One of the most unnerving, difficult, passages in Scripture; this is a parenthesis, a break in the flow of the argument. Leading up to today’s passage, the author has been showing how Jesus is in the order of Melchizedek. In 6:20 he will pick it up again. But first he needs to find out if his readers are ready for those deeper truths. Are they feeding on milk still, or ready for steak? Are they rebellious Christians who will miss out on the reward and get into heaven by the skin of their teeth? (2 Corinthians 3).
They seem to be dull of hearing, v.11, and haven’t matured much in the faith. They are slipping back.
The basics are outlined in v.1-3:
i) Conversion – repentance and faith, v.1;
ii) Next steps –
- baptism – and understanding that it’s not the same as Jewish ritual washings, v.2;
- receiving the Spirit by the laying on of hands;
iii) The outcome of our faith – the resurrection to come – and judgement, which for Christians is not whether we will get in to heaven or not but what inheritance we will receive for what we have done in faith.
The author hopes to move on, if God permits, v.3 – are they pressing on or has God come to the point of oath that they won’t mature any more? Clearly if you are even asking that question you haven’t hardened your heart (chapter4) and the author will be confident of the better things of v.9-12.
So we come to v.4-6:
- We can’t play down language to make ‘tasted’ actually just a little sip.
- Enlightened is not less than saved – As Michael Eaton writes “The writer is not saying that if an enlightened-but-unsaved person falls by the wayside he cannot be restored. Our author gives no hint that he does not regard these people as true Christians. He knows they are holy brothers and sisters, partakers of a heavenly calling, people who have been persecuted for their faith in Christ. Read the description of the people in 10:32–39, a description of what they were like after they had been enlightened. Their faith is mentioned in the description of those who ‘fell’. For ‘confidence’ is the writer’s term for assured faith. They had faith; the writer asks them not to cast it aside but hold to it such that they are richly rewarded. These people were certainly Christian people.” ‘Once enlightened’ must refer to Christian conversion (it is similar to Ephesians 1:18; Hebrews 10:26, 32). Outside Hebrews the best parallel is 2 Corinthians 4:4-6. Christian conversion happens when the light of the gospel shines in our heart to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
- ‘Tasting the heavenly gift’ refers to the blessings of forgiveness, new birth, sanctification and cleansing by the Holy Spirit.
- Partakers means fully partaking rather than toe dipping – we partake of the Spirit who regenerates us to become a Christian, who fills us with power and lavishes gifts upon us.
- They have tasted the goodness of the word of God
- They know of the powers of the age to come. There is a logical order in these phrases describing the Christian. First we see Jesus with the eye of faith; we have the enlightenment of the gospel. Then we actually experience Jesus as God’s gift to us. Thirdly, salvation is sealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Then we discover God’s goodness to us, perhaps over many years. Then the gifts and blessings of the Spirit are ‘powers of the age to come’. They are flashes of glory from the heavenly world to which we are travelling. The Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste of glory.
Conversion is amazing, discipleship is breathtaking. There is so much of the goodness of God on display here. We are responsible to press on with it, knowing that God is at work in us.
The author talks of a Christian so hardening their heart that it is impossible to renew them to repentance. Even the word renew means he is speaking of Christians who had repented and need renewing but can’t.
To quote Michael Eaton again (as I can’t express it better!):
Yet there is the danger that after having experienced so much these people might become rebellious. It had happened not to the readers themselves but to those who had abandoned the fellowship. God gave them many opportunities for recovery, but they refused them all. Finally God took an oath in his anger and so they ‘fell by the wayside’. It was not loss of eternal salvation. But they lost a lot! They lost their fellowship with God. They lost their usefulness in God’s kingdom. They lost the ministry God wanted them to have. They became spiritually deaf. No one could reach them. They lived in a spiritual wilderness. I have no doubt they got to heaven. They were not un-redeemed, or un-regenerated, or unjustified. They were not disowned as God’s children. God is more faithful than that! They did not lose what God had already given them, but they lost what God wanted to give them. Don’t be like them, says our writer. Don’t even get anywhere near to having a rebellious heart. Hold on to your first confidence. It will be richly rewarded.
The key is that a person in that condition is so hardened and uninterested they wouldn’t be thinking or worrying about this. So the author can say “we feel sure of better things for you”
I remember John Hosier, one of Newfrontiers theologians saying that these passages are hard but you can use them pastorally. To someone in sin who doesn’t care, you use these strong warnings to wake them up. To the doubter who is panicking that they have lost their salvation, you use the high security sections to encourage them they will make it!