tasted the heavenly gift
(B) Having become partners/partakers of the Holy Spirit
(A’) Having tasted the goodness of the word of God
(B’) and the powers/miracles of the age to come
Although “the heavenly gift” could refer to the whole salvation that God bestows by grace, the repetition of “tasted” suggests that the gift coming down from heaven is specifically “the goodness of the word of God.” In Hebrews 12:25, God’s voice speaking to Israel on earth (at Sinai) will be contrasted to his addressing the new covenant church now from heaven. So the good word of God is a gift that now comes from heaven through Christ’s messengers.
Accompanying the apostles’ witness in words was God’s confirming testimony “by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The word dynameis (plural), translated “miracles” in 2:4, reappears here as “powers,” and in both texts, these miracles/powers are connected to the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:17–19; 4:29–31; 10:38). The link of the Spirit to miracles suggests that his public activity in the Christian community, not his secret regenerating work in human hearts, is in view. The Greek construction translated “have shared in the Holy Spirit” is literally “have become metochoi [companions] of the Holy Spirit.” The apostates had become the Holy Spirit’s companions, like the Messiah’s “companions” in Hebrews 1:9 and 3:14, as members of the Christian community, in which the Spirit attested the gospel through miracles. Perhaps they themselves performed such deeds of power despite their hearts’ alienation from God, as even Judas did (Matt. 10:1–8; cf. 7:21–23).
6:6 The ESV’s “and then have fallen away” rightly renders the final participle in the series of participles we looked at in the comment on 6:4–5. Some English versions read “if they fall away,” allowing for the interpretation that for people who had experienced the previous blessings, a fall into apostasy might be purely hypothetical, never actual. But the danger of willful apostasy, from which repentance is impossible, is real. It remains true that no one to whom Christ has given eternal life can be snatched out of his hand (John 10:29–30). But one can be a member of a new covenant congregation, hearing God’s word and seeing his Spirit’s works, yet nevertheless harden one’s heart against God’s voice, as some Israelites did (Heb. 3:1–4:13; cf. Acts 8:13, 18–24; 2 Pet. 2:1; Jude 4).
Our author, like pastors today, does not claim to look into others’ hearts but rather addresses his hearers in terms of their observable profession and behavior, recognizing that appearances may prove, in the end, to be deceiving. “Although the author addresses the community as a whole as believers, he hints at his own lack of omniscience—some may not be true believers even through by association they appear to be (3:6, 14; 4:1–2; 6:11).”1 The farmland analogy of verses 7–8 illustrates the distinction between externally experienced blessings and internal heart responses.
The gravity of such resolute rebellion, akin to Judas’s treachery, explains why it places the apostate’s heart beyond the possibility of repentance. God, who sovereignly grants repentance to rebels (Acts 3:26; 11:18), will not intervene (as he could) to turn around those who have willfully walked away. Such an apostate has identified himself with those who crucified the Son of God and treated him with contempt (Heb. 12:2–3; 13:13; cf. Matt. 27:39–44). Here and in 10:29 our author refers to Jesus as “the Son of God,” reminding us of his divine glory announced in the prologue (Heb. 1:1–4). His dignity underscores the horrific evil of renouncing allegiance to him and siding with his enemies.
Our preacher states plainly the response we must make to the terrifying possibility of irreversible apostasy and the comforting evidence of God’s heart-transforming, love-producing grace. Before new covenant Christians, no less than before ancient Israel, our covenant Lord has placed alternative outcomes of blessings and curses. These outcomes proceed from alternative responses to God’s word and Spirit, which fall like refreshing rain onto our congregations. Both for ourselves and for each other, we must beware of the trajectory that begins with flaccid hearing and an infantile incapacity to “digest” God’s word (5:11–6:3), that then proceeds to a deliberate repudiation of God’s Son (6:4–6), and ends in a cursed and fiery destruction (6:8).
On the other hand, we should recall (and God never forgets) how he has turned our hearts toward himself and his saints in practical love demonstrated in service. Such hints of his grace in our past and present experience should steel our confident hope in his sure promises and spur our energies to run the marathon of faith to its completion. This terrifying portrait of irreversible apostasy is given not to tempt us to try to discover whether someone else has crossed a spiritual point of no return, nor to discourage our efforts to recover those who have wandered from Christ (Matt. 18:10–14). Rather, its purpose is to caution us to beware, for ourselves and each other, of any movement whatsoever toward that lethal precipice.
- George H. Guthrie, Hebrews, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 229.
In the ESV Expository Commentary series, editors Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar have gathered a team of experienced pastor-theologians to provide a new generation of pastors and other teachers of the Bible around the world with a globally minded commentary series rich in biblical theology and broadly Reformed doctrine. Volumes 7 (Daniel–Malachi), 11 (Ephesians–Philemon), and 12 (Hebrews–Revelation) will be available in September 2018