Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,VI.
(1) Therefore.—Since “for the time ye ought to be teachers,” but have so perilously sunk down into the lower state of Christian knowledge and experience.
The principles of the doctrine.—Rather, the doctrine of the first principles. The margin gives the literal meaning of the Greek, the word of the beginning. Comp. Hebrews 5:12, “the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God.”
Let us go on.—Better, let us press onwards unto perfection. There is an urgency in the words which is missed by the ordinary rendering. The word “perfection” (teleiotes) answers to that rendered “full grown” (teleios) in the preceding verse, and expresses maturity, fulness of growth. There the contrast is with “babes,” and the whole context relates to Christian instruction—the elementary and the complete. The closeness of the connection would seem to show that the same meaning must be intended here also: “Let us—I, as your teacher, leading you on with me—press on to maturity of Christian knowledge.” But if what precedes makes this reference clear, the following verses show not less clearly that teaching and learning are not alone in the writer’s thoughts. The relation between Hebrews 6:3-4 proves that, as is natural, he assumes a necessary union between learning and practice: indeed, the connection between immaturity of apprehension of Christian truth and the danger of apostasy is a thought present throughout the Epistle. Hence, though the direct meaning of “leaving the doctrine of the beginning” is ceasing to speak of elementary truths, there is included the further thought of passing away from that region of spiritual life to which those must belong who choose the “milk” of the Christian word as their sole sustenance.
Not laying again the foundation.—Better, a foundation. There can be no doubt that the particulars which follow are intended to illustrate the nature of the elementary teaching which will not be taken up in this Epistle. It will be observed (1) that there is no disparagement of these subjects of teaching. They belong to the foundation; but neither teachers nor learners must occupy themselves with laying a foundation again and again. (2) That the subjects here specified are not in themselves distinctively Christian. One and all they belonged to the ancient faith, though each one became more or less completely transformed when Jesus was received as the Messiah. Hence these were literally first principles to the Hebrew Christian,—amongst the truths first taught and most readily received. We have many indications, both within and without the pages of the New Testament, that the tendency of Jewish converts was to rest satisfied with this class of truths.
Repentance from dead works.—Of “dead works” we read again in Hebrews 9:14, “shall purge our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (see Note). The meaning cannot be “works that bring death,” as some have supposed; rather, works in which there is no principle of life, wrought by those who are “alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18), in whom there is not the spirit of “life in Christ Jesus.” The law, indeed, promised that the man who should do “its statutes and judgments” should find life in them (Leviticus 18:5, quoted in Galatians 3:12); but even these works are “dead,” for no man can show more than partial obedience, and the law exacts the whole. The first step toward Christianity involved the acknowledgment of this truth, and the separation by repentance from all “dead works.” On the importance assigned to repentance in the Jewish creed little need be said. The teaching of the prophets (Ezekiel 18, et al.) is faithfully reflected in the sayings preserved in the Talmud: “The perfection of wisdom is repentance;” “Repentance obtains a respite until the Day of Atonement completes the atonement;” “Without repentance the world could not stand.”
Faith toward God.—Rather, faith upon God. (Comp. Acts 16:31; Romans 4:5.) The Hebrew doctrine of faith connected itself closely with a cardinal passage of prophecy (Habakkuk 2:4), “the just shall live by his faith; and there is a Jewish saying that on this one precept rest “all the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Law.” (See the Note on Hebrews 10:38, and the Excursus on Romans 1:17, Vol. II., p. 274.) This faith became new and living when the Jew believed in God through Jesus the Christ (John 14:1; 1Peter 1:21). It is hardly necessary to say that it is of repentance and faith as a foundation, not as belonging to later Christian experience, that the writer speaks.
Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.(2) Of the doctrine of baptisms.—The meaning of these words has been much controverted. The order of the Greek has been thought to require the rendering baptisms of doctrine (or, teaching); and it has been believed that the writer in this manner seeks to characterise Christian baptism as contrasted with the Jewish lustrations. Matthew 28:19, “baptising them . . . teaching them,” is often quoted in favour of this view. The whole question of baptism amongst the Jews of the Apostolic age is full of difficulty, since the first references to the rite in connection with proselytes belong to a much later date. But, waiving this, we must surely regard it as most unlikely that the baptism specifically Christian would be marked as “baptism of teaching.” Teaching would rather be the point of resemblance than the point of contrast between the Jewish and the Christian rite. We must, therefore, adhere to the ordinary view. The word doctrine, or teaching, seems to be introduced in order to avoid the ambiguity which would lie in the words, “a foundation of repentance, faith, baptism,” &c.; not a doctrine, but the repetition of a rite might seem to be intended. But what are we to understand by teaching regarding baptisms? Both the word itself and the use of the plural are remarkable. The word (which is not the ordinary term baptisma, but baptismus) occurs in Hebrews 9:10, Mark 7:4, in the plural, and in Colossians 2:12 in the singular; in the last of these passages it denotes Christian baptism, but in the others the ceremonial washings of the Jews. We must not forget the importance which of right belonged to these washings in the Levitical law, as one of the appointed modes of removing that uncleanness which excluded from every sacred place. The baptism of John attached itself to passages in the Scriptures in which this symbol was taken up by the prophets with profound spiritual application (Ezekiel 36, et al.). Both John’s baptism and that of Christ, therefore, would, from the Hebrew point of view, be “washings”; and the teaching which every new convert must receive would include instruction on the symbolical purifications of the Old Covenant and the New. (See the very interesting Notes in Vol. II. on Acts 18:24-25; Acts 19:4.)
And of laying on of hands.—This ceremony is repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament, and also in the New. Besides the sacrificial use of the symbol, we find imposition of hands connected with blessing (Genesis 48:14; Matthew 19:13, et al.); with works of healing (2Kings 5:11; Mark 8:23; Mark 16:18, et al.); with ordination (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9; 1Timothy 4:14, et al.); and with the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6). In every case the figure denotes either a transfer, or the communication of a gift from (or, through the medium of) the person who lays his hands upon another. Neither transfer of guilt, nor blessing, nor miracle can be in point here; nor is it conceivable that ordination could be referred to in such a context. As the passages quoted from the Acts of the Apostles agree with this in closely connecting the rite with baptism, we can have little doubt that the meaning in all is substantially the same. The believers in Samaria had been baptised by Philip; when Peter and John came, they “prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Ghost; then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.” In the second case, which in other respects is similar (whether Paul himself baptised, or not, we are not informed), there is reference to the special gifts of the Holy Ghost which were bestowed: “they spake with tongues and prophesied.” There seems no reason for believing that there was a designed connection between the imposition of hands and the bestowal of miraculous powers; such imposition was rather the recognised symbol of the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus, in whatever manner the Spirit might be pleased to work in those who received His influence. The early Church naturally retained the rite, making it the complement or adjunct of baptism; whilst the one symbolised the putting away of sin, the other was the emblem of the reception of new spiritual life. Historical testimonies extend as far back as Tertullian (A.D. 200): “Then the hand is laid on, calling for and inviting the Holy Spirit.” To trace the relation between this imposition of hands and the later practice of confirmation would lead us beyond our limits.
The two points which remain do not require an extended notice. We know (Acts 23:8) that, though the Sadducees denied that there was any resurrection of the dead (and the Alexandrian philosophy seems to have held only the immortality of the soul), yet by the most influential amongst Jewish teachers this doctrine was held and enforced, as indeed it was plainly taught in their Scriptures (Daniel 12:2). On the nature and extent of the resurrection—whether it would be universal, and whether it would precede or follow the Messianic age—varying opinions prevailed. Nor were the Pharisees less clear in their teaching of a future “judgment,” the reward of which should be “eternal” bliss for the godly, punishment for the sinners in Israel and for Israel’s enemies. These doctrines, then, would place no obstacles in the way of a convert to the Christian faith. Instead of vagueness and discordant opinion he now received a clear statement of truth: the Messiah, Jesus, in whom he has placed his trust, will judge the world; and of this God has given a pledge “in that He hath raised Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). It is noteworthy that, of the four particulars which are mentioned after repentance and faith, two relate to the commencement and two to “the last things” of the Christian life.
And this will we do, if God permit.(3) And this will we do, if God permit.—There may be some with whom it will be impossible for him thus to press on to maturity of teaching and of Christian experience. There is a case excepted by God Himself from all efforts of the Christian teacher; in this case, though nothing can avail except the laying of a new foundation of repentance, God has appointed no agencies by which such foundation can be laid.
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,(4) For it is impossible for those . . .—The connection of thought has been already explained (Hebrews 6:3); the general meaning will be examined below (Hebrews 6:6). It will be seen that the greater part of this long sentence is dependent on the word “renew” in Hebrews 6:6, “It is impossible to renew again unto repentance those who were once,” &c.
Those who were once enlightened.—This metaphor is introduced again in Hebrews 10:32; neither there nor here does the context contain any notice or expansion of the figure. In that passage, however, it is applied generally to all who are addressed, and includes everything that was involved in the reception of the Christian faith. This inclusive application of the term (familiar from prophecy, from our Lord’s own words, from Apostolic usage; see Acts 26:18; Ephesians 1:18; 1Peter 2:9) throws light on the construction of the verse before us. As the words stand in the Authorised version, “enlightened” is but the first term of a series; but it is far more probable that the clauses which follow should be regarded as explanatory of the enlightenment itself: “. . . those who were once enlightened, having both tasted . . . and been made partakers . . . and tasted . . .”
Tasted of the heavenly gift.—On the first word, see the Note on Hebrews 2:9. From the clear parallelism which exists between these verses and Hebrews 2:3-5 we may infer that the “salvation” offered in the gospel (Hebrews 2:3) is intended by this “gift.” It is a gift which belongs to heaven (comp. Hebrews 1:14), bestowed by Him from whom has come the “heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1; Hebrews 2:10). The following words at once recall Hebrews 2:4, “gifts (distributions) of the Holy Ghost.”
And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,(5) Tasted the good word of God.—There is a change of construction in the Greek which suggests that the words rather mean, tasted that God’s word is goody—tasted the excellence of God’s word, and of the powers, &c. God’s word was “spoken through the Lord” (Hebrews 2:3); the Hebrew Christians had heard and received this word, and had proved for themselves its excellence. (Comp. 1Peter 2:3.)
Powers of the world to come.—Literally, powers of a coming (or, future) age. As has been before remarked, the last word is different from that which we find in Hebrews 2:5, the one relating to time, the other to the world as inhabited by man. Perhaps we may say that this is the only difference; the same future is contemplated in both places, namely, the age of the Messianic reign. We have seen (see Hebrews 1:2) that in the earliest days of the Church little account was taken of the period separating the pre-Christian age from that of the full manifestation of the kingdom of God; the “powers” received from God by those who believed (Hebrews 2:4) belonged to no earthly state, but were as truly anticipations of a future age of glory as was the “heavenly gift” an anticipation of the “heavenly fatherland” (Hebrews 11:16).
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.(6) If they shall fall away.—Rather, and (then) fell away. There is no doubt that the ordinary translation is altogether incorrect, the Greek admitting of one rendering only. At the same time, the suspicion sometimes expressed that this is one of the (very few) instances in which our translators have been misled by dogmatic bias seems altogether unfounded. On tracing back the translation we find it due, not to the Genevan versions, in which the influence of Calvin and Beza is predominant, but to Erasmus, Luther, and Tyndale. The contrast with the preceding description is presented in the fewest possible words. The successive clauses have shown that all the marks of the divine working in and with His word (Hebrews 2:4) have been found in these men, who, notwithstanding, “fell away.”
To renew them again.—A second time to make “the old” into a “new man.” In this place “renew” is distinctly used in reference to the action of man. Similarly, by the side of 1Peter 1:3, “God . . . who hath begotten us,” we may set St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “In Christ Jesus I have begotten you;” so also St. Paul can say, “Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit;” and St. James can speak of a man’s saving a soul from death. In these and the many other examples of a similar kind there is no thought of human power acting by itself, but of the human appropriation of divine power, in accordance with the laws of the kingdom of God. The verse before us is often read as an assertion that men who have thus fallen cannot be renewed; and therefore it is the more necessary to lay stress on the simple meaning of the words, as relating neither to the absolute power of God, nor to the efforts of the Christian teacher in unassisted human strength, but to the economy of God’s spiritual kingdom, in which Christ’s servants achieve every great result by claiming and obtaining the “fellow-working” of their Lord.
Seeing they crucify.—The apostasy was indicated by a single word; these added clauses describe the depth of the fall, whilst they explain the futility of all effort towards recovering the fallen. Both the writer and his readers knew well what was involved in “falling away” in such a case as this. To go back to Judaism implied an acceptance of all that Jews had said and done against the Son of God, a return to the bitter hate cherished by the falling nation against the Crucified, a repetition in spirit of all that Pharisees had done, and without the palliation of ignorance; for the highest evidence for Christianity—that of true and deep Christian experience—had been given to them. Again, the words used clearly describe a continuing state. Not the punishment for a past act, but the hopelessness of an existing state, is brought before us here. It is therefore of those who, with a distinct conviction of the divine mission of Jesus, have deliberately joined His foes, unite in denouncing Him as a “deceiver” (Matthew 27:63), rejoice in His shame, and thus “for themselves crucify a second time the Son of God,” that the writer says, “It is impossible to renew them again unto repentance.”
That this impossibility relates to the action of man is shown very clearly by the writer’s words in Hebrews 6:3, “This will we do if God permit; . . . . for it is impossible.” He is ready to lead his readers on with him—unless, indeed, he is addressing any whom no man can thus lead. In that case the means which God has appointed have no application; such wilful and persistent hardening of heart must be left with Him.
The perplexity and trouble of mind to which these verses have given rise will furnish an apology for the length of these remarks. It is a true Christian instinct that has protested against the misuse of this passage by men who have doubted whether those who, after receiving the knowledge of the truth, fall under temptation, can again receive forgiveness; but the difficulty has been met by hazardous expedients. Some have denied that Hebrews 6:4-5 necessarily describe real Christian experience. By others it has been held that “impossible” was not intended to express more than the great difficulty of the attempt; others, again, have believed that in Hebrews 6:6 the writer brings before us a supposed case only, one that cannot really occur. The passage, together with Hebrews 10:26-29, Matthew 12:32, 1John 5:16 (see the Notes), occupied an important place in early controversies, as those of the Montanists and Novatians, who refused absolution to those who, after baptism—or, in the language of the early Church, after “illumination” (Hebrews 6:4)—fell into heinous sin.
For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God:(7) For the earth.—Rather, For land which has drunk in. Land which not only receives but also drinks in abundance of rain (Deuteronomy 11:11), in such a climate as is here thought of, must either “bring forth herbage” or be condemned as irretrievably barren.
By whom it is dressed.—Rather, for whom it is also tilled. This clause is added to show that nothing is wanting on the part of the owner or of the tillers of the land.
Receiveth blessing from God.—Receives as a reward a share in the blessing which God pronounces on the fruitful earth, resulting in increased fertility (Genesis 27:27; Genesis 49:25; Deuteronomy 33:13). In the application of the parable, God is the owner of the land, men the tillers; men also are “God’s field” (1Corinthians 3:9), who bring forth fruit unto God,
But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.(8) But that which beareth.—Rather, But if it bear thorns and briars it is rejected. We are told that the presence of briars (i.e., caltrops) is a sure evidence of a poor soil, on which labour will be wasted. The words are partially a quotation from Genesis 3:18. The change of translation here is important; if that very land, which has drunk in the abundant rain and has received careful culture still prove unfruitful, it is rejected. Man can do no more; and the curse of God is “near”; its end is “for burning.” The explanation of the last words is probably found in Deuteronomy 29:23, which speaks of the land of Sodom which God overthrew, which “is brimstone and salt and burning.” The connection between these two verses and the preceding passages is obvious. In the case of the apostates there described, man is helpless; God’s curse is near. But, as Chrysostom says, in this very word there is mercy; “the end” is not yet come.
But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.(9) Better things.—Literally, the better things; that is, the alternative spoken of in Hebrews 6:7. He has not written in despair, but for warning only; believing that to them belongs, not the state which is “nigh unto a curse,” but that which borders on salvation (Hebrews 5:9).
For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.(10) In expressing the ground of his hope he does not directly say, “For I have heard of your fruitfulness;” he implies this, and then, in accordance with the parable of Hebrews 6:7, he declares that God will surely bestow the promised reward. Herein lies his hope. Man’s work cannot in itself merit reward from God, but (1John 1:9) the righteous God cannot neglect His own promise and law that such works shall receive reward.
Your work and labour of love.—The best MSS. omit “labour”; so that the words run thus: to forget your work, and the love which ye showed toward His name. The “fruit” consisted in brotherly love, but it was offered unto God (Hebrews 6:7); the bond of brotherhood was the joint relation to “His name” (Hebrews 2:10). With the last words compare Romans 15:26; Romans 15:31.
And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end:(11) Full assurance.—Rather, fulness (full productiveness) of hope (Hebrews 10:22). His desire is that the zeal which they have manifested in works of love may be directed toward the attainment of the full harvest of Christian hope—may be shown until the very end (Hebrews 3:6; Hebrews 3:14).
That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.(12) That ye be not slothful.—Rather, that ye become not sluggish. The same word is used as in Hebrews 5:11, there applied to apprehension of truth, here to the Christian hope and life; if the truth be not welcomed, there will be no vigour in the life.
Followers.—Better, imitators. (Comp. Hebrews 13:7; 1Corinthians 11:1, et al.). They are not the first to whom “hope” has been given, and who have needed zeal that they might not fail of their hope. As in Hebrews 11 the writer appeals to precursors of faith, so here of hope; to men who, having lived in hope, passed to the actual possession of the promised blessings by means of faith (which accepted and clung to the promise) and patience. The last word is not that which occurs in the similar exhortation in Hebrews 10:36. That is a brave endurance; this is the word usually rendered “long-suffering,” which here and in James 5:7 signifies patient waiting.
For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself,(13) The connection seems to be this: “You, like them, have promises—promises to which God has given all possible certainty; you, like them, can attain the fulfilment only through faith and patient waiting.”
For when God made promise.—It is better to follow the words literally, For when to Abraham God had made promise. Abraham is chosen for special mention as the most illustrious example of those who “inherit the promises” (comp. John 8:58); also because (1) the assurance given to him was confirmed by oath; and (2) in it lay included the promise of the Christ. The promises made to Abraham were essentially one, with various parts progressively fulfilled. It seems likely that, though the next verse is quoted from Genesis 22:17, the writer also has in mind (“had promised”) Genesis 12:3, and especially Genesis 15.
Saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee.(14) Saying.—The words of the oath itself, “By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord” (Genesis 22:16), are not repeated, because they are almost identical with the writer’s own words introducing the citation (Hebrews 6:13). It will be observed that one change is made—in the last word; for in Genesis we read, “I will multiply thy seed.” The alteration may be made for brevity, as the quotation is abridged; but it will be seen that the effect of it is to direct greater attention to the first words, and to fix the thought on the blessing promised to Abraham himself.
And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise.(15) And so, after he had patiently endured.—Better, and thus (thus being in possession of the promise and the oath of God), having patiently waited (Hebrews 6:12) he obtained the promise—the promised gift. Though some portions of the promise received a partial accomplishment during Abraham’s life, it is not this that the writer has in view. (See Hebrews 6:12, and Hebrews 11:13.)
For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife.(16) And an oath for confirmation.—Rather, and of every dispute in their case the oath is an end (is final) to settle the matter.
Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath:(17) Wherein.—Since this is the case.
Of promise.—Rather, of the promise. The promise made to Abraham was substantially and really (see Hebrews 6:13) that which embraced all Messianic hope; of this promise not Abraham’s sons only, but all “they which are of faith” (Galatians 3:7; Galatians 3:29), Abraham’s spiritual seed, are the heirs. In an Epistle so distinctly Pauline there can be no doubt as to this interpretation.
Confirmed it by an oath.—Literally, mediated with an oath. When a man confirms a promise or declaration to another by solemn appeal to God, between the two God is Mediator. Condescending to man’s weakness, that the certainty may be “more abundant,” God. thus confirms His word, at once the Promiser and the Mediator: God the Promiser (if we may so speak) makes appeal to God the Hearer and Witness of the oath. We cannot doubt, as we read this whole passage, that there is a special reason for the emphasis thus laid on God’s oath to Abraham. The writer dwells on this confirmation of the divine word of promise, not merely because it is the first recorded in sacred history, but because he has in thought the declaration of Psalm 110:4. To this as yet he makes no reference; though he has quoted from the verse repeatedly, it has been without mention of the divine oath: but throughout the section before us he is preparing the way for his later argument in Hebrews 7:21.
That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us:(18) Two immutable things.—The promise and the oath.
Consolation.—Rather, encouragement. For us, rather than for Abraham alone, was the encouragement designed; for us, who (as men in danger of their lives flee to the sanctuary) “fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” in the promise. Up to this point we read of what God has done; here of what must be done by man. The laying hold expresses the “faith,” and implies the “patient waiting” (Hebrews 6:12); by it we become true “heirs of the promise” (Hebrews 6:17).
Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil;(19) Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul.—A beautiful image, introduced for a moment only to set forth the security of the soul, though tossed by the waves of trouble. This symbol of hope, so familiar to us in Christian art, is not mentioned in the Old Testament, but is found in Greek proverbial sayings, and (it is said) appears on ancient coins.
Both sure and stedfast.—These words and the following may, indeed, form part of the figure; but more probably relate to the hope itself—a hope unfailing, firm, which entereth where no human sight can follow, even into the Most Holy Place, into heaven itself. The hope becomes personified, that the reader’s thought may be led to Him who is Himself our hope.
Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.(20) Whither the forerunner.—Rather, Whither, as forerunner, Jesus entered for us, having become High Priest after the order of Melchizedek for ever. The Jewish high priest entered the Holiest Place by himself—a representative but not a leader. Jesus has entered the true sanctuary (Hebrews 9:24) that He may give His people entrance there (Hebrews 10:19; John 14:2-3). With this renewed mention of the great high-priestly act (Hebrews 4:14), the writer returns to the words of Scripture on which he was about to dwell (Hebrews 5:10), when the painful thought of the unpreparedness of his readers for higher Christian teaching forced itself upon his mind. In this verse the order of the words taken from the Psalm is changed; in the last words “for ever” is declared with unequalled impressiveness the permanence of our Christian hope.