An Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:26-31
Here’s a paper I wrote on the warning passages in Hebrews. I couldn’t figure out how to copy and paste the footnotes, so I left the bibliography at the end – in case you’re interested. Also, the paragraph breaks are really weird for some reason, but I’m not going to fix that right now.
It can be said that one of the most highly debated and controversial texts in the Bible are the Hebrews warning passages. Additionally, these verses are the cause of much anguish among those who are cognizant to the seriousness of sin, but have not been taught how to reconcile these passages with the rest of the Bible. While there is certainly an abundance of nuanced views on this subject, Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday, in The Race Set Before Us, discuss what are essentially the four major approaches to these passages, while adding their own unique and helpful interpretation.
I do not intend to rehash, nor undertake a detailed analysis of these views in this paper. Instead, I wish to approach these passages (specifically Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31) from a contextual perspective, highlighting and comparing the similarities between the audience of Hebrews and their Old Testament counterparts, examining the parallels (and differences) of their situations, and explaining how the warning passages can be understood in light of these curiously overlooked associations.
Before I begin a comparison of Hebrews and the Old Testament, it is important to understand the style in which Hebrews is written. Most conservative scholars agree that Hebrews is a very pastoral letter, containing numerous examples of exhortation and exposition. In other words, Hebrews is essentially a sermon written to a particular group of people.
I contend that these two points are necessary to understanding the overall flow of Hebrews. First, the sermonic nature of the letter clues the reader to the striking parallels that Hebrews shares with Deuteronomy. I believe a closer examination of their complementary themes will help us better understand the warning passages of Hebrews. Also, I contend that in light of the deuteronomic nature of Hebrews, we can reasonably narrow down the audience of this letter to those Jewish Christians who were living in Jerusalem – probably sometime in the mid to late 60’s.
While my purpose here is not to prove the audience of Hebrews, it may be helpful if I briefly examine one potential challenge to my statement – that of Hebrews 13:24. Many scholars contend that the phrase “those from Italy send you their greetings,” refers to Christians who had once been residences of Italy, but were now exiled in another area (where the author is writing from). In other words, the author is writing to Christians in Italy and is sending greetings from their exiled friends. It is possible, though, that the author is writing from Italy to Christians residing somewhere else (say, Jerusalem), and he is sending greetings to them from Italy.
As I further explain my position in the course of this paper, further evidence to support this claim will be provided.
In order to support my view that Hebrews is best understood in light of Deuteronomy, it is necessary to observe the immediate context of both books. First, note that Deuteronomy occurs immediately before Israel enters the Promised Land. Forty years earlier, Moses had led Israel out of Egyptian captivity and they were supposed to enter Canaan at that point. Because of Israel’s sin (specifically, her refusal to trust God to conquer the giants of Canaan), she was forced to journey in the wilderness for forty years. One aspect of Israel’s discipline was that the unfaithful generation would die in the wilderness (aside from Joshua and Caleb), and their children would inherit and conquer the land. Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon from Moses to that second generation of Israelites, expounding the history of Israel in the wilderness, including an extremely detailed exhortation based on the ten commandments.
Hebrews takes place in a very similar context, but with interesting twists. First, the New Covenant has a similar structure to the exodus: Deliverance through Christ (the greater Moses), the beginning of a new creation (The Promised Land), apostasy (rejection of Christ), 40 years of “wilderness,” and it’s culmination in the destruction of the old world (the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). Notice, though, that in the Old Covenant, Israel’s sin is punished with death, whereas in the New Covenant, the 40 years are marked by grace (“Father forgive them”). There will be judgment, but more than just Caleb and Joshua will prove to be faithful. Further, the identification of Jesus as the greater Moses is important. Just as Moses preached a sermon to the Israelites to persevere and remain faithful, so Jesus preaches to the Israelites to do the same.
With these immediate contexts in mind, a brief overview of the broader contexts will be helpful to our understanding of the warning passages. In the introduction to his commentary on Hebrews, Robert W. Ross makes the astute point that “The Epistle to the Hebrews is best comprehended when the five books of Moses are familiar ground.”
With this in mind, let us reflect on the major events and themes that have led up to Israel’s imminent crossing into the Promised Land. First, there is the theme of creation. Following the creation of the world, we are given a number of “lesser” creation accounts that contain similar structures to the Genesis 1 narrative. The destruction of the world by flood and subsequent re-creation through Noah and his family (which includes a 40 day and night “wilderness” journey) is a fairly obvious example of this, but there are also similar themes in the Pentateuch, culminating in the destruction of the old world (Egypt) and salvation of the Israelites for a new world. Second, there is the theme of exodus. Before the Israelites ultimate journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, there are a number of accounts detailing the various forays into and back out of the land of Canaan before it had matured into the land flowing with milk and honey. Third, there are the varying degrees of restructuring that God does to His people to make them into a priestly nation, beginning with Abraham’s call out of paganism, followed by God’s choosing of the Levites to be the priestly tribe and representative firstborns of Israel, and also to the whole sacrificial system which allowed Israel to draw (relatively) near to God. Finally, there is the mustering of God’s army, as seen in Numbers, as they prepare to conquer the Canaanites.
While there is much more that could be highlighted in terms of major themes in the Pentateuch, I believe these four examples (along with the sermonic nature of Deuteronomy) will help to bring greater clarity to the big picture of Hebrews. I will next highlight some of these same themes that are fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. First, bypassing creation for a moment, Jesus’ life mimics the exodus story of the Israelites. Beginning with the slaughter of baby boys under Herod and His protection in Egypt, followed by His baptism and forty days in the wilderness, and culminating with His journey into the new Promised Land as the perfect resurrected Joshua, Jesus’ life is essentially a recapitulation of Israel’s exodus. Second, Jesus’ ministry is marked by His restructuring of Israel into a true priestly nation. We see this primarily in His healings, in which Jesus specifically heals those particular maladies (blindness, lameness, leprosy, etc…) that are referenced in Leviticus as barring a Levite from being priest. In other words, Jesus is restoring Israel back to their original purpose. In addition, Jesus’ sacrifice as the perfect Lamb is the fulfillment of the whole sacrificial system and made the way for Israel to appropriately draw near to God. Third, Jesus musters an army – beginning with the calling of the twelve disciples – in order to conquer the new Promised Land.
This naturally leads us to the fourth and final theme: the new creation. Moses was providentially placed in a position to lead Israel out of captivity. This new world was inaugurated when they crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was destroyed, but the old world did not officially conclude until forty years later when Israel crossed into the Promised Land. Despite Egypt being destroyed, the Israelites refused to let go – often pining for the “old days” and grumbling about God’s provision. This is precisely what is occurring in the New Covenant. Jesus has inaugurated a new world, but the Israelites are not conquering it like they should. This is part of the reason why the kingdom is being given to the Gentiles, though It should be noted here that Jesus did not come to minister to the Gentiles (Matt. 15:21-28).
Certainly there were symbols and signs of what was to come, but Jesus came to judge His people and to show them what the true Israel looked like. This point is important because Hebrews is written to the children of these same Israelites whose parents had rejected Christ during His life, but were now converts to Christianity and were in danger of falling away – as many had already.
The end of the old creation concluded in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s old covenant rituals, but for the forty years leading up to this event, these Israelites were acting just like their forebears in the wilderness. This is the point of Hebrews, and this context is necessary for properly understanding the warning passages.
Regarding the following exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:26-31, and given the similarities that I suggest Deuteronomy and Hebrews share, it will be helpful to analyze the structures of both books and compare where the warning passages of Hebrews line up with the same in Deuteronomy. Meredith Kline broadly outlines Deuteronomy in this manner: Preamble (1:1-5), Historical Prologue (1:6 – 4:49), Covenantal Stipulations (5:1 – 26:19), Sanctions (27:1 – 30:20), and Covenant Continuity (31:1 – 34:12).
Generally speaking, Hebrews is structured in a similar pattern: Preamble (1 – 2), Historical Prologue (3 – 4), Covenantal Stipulations (4 – 10), Covenant Continuity (11) and Sanctions (12 – 13). While I do not want to press this comparison too hard, I do want to draw attention to a couple of points. First, both authors emphasize Israel’s failure in the wilderness. This is the context that sets up both covenantal stipulations. Second, the reason the first generation failed to receive the Promised Land was not because of idolatry, but because of her faithlessness.
Dr. Telford Work rightly acknowledges this when he writes, “This denial of God in God’s own presence is the most blatant apostasy.”
This is precisely the link between Moses’ warning for them to not be like their fathers and Hebrews 6:6b: apostasy is akin to what their father’s did to Jesus at the crucifixion. Moses is pressing the second generation to be faithful, and the author of Hebrews is doing the same.
First of all, notice that the Hebrews 6 warning passage is preceded by a call to leave the elementary teaching about the Christ. Of course, this does not mean to abandon this teaching, but to mature from it. These foundational teachings – the milk of Hebrews 5:12-14 – are the root of the Christian faith. The same can be said for the Ten Commandments, which precede the warnings beginning in Deuteronomy 6:15. These commandments were the foundation for God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. They were received in the wilderness, but they were to be carried into the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments were the stones (literally) upon which the new world would be built. Of course, Jesus is the cornerstone upon which the church (and the new creation) is built (Acts 4:11-12), and the warning is to not return to the old ways, but to trust God and move forward.
This church that is built upon the chief cornerstone is precisely who is described in Hebrews 6:4-6. But who, exactly, were these people? In one sense, the church certainly refers to all who possess faith in Christ. But are the authors of Acts and Hebrews talking about all Christians in these passages? I suggest the answer is “no.” Going back to Acts 4, notice that Peter is accusing the Jewish leadership of rejecting Christ. He then proclaims that salvation is found only in Christ and it is the Jews who are believing the gospel. We are not told specifically how many more are converted, but at the beginning of chapter 4 we are told that the number of Christian men were 5,000 and the impression is that there are more by the end of the chapter. This is highly significant when we pair this information with what we read in Colossians 4:11, meaning, that if there were so many Jewish converts to Christianity 25 years earlier, where have they all gone?
While it is true that many were either martyred or fled the city (Acts 8), it would appear that in Colossians, Paul is insinuating that many have abandoned him. Remember, as well, that this abandonment is taking place as the Gentiles are converting at a miraculous pace.
I believe this understanding helps to make sense of the following verses in Hebrews 6:7-8. This passage is highly symbolic, and many scholars at least recognize some of the associations related to these symbols, if not the particulars. Others, though, seem to dismiss any typological connection. For instance, George Guthrie states that “we should be careful of associating specific theological constructs with the images of rain, crops, thorns, and even being ‘burned.’”
I believe this completely misses the meaning of these verses. To begin with, “land” carries a very specific meaning in scripture. John Owen associates “land” with those who hear the gospel, but I think this is too broad for what is described here.
Instead, the Bible often associates land with Israel, as opposed to the sea, which is often used to symbolize the Gentile nations. This is especially true when the term is not directly used to refer to a specific location (such as “the land of Goshen”), but is purposefully used as a metaphor. Add this to the related symbols in the passage, and it becomes clear that the author is making a specific reference to which his readers would be familiar.
This is further supported by the phrase, “useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled.” This is a reference to the events of Acts 8. The persecution (tilling) of the Jerusalem Christians and their subsequent flight to Judea and Samaria is the event that triggered the evangelization of the Gentiles and their incorporation into the church. The rain, then, corresponds to the events of verses 4-5. Baptism is the public event which brings a person into the church and is also the event with which the church is to assign regeneration (John 3:5).
However, this does not simply mean that all who are baptized will necessarily persevere – that is the point of verse 8. The symbolism here, though, would be extremely poignant to this Jewish audience. First, the reference to thorns and thistles obviously points back to the The Fall (Genesis 3:17-19), but while this does fit with the whole agricultural theme of Hebrews 6:7-8, there is a greater implication – Adam is made of ground and he will return to ground. This is true of the whole human race. Because of this, man will also produce thorns and thistles. We see this right away with the birth of Cain. He refused to worship God rightly and he killed his brother Abel, who was righteous. So began the story of Israel, full of numerous episodes of brother on brother strife: Ham versus Shem and Japheth, Isaac versus Ishmael, Jacob versus Esau and Israel versus Judah, just to name a few. This is true in Hebrews as well – those baptized Jews who persevere versus those who do not.
Similarly, there are multiple symbolic meanings in the reference to “being burned.” Again, this thought fits well with the agricultural theme, but the allusion to fire expresses a greater concept. Here, I believe John Owen is correct when he recognizes the association between this burning and the burning of hell, but ascribes the immediate meaning to “the temporal destruction of the obstinate Jews.”
The destruction of Jerusalem was close at hand, and fire would play a significant role. Josephus provides a rather chilling account of these events, describing first the destruction of the temple by fire at the hands of the Romans, followed by the burning of the rest of the city.
He later adds that 1.1 million Jews died in the siege and that “the number of deaths exceeded all previous destructions by God or man.”
While there certainly is a strong connection between the passage I just considered, and Hebrews 10:36-31, I think there is significant difference in the author’s focus. Specifically, whereas Hebrews 6:4-8 centers on the broader concept of perseverance in the life of the Christian and the danger of returning to the Old Covenant system, Hebrews 10 is more concerned with worship. The first clue is in understanding what the author is referring to with the phrase “sinning willfully.” Many scholars have ascribed this to any sin of commission, and have rightfully pointed out the connection between willful sinning and the Old Covenant distinction between intentional and unintentional sins (Numbers 15:30-31).
However, the passage that immediately follows this pronouncement sheds some light on the actual sin (Numbers 15:32-36). In this account, a man is put to death for gathering wood on the sabbath. In order to understand this, a misconception must first be resolved. The issue here is not about working on the sabbath, but is rather a reference to kindling your own fire on the sabbath (Exodus 35:3). This man was gathering wood to stoke his own fire, rather than gather, with the rest of Israel, around God’s fire. This is the same sin that led to Nadab and Abihu’s deaths (Numbers 3:4), except in this case, God killed them, as opposed to the congregation. The relevant point we need to draw from this is that this particular sin is related to worship – specifically false worship. This is not necessarily about idolatry, though, but about refusing to worship God in the manner He has prescribed.
This type of false worship is fundamentally what is occurring in the first century Jerusalem context. God is destroying the old forms of worship and has instituted a new form – one that consists of a new temple, a new sacrifice and a new people. This new worship is only found in Christ, and a return to the old worship is apostasy. Notice, too, that this particular sin is connected to the “forsaking our own assembling together” in verse 25.
The author of Hebrews is not chiding his audience about skipping church. He is warning them to not forsake this new worship for the old. This is about abandoning Christ. The Right Reverend Montefiore makes a great point about the nature of apostasy when he writes, “The primitive church held that apostasy was much more wicked than refusing to accept Christianity. Rejection of Christ might be due to ignorance while an apostate denies him whom once he has known.”
The apostate removes himself from the blessings of Christ when he removes himself from the church. Salvation can only occur by uniting oneself to Christ and His true sacrifice (vs. 26).
A proper understanding then, of apostasy, helps us to appreciate what is happening in the rest of the passage. Notice first the connection of verse 28 with Deuteronomy 17:6. The issue is not primarily about the proper way to administer justice, but directs our attention to back to Deuteronomy 16:21 (this is a bad chapter break) and the following verses. This particular type of multiple-witness justice is executed upon those who engage in improper worship. If this type of evil is to be purged from the land in such a severe manner under Moses, how much harder will God execute His justice on similar evils in the New Covenant? Lest we forget, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins (Hebrews 10:4), and the Old Covenant contained only shadows of the one to come (Hebrews 10:1). In Christ, though, the Lamb has taken away sins.
The Old Covenant worshipper was required to bring their offering to the tent of meeting (Leviticus 1 – keeping with the wilderness worship scenario) and place their hand onto the head of the animal before slaughtering it and giving it to the priest for an ascension offering. In this way, they were accepted by God. This placing of the hand on the head, though, is better translated “to lean or lay upon,” which more properly connotes the connection, or “joining,” that is experienced in the ritual.
This action symbolized the death of the worshipper, because death was required in order to draw near to God. Of course, in this scenario, sin was never taken away and the death of the animal was only good enough to allow a nominal nearness. In the New Covenant, the worshipper is joined to Christ at his baptism. This is the “leaning” moment. Through this connection, we join in the death of Christ (Galatians 2:20), and this death is what allows us to draw near to God in worship. The apostate, then, by rejecting Christ, is ripping himself away from this union, or as the author of Hebrews puts it, is “trampling under foot the Son of God, and regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.”
Regarding the punishment that verse 27 tells us this apostasy deserves, we must again recognize that while there are allusions to the horrors of hell and final judgment associated with this verse, the more immediate meaning refers to the impending destruction of Jerusalem. A closer examination of the context, though, helps us to put this picture of destruction in perspective. Remember, this letter is most likely written in the mid to late 60’s. The destruction of Jerusalem is right around the corner. In fact, it may have already begun, as the Roman siege on Jerusalem began around AD 67.
If this particular apostasy meant turning away from the true worship of God in Jesus to the Old Covenant forms of worship, this meant that these apostates would have to remain in Jerusalem to worship. In one sense, the warning is this: “If you reject Christ and remain in Jerusalem, you will be killed!”
My theory is this scenario lines up perfectly with Matthew 24. Here, Jesus explains to His disciples what will occur at the end of “this world.” The end of the old covenant administration coincides with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus warns about the false teachers who will mislead many – this is surely the Judaizers, the apostates of Hebrews. Jesus predicts the spreading of the gospel through all the world – this is the story of Acts and Paul’s epistles. Jesus tells them that many of them (Jews) will fall away – as the writer of Hebrews confirms. And, finally, Jesus councils them to flee the area when they see the armies gathering. Perhaps this is a secondary function of Hebrews – a final letter to prepare them for the end. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus is leaving the temple (an action with significant symbolism) and He is just two days from being crucified outside the city. Jesus has abandoned Jerusalem because she is now Egypt and Sodom (Revelation 11:8). The true Holy City now resides in Jesus, outside the city. This may be what the author is referring to in Hebrews 13:12-14 as he encourages them to “go to Him.”
Understanding the context of Hebrews helps to provide important and practical council for those who struggle with the warning passages. First of all, realizing these particular apostasies were related to an abandonment of Christ and not simply to a struggle with daily sins, will help the Christian come to terms with their standing in Christ. The struggle with sin is part of the Christian life. Certainly sin must be mortified on a daily basis, and it is often an exhausting and bloody battle, but the battle can only occur in Christ. Fighting sin is not abandoning Christ. When we give up the fight is when we are in trouble. This, though, is why God has given us the church. When the church gathers together to worship, we draw near to God in Christ. Here we are strengthened, renewed and fed. We are girded up in order to go back out into the world and conquer. We are also aided and encouraged by our brethren (Hebrews 13).
Also, Hebrews teaches us about our own context in this world. Do the warning passages apply to us? Definitely, but the context is different. We are not in that wilderness time period, enjoying the benefits of the New Covenant, while struggling against the inadequacies of the Old. Living in Christ’s kingdom means that we can look forward to the perfection of this world, as opposed to the destruction of the old one. In practical terms, this means that we do not adhere to Paul’s warning about getting married (I Corinthians 7:6-8), or take Jesus’ woes about pregnancy to heart (Matthew 24:19). Instead, we can rejoice in the call to marry, have children, and grow the kingdom! That is not to say that we can not still abandon Christ, but as stewards of this new creation working in the Spirit to bring heaven and earth together, it becomes much harder. After all, in order to abandon the faith, there must be an alternative, and the beauty of the New Covenant is that the alternative becomes more insignificant as each day passes (Matthew 13:31-33).
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