Jesus is greater than the angels and Moses. He is a superior high priest. But before he can elaborate upon Christ’s superiority, he warns his readers to grab their attention. The audience had yet to mature beyond milk to solid food (Heb 5:11-14). They were stuck still learning the elementary doctrine of Christ (Heb 6:1-3).
Pray & Read Hebrews 6:4-8.
In 1981, Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, of National Capital Presbytery, was charged with apostasy because he denied Christ’s sinlessness, bodily resurrection, vicarious atonement, and deity. The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly acquitted Mr. Kaseman allowing him to remain a member in good standing in the PCUSA. The decision allowed him to continue to teach his heretical views. The result proved the wisdom of the many churches that had formed the PCA less than a decade prior.
Apostasy is an ongoing concern in every generation. We cannot let down our guard. We must hold one another accountable, especially ministers, when they fall outside the boundaries of orthodoxy.
I want to begin with an overview of the three primary interpretations of this passage:
1. Genuine Christians who lose their salvation. Simply put: if you accept this interpretation you will need to consider how you understand many more passages that speak to the perseverance of the saints (Jn 6:37-40; 10:27-29; Rom 5:1-11; 8:1, 28-39; Phil 1:6; 2 Tim 2:18-19; 1 Pt 1:3-5; 1 Jn 2:19; etc.).
2. This is only a hypothetical description, since it is impossible for true believers to fall away. However, nothing in the text indicates this is only hypothetical. The threat of apostasy is treated as a real possibility.
3. These apostates were never genuinely converted. They experienced the blessing of belonging to the covenant community for a time, but fell away in unbelief. Their lack of perseverance proves the superficial quality of their faith (1 Jn 2:19). They never truly possessed what they professed.
Although we won’t get to v.9 this week, we need to keep it in mind, because it certainly reveals what our author thinks of his audience. It suggests that he is confident they will heed the warning. He expects them to begin to mature.
The climax of the author’s warning is that they might fall away from the pinnacle of external blessings. Previously, he has referred to the possibility that they might “fall away from the living God” (Heb 3:12). The possibility of apostasy is real, but the question is what are they apostatizing or falling away from?
There is a genuine danger of falling away from the covenant community if our faith is only superficial.
I don’t mean that only those with great faith are accepted by God. Your faith might be as small as a mustard seed—but if it is genuine—it will lead to growth.
Those who experience true repentance will persevere in their pursuit of God’s blessing.
1. The Pretension of Apostasy (4-5)
2. The Realization of Apostasy (6)
3. An Illustration of Apostasy (7-8)
The Pretension of Apostasy (4-5)
Pretension comes from the root “pretend”. So how does apostasy pretend? I don’t mean the experiences described in these verses are fake, but I mean that they could leave us with a false impression. Someone could experience each of these privileges and still fall away.
The general consensus among Reformed writers is to understand these five things as privileges a member of the covenant community may enjoy without ever being born again. Apostasy is possible. You can fall away from the covenant community—but that implies that you can belong to the covenant community in a superficial way. In other words, someone can make a profession that appears credible from all outward appearances, but fails to be genuine in reality.
Enlightened — Some have argued that this is a sign of salvation. It speaks to the genuine quality of their faith, based upon a spiritual enlightenment. Moreover, they would suggest that the use of “once” refers to this punctiliar conversion event that every Christian enjoys.
But, I think a better interpretation relates this word to the Israelites in the wilderness (as we’ve seen the author do in Heb 3-4). This seems to be a reference to the pillar of fire that God used to “enlighten” their way (Neh 9:12, 19). The writer’s point is that his readers learned something about the truth of the gospel. At some time in the recent past, they professed to following the light of the gospel. Their “enlightenment” may be just as shallow as it was for the wilderness wanderers.
Tasted the heavenly gift — Again, some would suggest the full experience of heaven is in view. When Jesus tasted death for everyone (Heb 2:9), he actually died. Therefore, if someone tastes heaven, they actually receive the gift.
But, just because “taste” can imply a full experience, doesn’t mean it always implies that. I think the author is making an illusion to manna (Neh 9:15). They genuinely experienced a taste of a gift that came from heaven, but clearly, this was only a partial enjoyment of the full privileges of glory. That doesn’t mean their taste was fake, but that it was short-lived, like Bazooka bubblegum.
Shared in the Holy Spirit — Some would emphasize the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation, but others would point out that the Spirit has always empowered people apart from saving grace. What is implied is some level of instruction by the Spirit (Neh 9:20). Ultimately, it’s possible to reject that instruction.
Tasted the goodness of the word of God — Sat under its proclamation and teaching (Neh 9:13-14). In this case, it is implied that the readers of Hebrews had heard the good news about Jesus Christ. They heard the words of eternal life.
Powers of the age to come — They had witnessed miracles just like the wilderness generation (Neh 9:9-12), or even performed miracles as Jesus warned his followers…
Matthew 7:22–23 ESV
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
This miraculous experience was very typical of conversion in the apostolic age. Read the book of Acts for plenty of examples. People witnessed many of the miracles of Jesus without ever becoming a disciple. Some were truly converted through their experience while others were merely affected because they were adjacent to the work. They were in the proximity of believers and therefore experienced some level of blessing.
The allusions to the wilderness generation is an illustration of the same danger that present members of the covenant community experience. They could exhibit all the same outward factors, but still perish in their sin. He’s not suggesting that they definitely are apostate. In fact, v.9 suggests the opposite. But the threat is no less real.
Jude 5 ESV
Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.
On the one hand, these experiences are common for all believers. Everyone in the church can relate to them. On the other hand, these experiences could be nothing more than external realities—lacking any internal component. Someone can belong to the visible church — and experience all of this — but not belong to the invisible church.
Is it possible for an unbeliever to receive the benefits of belonging to the covenant community? In a partial sense, the answer — according this passage — must be “yes”. Can they learn something from the songs, prayers, and teaching? Of course. Can they receive encouragement from the word of God? Definitely. Can they walk away with an appreciation for God’s word? No doubt. But none of that means they have enjoyed the saving grace of repentance unto life.
John Calvin sees all of the experiences mentioned in verses 4-5 as parallel to the seed that is sown upon rocky ground. These people immediately receive the word with joy, but they have no root and their faith is quickly choked out by tribulation or persecution (Mk 4:16-17). In other words, the reprobate can gain a certain amount of knowledge, but they never mature past it because they have no root.
We can point to the example of Judas Iscariot (Mt 26:47-49). There is very little indication that his experience was radically different from the other eleven disciples. He witnessed the same miracles and sat under the same teaching and probably had the same emotional reactions to much of it, but in the end, he betrayed Jesus. He is the quintessential apostate who will say, “Lord, Lord, did I not do many mighty works in your name?” (Mt 7:21-23).
The author of Hebrews understands that past outward reactions are no guarantee of perseverance. A credible profession of faith must be accompanied by perseverance. You can profess to believe, but fail to possess saving faith. I can declare that I believe this chair will be able to hold my weight if I sit in it, all the while never actually sitting and resting in the chair.
In the same way, one can profess to believe the gospel — even suggest that they know Jesus is their Lord and Savior — all the while never resting in him. Declaring to understand salvation is not the same as actually receiving salvation. And the one indication that all of these experiences represent genuine salvation is to persevere in them.
Ingratitude and indifference are the attributes of false converts. They profess a faith that they do not truly possess. Some among the writer’s audience have grown lazy (Heb 5:11) because their investment is minimal. So the author reminds them of the parallel experiences of the wilderness generation, challenging them to respond differently. He’s written something similar to this already (Heb 3:16-4:2). Their reaction to this warning will reveal the genuineness of their faith — which the author is confident will prove true (Heb 6:9).
Once again, the author’s point is to push them beyond what could be nothing more than outward and superficial experiences. Repentance and perseverance are his goals. He is not trying to strike fear and doubt into the hearts of sensitive believers, but to wake up the sleepers. Warning sirens are meant to get everyone’s attention.
Maybe you have benefitted from belonging to the church for a long time. You enjoy the worship service, the fellowship of the saints, and the morality that is promoted. All of that may be absolutely true of someone who is not in a saving relationship with Jesus. You can enjoy the company of Jesus without resting in him.
Knowing about Jesus is not the same as trusting in his finished work on the cross. Many disciples followed him up until it became inconvenient for them. They enjoyed the privileges of being in his company without receiving and resting in him alone for their salvation.
If that describes you, I would urge you to heed this warning right now. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Don’t delay placing your trust in Jesus a moment longer.
WCF 17.1 & 18.1