(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; 1 Peter 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.
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 (2 Kings 5:11; Mark 8:23; Mark 16:18, et al.); with ordination (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9; 1 Timothy 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.
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; 1 Peter 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.”
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).
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 1 Peter 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, 1 John 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.
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” (1 Corinthians 3:9), who bring forth fruit unto God,
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.
Followers.—Better, imitators. (Comp. Hebrews 13:7; 1 Corinthians 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.—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.
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.
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).
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.