A Warning Against Apostasy
Last month we looked at a call for maturity from the writer of Hebrews to a group of Jewish believers struggling in their faith. He exhorts them to “press on to maturity,” reminding them that it is indeed God’s will for them to continue to mature in their walk with Messiah Jesus. Then in Hebrews 6:4-6, he shifts from the exhortation to a warning of the consequences of a failure to mature. This portion of Hebrews is one of the most controversial passages in the Scriptures. There are a number of interpretations to this passage. I would like to look at the two main interpretations and then share with you what I believe this passage is about.
In the first interpretation, it is believed that these are merely professing (but not real) believers. It is thought that their description in verses 4 and 5 confirms that they were in contact with believers, and that they enjoyed fellowship with believers, but they were not actually saved. However, the context of the passage would dispute this interpretation. The writer of Hebrews had exhorted them to maturity in their faith in Messiah, and included himself with them when he stated in verse 3, “…and this (press on to maturity) we will do, if God permits.”
This brings us to the second main interpretation. It is believed that this passage is speaking about people who were truly saved, but have fallen away and lost their salvation. However, if that were the case, then the believers in this passage would not only lose their salvation they also could never get saved again. Peter writes in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
So, what is this passage is speaking about? Again, remember the context. Jewish believers were wavering in their faith, because of persecution from secular society and pressure from their own families and traditional Jewish teaching. The writer of Hebrews was trying to intervene on their behalf. His warning to them was that they would face dire consequences if they went back to the Judaism that rejected Jesus as Messiah. They would lose the blessings and privileges promised to those who walk by faith. This is already alluded to in Hebrews 3 and 4. Additionally, if they chose to return to the Judaism of their day, this choice would be irrevocable and result in their remaining in a permanent state of spiritual immaturity.
What the writer of Hebrews had in mind, I believe, was similar to the situation of Israel in the wilderness in Kadesh Barnea, in Numbers 14, following the Exodus. Just as that redeemed generation which left Egypt lost the blessings of entering into the promised land, and spent the next 40 years physically dying in the wilderness, so now, in the same way, this group of Jewish believers, by a definitive decision to return to the traditional Judaism of their day would permanently lose the blessings and privileges promised to those who walk by faith and press on to maturity.
Verses 7 and 8 present an illustration to these believers of what the writer is describing. Fruitfulness results in God’s blessings and approval; on the other hand, the result of fruitlessness would be God’s disapproval and cursing. Yet, even in that cursing, I believe Hebrews 6:8 says there is still hope for these believers who are so close to being cursed. The thorns and thistles, which are burned, are a picture of the believers at the Judgment Seat of Christ whose fruitless works will be burned up, but the person is still saved (1 Corinthians 3:15).