Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999) 209-25.

Copyright © 1999 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission;

   digitally prepared for use at Gordon College] 

 

 

READING HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

 

                                                DAVE MATHEWSON

 

                                                       I. Introduction

 

PERHAPS the most significant, yet perplexing, feature of the book of

Hebrews is the so-called warning passages which dot its literary land-

scape (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14, 29). While all of these

warning passages have elicited a variety of commentary and discussion,

Heb 6:4-6 has attracted most of the scholarly attention and remains one of

the most puzzling and enigmatic for interpreters.1 The bulk of attention

devoted to these verses has focused on the issues of the precise identification

of the status of those in vv. 4-5 and the nature of the sin they have committed

in v. 6. Therefore, scholars continue to debate whether the subjects of the

warning are genuine members of the faith community, who through falling

away (v. 6) subsequently lose this status, or whether this falling away only

results in the loss of rewards, or whether failure to persevere is evidence that

the initial faith was not genuine in the first place, or whether the passage

should be understood at a corporate level, addressing the covenant community

 

Dave Mathewson is instructor in NT at Oak Hills Christian College, Bemidji, MN.

1 See the commentaries. Cf. also Herbert H. Hohenstein, "A Study of Hebrews 6:4-8,"

CTM 27 (1956) 433-44,536-46; Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, "Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril of

Apostasy," WTJ 35 (1973) 137-55; Roger R. Nicole, "Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and

the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints," in Gerald Hawthorne, ed., Current

Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 355-64; D. Barn-

hart, "The Life of No Retreat: An Exegetical Study of Hebrews 6:1-12," Central Biblical

Quarterly 19 (1976) 16-31; David Gilbert Peterson, "The Situation of the Hebrews (5:11-6:12),"

Reformed Theological Review 35 (1976) 14-21; Leopold Sabourin, "'Crucifying Afresh for One's

Repentance' (Heb 6:4-6)," Biblical Theology Bulletin 6 (1976), pp. 264-71; R. Schoonhaven,

"The 'Analogy of Faith' and the Intent of Hebrews," in W. Ward Gasque and William

Sanford Lasor, eds., Scripture,Tr adition and Interpretation: Essays Presented to Everett

E Harrison by His Students and Colleagues in Honor of His Seventy-fifth Birthday

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 191-110; Verlyn D. Verbrugge, "Towards a New Interpretation

of Hebrews 6:4-6," CTJ 15 (1980) 61-73; R. C. Sauer, "A Critical and Exegetical Reexamination

of Hebrews 5.11 to 6.8" (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Manchester, 1981); William S.

Sailer, "Hebrews 6: An Irony or Continuing Embarrassment?," Evangelical Journal 3 (1985)

79-88; Thomas Kern

Oberholtzer, "The Thorn Infested Ground in Hebrews 6:4-12," BSac 145 (1988) 319-28; Scot

McKnight, "The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclu-

sions," Trinity Journal 13 (1992) 21-59; Wayne A. Grudem, "Perseverance of the Saints: A Case

Study from Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Other Warning Passages in Hebrews," in Thomas R.

Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds., The Grace of God, Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids:

Baker, 1995), 133-82; David Brent Armistead, "The 'Believer' Who Falls Away: Heb 6:4-6

and the Perseverance of the Saints," Stulos Theological Journal 4 (1996) 139-46.

209



210                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

rather than individuals.2 One of the most insightful studies to appear in

recent years is the article by Scot McKnight, who surveys and interacts

with a variety of approaches to the interpretation of this passage.3 McKnight

provides a fresh, detailed formal analysis of 6:4-6 and the other warning

passages in Hebrews, suggesting that the warning passages, especially 6:4-6,

should be read synthetically in relationship to one another rather than

individually. Based on his analysis McKnight concludes that the warnings

address the sin of apostasy, and that although believers experience the

reality of salvation in the present, a failure to persevere to the end can result

in the cessation of that reality.

In this article I do not wish to solve all the problems engendered by

Heb 6:4-6. Rather, the purpose of the present article is to suggest a further

element that has not yet sufficiently been considered in interpreting this

section of Hebrews in hopes of providing fresh exegetical insight into under-

standing this puzzling passage. More specifically, I wish to propose reading

Heb 6:4-6 in light of an OT background. In fact, I would contend that

much misunderstanding of this section of Hebrews stems from a failure to

appreciate its OT matrix.

Hermeneutically, one of the most significant observations for interpreting

Heb 6:4-6 has been articulated by McKnight. As mentioned above, the

warning passages in Hebrews should not be read in strict isolation from

one another, as is frequently the case, but should be read synthetically.4

McKnight helpfully suggests that formally each warning is comprised of

four basic components that provide a basis for comparison with the other

warnings: audience, sin, exhortation, and consequences.5 Based on this observa-

tion, a key feature comes into play which points to a neglected element in

interpreting 6:4-6. Scholars have frequently noticed that one of the com-

mon features of the warning passages in Hebrews is that each exhibits an

OT example to illustrate the warning in question. The following comparison

displays the warnings found in Hebrews along with the corresponding OT

examples contained in each warning.

Warning                     OT Example

2:1-4                           2:2 -                            disobedience to the Mosaic law

3:7-4:13                     3:16-19; 4:2 -                        the failure at Kadesh-barnea

10:19-39                    10:28 -                       disobedience to the Mosaic law

12:14-29                    12:16-17 -                 the failure of Esau;

12:25-26 -failure to listen to

God's voice at Sinai.

 

2 Cf. esp. McKnight, "Warning Passages;" Nicole, "Hebrews 6:4-6," Current Issues;

Oberholtzer, "Hebrews 6:4-12;" Verbrugge, "New Interpretation," respectively.

3 "Warning Passages."

4 Ibid., 22-23.

5 Ibid., 27-29. McKnight suggests the significance of this observation: "I will propose

that a synthesis of each component as revealed in each warning passage provides clarity on the

meaning of a given component in a single passage" (26).



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                                   211

 

Consequently, in addition to McKnight's enumeration of four components

of audience, sin, exhortation and consequences which comprise the warning pas-

sages, I would suggest a fifth component: OT example.

The only exception to this pattern, however, appears to be 6:4-6. Thus, Paul

Ellingworth observes that "This passage [5:11-6:12] is almost as remark-

able for what it does not say as for what it does. Like 3:7-4:13, it contains

only passing mention of Christ (6:1, 6), but unlike the earlier passage, it is

not based on any Old Testament passage either: The writer is appealing

 to his readers in his own words."6 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes admits that “the calamitous

history of the Israelites of old is repeatedly set before the readers as a

warning against the imitation of their evil example (2:lf; 3:12ff.; 4:1f., 11;

10:28ff.; 12:25ff.) . . .,"7 but Hughes does not include a reference to the

warning in 5:11-6:12. In his detailed and thorough analysis of the warnings

in Hebrews, McKnight makes no mention of any OT illustration in 6:4-6.

The recent discussion of the OT background to Hebrews by R. T. France

proposes that an exposition of Psalm 110 more broadly underlies Heb 5:5-

7:28, although this does not help us arrive at an answer to the question of

whether an OT illustration illuminates 6:4-6 in particular.8 More recently,

George H. Guthrie has discussed the use of the OT in Hebrews. Yet despite

the extensive nature of Guthrie's list of OT parallels for Hebrews, no OT

parallels are given for 6:4-6.9

However, I would propose that, like the other warnings in Hebrews, a

specific OT example can also be detected in the warning of 6:4-6, and that

this constitutes one of the keys to interpreting this warning. More specifically,

behind 6:4-6 lies a reference to the wildernes generation and the Kadesh-

barnea incident (cf. Numbers 13-14; Psalm 95) which featured prominently

in the warning in 3:7-4:13. In a footnote in his insightful commentary on

Hebrews, F. F. Bruce briefly entertained the possibility that in 6:4-6 "the

wilderness narrative [the failure of the Israelites to enter Canaan] is still in

our author's mind," although he fails to offer any substantiation for his brief

 

6 The Epistle to the Hebrews (Epworth Commentaries; London: Epworth Press, 1991),

42, italics mine. See also the comments of Erich GraBer, who concludes that the writer describes

the state of his readers "in eigener Terminologie" (An Die Hebraer [Heb7: 1-6], EKK, XVII/I

[Benziger/Neukirchener, 1990] 347).

7 A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 216.

8 "The Writer of Hebrews as a Biblical Expositor," TynBul 47.2 (1996) 245-76. France's

proposal is a modification of the suggestion of Richard N. Longenecker that Hebrews contains

five extended expositions of Old Testament texts (Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period [Grand

Rapids: Eerdrnans, 1975], 178-85). France postulates seven extended expositions: Ps 8:4-6 in Heb

2:5-18; Ps 95:7-11 in Heb 3:7-4:13; Ps 110 in Heb 5:5-7:28;Jer 31:31-34 in Heb 8:1-10:18;

Hab 2:3c-4 (LXX) in Heb 10:32-12:3; Prov 3:11-12 in Heb 12:4-13; the Mount Sinai motif in

Heb 12:18-29.

9 "Old Testament in Hebrews," in Ralph P; Martin and Peter H. Davids, eds., Dictionary

oj the Later New Testament and Its Developments (Downers Grove/Leicester: Inter Varsity Press,

1997), 841-50. See the helpful chart of Old Testament references in Hebrews (846-49).



212                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

assertion or tease out the possible hermeneutical implications.10 This present

article will attempt to give further substantiation and shape to this suggestion

and briefly explore some of the implications of reading this warning in light

of this proposed OT background.

 

II. The OT Background for 3:7-4:13

The exhortation articulated in 6:4-6 follows on the heels of a previous,

lengthy warning embedded in chaps. 3-4; therefore this section requires

brief analysis in order to provide the context for the ensuing discussion. In

the second warning given in Heb 3:7-4:13 the Kadesh-barnea incident

from Numbers 13-14 is recalled via Psalm 95 (94):7b-11, which the writer of

Hebrews quotes in 3:7-11 and repeatedly recalls in 3:15; 4:3, 5, 7, as the basis

for his exhortation to his readers not to become hardened to the promise

of salvation.11 According to the Numbers 14 narrative, the Israelites were

camped at Kadesh-barnea, prepared to enter the land of Canaan which

constituted the goal of their Exodus from Egypt (cf. Exod 3:8; 6:4; Num 13:1).

However, because of unbelief and hard hearts the wilderness generation

refused to enter the promised land, and consequently incurred God's wrath

(Num 14:11-12). Psalm 95 recalls and interprets Israel's rebellion and unbelief

in the wilderness from Numbers 14, an event which became paradigmatic

of Israel's disobedience,12 as a warning not to emulate the catastrophe at

Kadesh-barnea. The writer of Hebrews appropriates Psalm 95 in order to

place the same warning before the new covenant community not to rebel

and refuse the promise of rest which lay before them as a present reality (cf.

Sh<meron, Heb 3:13; 4:7). According to Ceslas Spicq, the comparison between

Israel under the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant community

presupposes an exact correspondence between the successive generations

of the people of God. . . . Israel and Christians exhibit a certain symmetrical

relationship, as it were, designed by God. They are recipients of the same

promises, they

 

10  The Epistle to the Hebrews (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 120 n. 38.

See also implicitly Grudem, "Perseverance of the Saints," The Grace of God, 160-61.

11 See William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8 (WBC, 47a; Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 84. Cf.

also Peter Enns, "The Interpretation of Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3.1-4.13," in Craig A. Evans and

James A Sanders, eds., Early Christian Interpretation of the Scriptures of Israel: Investigations

 and Proposals (JSNTSS, 148; SSEJC, 5; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 352-63;

David A. deSilva, "Exchanging Favor for Wealth: Apostasy in Hebrews and Patron-Client Relationships,"

JBL 115 (1996) 91-116, who understands the warning in terms of a violation of a

patron-client relationship, where the people's response to the blessings provided by the patron

(God) was one of distrust and failure to fulfill the obligations of the relationship.

12 See Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 85. Cf. Deut 1:19-35; Neh 9:15-17; Ps 106:21-27; CD 3:6-9;

Ps-Phil, Bib. Ant. 15; 4 Ezra 7:106; I Cor 10:5-10. Psalm 95 also recalls Israel's rebellion at

Meribah and Massah from Exod 17:1-7, although the climax of Israel's rebellion is the

Kadesh-barnea incident from Numbers 14.



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                                  213

 

go through analogous trials, they are exposed to the same dangers of apostasy,

they are exhorted to the same faithfulness, in identical terms.13

Thus, the relationship between the old and new people of God in Hebrews

is a typological one, where the experience of the wilderness generation in

Num 14 (cf. Ps 95) is recapitulated in and finds its climax in the situation

of the new people of God, the new Israel, in Heb 3:7-4:13.14 The story of

the wilderness generation in the Mosaic era, then, becomes the story of the

new community and the focal lens through which they are to view their

experience. This assumption underlies the direct application of the Ps 95

text to the present community in Hebrews.15 Further, that the wilderness

generation plays a crucial role beyond 3:7-4:13 can be deduced from the

fact that the tabernacle, rather than the temple, provides the predominant

model for the author of Hebrews (8:5; 9:1-10),16 and exodus typology is

confirmed more broadly with the emphasis on the incident at Sinai (12: 18-21,

25, 29) and the comparison between Moses and Christ (3:1-6).

 

III. The OT Background to Heb 6:4-6

Perhaps one of the basic reasons for the hesitancy to find an OT back-

ground for 6:4-6 is the propensity of scholars to focus attention principally

on citations and explicit OT references. However, recent research into the

use of the OT in the NT more generally has pointed to the importance of

giving due attention to allusions and echoes and more implicit and subtle

uses of Scripture.17 For those whose ears are attuned to the OT, even a

 

13 Ceslas Spicq, L'Epitre aux Hebreux (Paris: Gabalda, 1953),71-72. According to

Spicq, "la comparison personnelle Moise-Jesus [3.1-6] sepoursuit tres normalement entre

les Israelites et le peuple chretien" (71).

14 Enns, "The Interpretation of Psalm 95," Early Christian Interpretation.

15 See also Ibid., 352-53. For the typological relationship of the people of God in the Old

and New Testaments more generally see L. Goppelt, Typos (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982).

Moreover, in keeping with the typological nature of the analogy, the comparison between the

wilderness generation and the new community in Heb 3:7-4:13 is a fortiori ("if. .., how much

more"). In other words, if the wilderness generation incurred the wrath of God for refusal to

enter the promised land under the Mosaic era, how much more will the people of God in the

new era not escape God's wrath for refusal to appropriate God's promises as they stand on the

verge of their fulfillment. This a fortiori logic clearly underlies 2:2-3; 10:28-29; 12:25.

16 There has been some discussion over why the author appeals to the tabernacle rather

than the temple for his primary model. While this could indicate that the temple is no longer

standing when Hebrews was written (based on the recent work of Stanley E. Porter, Verbal

Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood [Studies in

Biblical Greek I; New York: Peter Lang, 1989], it can no longer be maintained on the basis of the

use of the present tense in the writer's description of the cultus that the temple is still standing), a better

explanation emerges from the observation that the author employs the wilderness motif through-

out Hebrews. Given the prominence of the wilderness motif the author has employed the

wilderness tabernacle as his dominant model to depict God's dwelling place in the OT in order

to provide a contrast to the heavenly tabernacle.

17 See the discussions in Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul

(New Haven & London, 1989); Brian S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture and Ethics: A Study of 1

Corinthians 5-7 (AGJU,



214                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

single word or two can activate scriptural texts in the readers' memory. In

addition to alluding to specific texts, authors can sometimes develop Old

Testament concepts or themes which find expression in several OT texts.18

According to William Lane, in Hebrews “Every chapter is marked by

explicit or implicit references to the biblical text."19 I would contend that

the author's language in 6:4-6 is colored by OT references by means of allusion

and echo apart from direct citation. Initial justification for finding OT

influence behind 6:4-6, especially with reference to the wilderness genera-

tion, includes: 1) this era from the life of Israel has already played a promi-

nent role in the exhortation of 3:7-4:13; 2) this aspect of Israel's life serves

as a model throughout Hebrews more broadly; 3) as already observed, an OT

illustration can be detected behind all the other major warnings in Hebrews.20

Further substantiation comes from observing the linguistic and conceptual

parallels in the descriptive phrases in 6:4-6 (“having once for all been

enlightened," "having tasted the heavenly gift," "having become partakers of

the Holy Spirit," "having tasted of the good word of God and the powers

of the coming age") with descriptions of the wilderness generation found in

the OT, associations which "bleed over" from 3:7-4:13 into 6:4-6.21 Most

 

22; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994); Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation

JSNTS, 115; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995). For recent treatments of "echo" and the

literary concept of "intertextuality" see J. Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in

Milton and After (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Jonathan D. Culler, The

Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan

Paul, 1981), 100-18. According to the latter work behind intertextuality lies the assumption

that any discourse is only intelligible with reference to a prior body of discourse “which it takes

up, prolongs, cites, refutes, transforms" (101). The recent trend among those who advocate

intertextual approaches has been to become reader-focused rather than author-focused. How-

ever, Hays offers a more balanced approach when he suggests that "a proposed interpretation

must be justified with reference to evidence provided by the text's rhetorical structure and by

what can be known through critical investigation about the author and original readers"

(Echoes of Scripture, 28).

18 See G. K. Beale, "Revelation," in D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson, eds., It is

Written: Scripture Citing Scripture. Essays in Honour of Barnabas Lindars (Cambridge:

University Press, 1988), 325-26 on the thematic use of the OT in Revelation.

19 Hebrews 1-8, cxv.

20 For discussion of criteria for discerning OT influence cf. Hays, Echoes of Scripture,

29-32; Dale C. Allison, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1993),

19-23; M. Thompson, Clothed With Christ: The Example and Teaching of Jesus in Romans

12:1-15:13 JSNTS, 59; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 15-36. For further methodological discussion

see Stanley E. Porter, "The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament: A Brief Comment

on Method and Terminology," in Early Christian Interpretation, 79-96. On the other hand, it

would be methodologically illegitimate to conclude that an OT illustration must lie behind

6:4-6 based on the fact that all the other warnings include one (kind of an 'argument from

silence' in reverse). However, the very fact that all the other warnings include an Old Testa-

ment example at least invites the interpreter to explore the possibility of finding one in 6:4-6

as well.

21 For the LXX as the text-form which underlies the author's use of the OT in Hebrews

cf. the discussion in Paul Ellingworth, Commentary on Hebrews (NIGTC; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans/Carlisle: Paternoster, 1993), 37-42; Lane, Hebrews 1-8, cxvii-cxviii.



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                      215

 

of the parallels to the statements in 6:4-6 can be discovered in Exodus and

Numbers with their descriptions of the people as they traveled through the

wilderness on their way to Canaan, as well as in Nehemiah 9 (esp. vv. 13-15,

19-21) and in related Psalms, where the history of God's dealing with Israel

is rehearsed in somewhat extended fashion.22

 

I. 6:4a

Commentators frequently draw attention to plausible NT parallels for

the phrase "having once been enlightened," and several have suggested a

baptismal reference for this description.23 However, the following considera-

tions and analysis suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the

possible light that the OT might shed on the interpretation of this phrase.

Given the prominence of the wilderness generation as a model for the

author, the most important parallel is the light that God provided for the

wilderness generation in the desert. According to Exod 13:21, as the Israel-

ites traveled through the desert following their deliverance from Egypt,

along with a pillar of cloud during the day, God provided them with a pillar

of fire to enlighten their way at night. This specific event is recalled in

Nehemiah 9 in a section in which the author recites what God did for his

people on their trek from Egypt through the desert (v. 12), a section which

offers several important linguistic and conceptual parallels to Heb 6:4-6.

This event is also referred to in Ps 105 (104):39, which is situated in a

catalogue of God's mighty actions on behalf of the Israelites. With this

"wilderness generation" background in mind, it appears that this aspect of

the Exodus narrative has provided a primary impetus for the author's

conception here, a proposal that receives further corroboration when the

subsequent statements in vv. 4-5 are examined. The author's reference to

"enlightenment" here probably corresponds to 10:26: "we have received

knowledge of the truth" (cf. v. 32).24

 

22 Nehemiah 9 constitutes a prayer by the Levites which recites the history of

Israel in terms of their apostasy. The idea behind Neh 9:16-25 is that God continues to

sustain his blessings upon Israel despite their rebellion. Cf. David J. A. Clines, Ezra,

Nehemiah, Esther (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/London: Marshall, Morgan &

Scott, 1984), 195.

23 See Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1965), 148; Ellingworth, Hebrews, 320; Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 141. Cf. John

1:9, 12; 8:12; 2 Cor 4:6; Eph 5:8; Col 4:5; 2 Tim 1:10; I Pet 2:9; Rev 18:1. The earliest

references for enlightenment as a reference to baptism are found in Justin, Apol. 61:12;

Dial. 39:2; 122:1-2,6. Against a baptismal reference here cf. Hans Conzelmann, "fw?j

ktl.," TDNT; IX, 355; Hughes, Hebrews, 208; Hans Windisch, Der Hebriierbrief (HNT,

14; 2nd ed.; Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck J, 1931) 51; Ellingworth, Hebrews, 320.

Barnabas Lindars concludes: "Their minds were 'enlightened' by the teaching which

culminated in baptism" (The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews [Cambridge:

University Press, 1991J, 67).

24 For "enlightened" as illumination from the Gospel see Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 141;

Harold W. Attridge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hermeneia;

Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 169; Ellingworth, Hebrews, 320.

 



216                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Heb 6:4b                                                        Neh 9: 12

tou>j a!pac fwtisqe<ntaj                        tou?  fwti<sai au]tou>j

Neh 9:19

                                                            fwti<zein au]toi?j

Psalm 105 (104):39

                                                            pu?r tou? fwti<sai au]toi?j

 

2. 6:4b

The second phrase in the repertoire of statements in 6:4-6, "having

tasted the heavenly gift," also resonates with overtones from the wilderness

incident. Although the verbal parallels are not as precise as the previous

instance, for those whose ears were attuned to the OT background, this

phrase, which occurs only here in the NT, would have recalled the manna

which God provided from heaven for his people during their sojourn in the

wilderness. According to Exod 16:4, God would rain bread down from

heaven for the Israelites' sustenance in response to their grumbling over

their perceived misfortune in comparison to what they had in Egypt (cf.

16:31, 33, 35; Num 11:7-9; Deut 8:3, 16). This provision of "heavenly bread"

became important for subsequent articulations of God's intervention on

behalf of his covenant people, and is explicitly recalled in the historical

recital of Ps 105 (104):40. In rehearsing the events following the incident at

Sinai, Neh 9 also draws on this description of heavenly bread which God

gave to his covenant people (9:15; cf. v. 20). Further, along with the Nehe-

miah 9 reference, in Exod 16:15 and Ps 78 (77):24 the bread is described as

something which the Lord gave (LXX e@dwke[n]) to his people to eat, sug-

gesting that the bread is a divine gift. Moreover, according to later exege-

tical traditions there was an expectation of a second, eschatological provision

of bread from heaven corresponding to God's provision in the past (2 Bar.

29:8; Eccl. R. 1:9; Sib. Or. 7:145).25 Thus, along with the Exodus narrative,

the retrospective lists noted above, which include mention of the provision

of heavenly bread as a gift from God to the wilderness generation, provide

plausible parallels to the writer's second statement in Heb 6:4, where the

readers have “tasted the heavenly gift" in the age of eschatological fulfill-

ment.26 While the reference to "tasting" may suggest a Eucharistic setting,27

 

25 See Johannes Behm, "a@rtoj," TDNT, I, 477-78; Rudolf Meyer, "Ma<nna," TDNT, IV,

463-65. This may be linked with the idea that the manna was hidden in the ark before the

destruction of the temple, and that it would be revealed in the last days (cf. 2 Macc 2:4-7; 2

Bar 6:6-7).

26 See also Wis 16:20: kai> e!toimon a@rton a]p ] ou]ranou?  pare<sxej au]toi?j . . .

For the spiritual interpretation of the bread from heaven cf. also John 6:31, 32, 33, 41, 50, 51,

58, where the manna is interpreted as Jesus and issues in eternal life. Thus, Christ surpasses the OT

manna given in the wilderness. Cf. also Rev 2: 17. Jewish teachers sometimes identified the

manna as the Torah. cr. Philo, Mut. 253-63; Mek. Exod 13: 17.

27 See G. Wesley Buchanan, To the Hebrews (AB, 36; Garden City: Doubleday &

Company, 1972), 106, who thinks it refers to the communal meal.

 



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                      217

 

this overlooks the metaphorical sense of the term which may simply indi-

cate more broadly “the whole sum of spiritual blessings" experienced by

the readers.28

 

Heb 6:4b                                            Exod 16:4

            geusame<nouj te th?j dwrea?j      a@rtouj e]k tou? ou]ranou?

th?j e]pourani<ou                              Exod 16: 15

                                                                        o[ a@rtoj o{ e@dwke Ku<rioj u[mi?n fagei?n

Ps 78 (77):24

                                                                        a@rton ou]ranou?  e@dwken au]toi?j

Ps 105 (104):40

                                                                        a@rton ou]ranou?  e]ne<plhsen au]tou<j

Neh 9:15

                                                                        a@rton e]c ou]ranou?  e@dwken au]toi?j

3. 6:4c

Furthermore, with this proposed OT context still in mind, the author's

third descriptive statement, "having become partakers of the Holy Spirit,"

sustains the continuous allusion to the experience of God's people in the

wilderness. According to Neh 9:20, part of the experience of the people as

they wandered in the wilderness was the reception of the gift of God's Spirit

to instruct them (suneti<sai au]tou?j). This reference probably reflects

Num 11:16-29, a text which contains several references to God's Spirit which

rests upon certain members of the covenant people. Following the Israelites'

departure from Sinai, in response to Moses' lament due to the grumbling

of the people, in Numbers 11 God assures Moses that he will not have to

carry the burden of the people alone (v. 17). Thus, God will take the Spirit

which is upon Moses and place it upon the seventy elders of Israel who

subsequently prophesied (11:17, 25). Further, both Eldad and Medad are

singled out as recipients of the Spirit and they likewise prophesy (II:26).

Along with the mention of the deliverance at the Red Sea, this reference to

God's provision of the Holy Spirit finds its place in a recital of what God

did for the Israelites in the prophetic literature in Isa 63:11c, where God set

his Holy Spirit among the people in the days of Moses, most likely a recol-

lection of the incident in Numbers 11 (cf. Hag 2:5). Within the broader

context of Israel's wilderness experience the author's statement regarding

the experience of becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit in Heb 6:4c, then,

has been anchored in the OT conception of God's provision of the Holy

Spirit for the wilderness generation. The readers of Hebrews have experi-

enced the work of the Spirit in their midst, perhaps more specifically with

reference to the gift of prophecy (cf. Num 11:26) and the "signs and wonders"

which accompanied the proclamation of the Gospel and the in-breaking of

the age to come (cf. 2:4; 6:5b).

 

28 Bruce, Hebrews, 121. Likewise, Westcott, Hebrews, 148.



218                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Heb 6:4c                                Neh 9:20

            meto<xouj genhqe<ntaj      to>  pneu?ma< sou to> a]gaqo>n e@dwkaj

    pneu<matoj a[gi<ou           Isa 63:11

                                                            o[ qei>j e]n au]toi?j to> pneu?ma to> a!gion

 

4. 6:5

The next descriptive phrase in 6:5 contains two expressions ("the good

word of God;" “the powers of the coming age") which function as the dual

object of the verb geusame<nouj, a term which has already occurred in the

second descriptive phrase in 6:4 in allusion to God's provision of bread from

heaven for the wilderness generation. Although some commentators have

pointed to the ostensible parallel in I Pet 2:3 (ei] e]geu<sasqe o!ti xrhsto>j o[

ku<rioj), an allusion to Ps 34 (33):9,29 as Ellingworth rightly notes, the

language and respective contexts of 1 Peter (cf. Ps 34:9) and Hebrews are

substantially different.30 The concept of God's word being sweet to the taste

is found several places in the OT (cf. Ezek 2:8; 3:1-3; Psalm 119 [118:34]).

However, it is also plausible that the allusion to the bread from heaven which

God provided the people in the wilderness and which featured in the second

description above in 6:4 continues to influence the reference to the "tasting" here.

The referent of r[h?ma qeou? is probably the word which was preached to

the covenant community and confirmed by signs and wonders in 2:1-4.31

(The term r[h?ma is characteristic of the author of Hebrews, occurring three

other times in 1:3, 11:3, and 12:19. This last reverence is intriguing since it

constitutes a reference to the word of God given to Moses at Sinai (cf.

Acts 7:38: lo<gia zw?nta). In Exod 20:1 God speaks the words of the law to

Moses, which Moses was subsequently commanded to communicate to the

people (v. 22). According to the historical recital in Nehemiah 9, on Sinai

God spoke to the people from heaven, giving them good commands (v. 13,

LXX e]ntola>j a]gaqa<j). Moreover, as other commentators have suggested,

linguistically, a closer parallel to Heb 6:5a exists in Josh 21 :45 (21 :43) and

23:14.32 Both of these Old Testament texts provide statements which follow

upon the conquest of the land of Canaan, and reaffirm that God has kept

 

29 See R. McL. Wilson, Hebrews (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Basingstoke:

Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1987), 111; Hughes, Hebrews, 209.

30 Ellingworth remarks, "But the language of the present verse is too distinctive to

suggest a direct reference to Ps 34; the common tradition is probably oral. Moreover, the

situation in 1 Peter is that of 'babes' (2:2) coming from baptism and thereby taking their place

for the first time (nu?n, v. 10) among God's people; whereas in Hebrews, the addressees are people

who should be moving beyond spiritual infancy (5; 12), and are in danger of losing their place

among God's people if they do not hold on" (Hebrews, 321).

31 Ellingworth, Hebrews, 321. Ellingworth doubts that one can maintain a sharp

distinction here between lo<goj; and r[h?ma. Cf. 12: 19. McKnight is mistaken to see the

use of r[h?ma in 6:5 as one of the differences from 1 Pet 2:3, since 1 Pet 2:3 does not

contain the term lo<goj (see “Warning Passages,” 47)

32 Cf. Grasser, Die Hebraer, 352; Hughes, Hebrews, 210 n. 54; Buchanan, Hebrews, 106-7.



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                      219

 

all his promises in bringing the people into the promised land. Most likely,

these references to the good words of God, including the words which were

spoken by God at Sinai, provide the scriptural matrix for the author's

assertion in Heb 6:5a.33 Like the old covenant community, the new co-

munity addressed by the author of Hebrews have tasted the good word of

God, the Gospel which has been preached to them within the context of the

Christian community (cf. 2:4).

Heb 6:5a                                                         Josh 21:43 (LXX)

 kalo>n geusame<nouj qeou? r[h?ma            pa<ntwn tw?n r[hma<twn tw?n kalw?n       

Josh 23:14

                                                            pa<nta ta> r[h<mata ta> kala>

Neh 9:13

kai> e]ntola>j a]gaqa<j

The final descriptive phrase asserts that the readers have tasted the powers

(duna<meij) of the coming age (6:5b). Intratextually, the closest parallel to

6:5b is 2:4, where the message of salvation which was heard by the readers

was testified by "signs, wonders and various miracles" (shmei<oij te kai>

te<rasin kai> poiki<laij duna<mesin).34 This same threefold expression occurs

elsewhere in the NT in Acts 2:22 with reference to the verification of Christ

and his message, and the fixed twofold form of the expression, shmei?a kai>

te<rata, characterizes the ministry of the apostles in Acts.35 However, the

principal scriptural background for the phrase in Heb 2:4 is the use of these

terms in depicting the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus, especially

since neglect of the Gospel in 2:3 is explicitly compared to disobedience to

the Mosaic legislation which was given at Sinai (2:2). In the OT the epithet

"signs and wonders" often carried specific semantic associations, being

frequently associated with the events surrounding the Exodus and the wilder-

ness generation (cf. Exod 7:3:  ta> shmei?a<. . . . kai> ta> te<rata). According to

Karl Hein Rengstorf, "When the OT speaks of God's signs and wonders

. . . the reference is almost always to the leading of the people out of Egypt

by Moses and to the special circumstances under which the people stood up

to the passage of the Red Sea and in all of which God proved Himself to

be the almighty and showed Israel to be His chosen people."36 Moreover,

"in the LXX the formula shmei?a kai> te<rata . . . seems to be reserved for

God's wonders in the days of Moses."37 Thus, the "signs and wonders"

 

33 Cf. Philo, Fug. 137-38.

34 Ellingworth notes the close link between 2:1-4 and 6:4-6 (Hebrews, 142).

35 See Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5: 12; 8: 13 (shmei?a kai> duna<meij); 14:3; 15: 12. Cf.

Mark 13:22; John 4:48; Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12; 2 Thess 2:9.

36 Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, "shmei?on," TDNT, VII, 216.

37 Ibid., 221. Cf. also 0 Hofius, "shmei?on," NIDNTT, 2, 626-27. According to

Hofius, the phrase "'signs and wonders' is found primarily in those texts which describe the time

of Moses as a time of Yahweh's marvellous actions in history (Exod 7:3; cf. Deut 4:34; 6:22; 7:19;

29:2; Jer 32:20f.; Pss 78[77]:43; 105[104]:27; 135[134]:9; Neh 9: 10; also Bar 2: 11; Wis 10:16)" (627).



220                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

which accompanied and accredited God's speaking in the Gospel are seen

in analogy to the “signs and wonders" which confirmed God's presence

with and his speaking to his first covenant people.

It is this reference to the "signs and wonders" which accompanied God's

activity in Egypt and beyond which grounds the writer's articulation of the

experience of the powers of the age to come in the new covenant community

in Heb 6:5b.38 The employment of du<namij links 6:5 closely to 2:4, which

is clearly patterned after Exodus events. Moreover, several OT texts which

recall the events surrounding the Exodus depict those events with du<namij

(Exod 7:4; Psg 66 [65]:3; 77 [76]: 15; cf. dunastei<a in 78 [77]:4, 26; 106 [105]:8).

Therefore, like the wilderness generation who experienced God's mighty

acts and miraculous powers, (cf. Exod 7:3; Deut 11:3; Num 14:11,22; Psg 78:4,

11, 32, 43; 105:27; 106:21-22; cf. Acts 7:36), within the context of the new

covenant community the subjects of Heb 6:5 have witnessed and experi-

enced the miraculous powers of God, the in-breaking of the eschatological

powers of the age to come (Heb 6:5b; 2:4).

Heb 6:5c                                                        See Exod 7:3, 4; Num 14:11, 22;

duna<meij . . . me<llontoj ai]w?noj Ps 66 (65):3; 77 (76):15;

78 (77):4, 26, 43; 106 (105):8;

cf. Acts 7:36; Heb 2:4

            Following this extended description of the readers' experience in vv. 4-5,

verse 6 describes the error that the readers are in danger of committing:

parapeso<ntaj. According to Lane, in the LXX this term refers to "a total

attitude reflecting deliberate and calculated renunciation of God."39 The

potential danger facing the readers of Hebrews corresponds precisely to

that which the wilderness generation faced.40 The wilderness generation

had experienced all these things (God's good word, provisions and miracu-

lous powers), yet they responded in unbelief and rebellion (Num 14:11,22;

Pss 95:8-9; 106:21-22; Heb. 3:16), and subsequently incurred God's wrath.

Likewise the subjects of Heb 6:4-5 had experienced all these things (vv. 4-5)

as members of the new covenant community, and now had rebelled and

fallen away as their ancestors once did.

 

Cf. Acts 7:36 where the phrase is used of the miraculous events at Egypt, the Red Sea, and

the forty years in the desert.

38 Buchanan likewise sees the "powers of the age to come" here in 6:5b as a reference

 to the miracles which accompanied entry into the promised land (Hebrews, 107). However,

Buchanan wrongly construes this as an entrance into the literal promised land in 6:5b.

39 Hebrews 1-8, 142. Lane cites Ezek 20:27; 22:4; Wis 6:9; 12:2. According to McKnight,

the "sin the author has in mind is a willful rejection of God and his Son" Jesus the Messiah, and

open denunciation of God and his ethical standards" ("Warning Passages," 39). Elsewhere

McKnight labels it as "apostasy" (42). Contra the view of Oberholtzer, "Warning Passages 3," 322-23.

40 Cf. Spicq, L'Epitre, 71-72. The wilderness generation and the present readers "sont ex-

poses aux memes dangers d'apostasie" (72).



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                      221

 

6. Heb 6:7-8

The allusion to the wilderness generation proposed above extends be-

yond vv. 4-6 to vv. 7-8. The situation envisioned in 6:4-6 is proceeded by an

explanation or illustration (ga<r) in vv. 7-8. The explanation here does not

just draw on common agricultural imagery for illustrative purposes, but

more specifically alludes to the OT, an observation significant for perceiving

the function of these verses. The language of 6:7 clearly echoes the LXX

of Deut 11:11.41

Heb 6:7: gh? ga>r h[ piou?sa to>n e]p ] au]th?j e]rxo<menon polla<kij u[eto<n

Deut 11:11: gh? . . . e]k tou? u[etou?  tou? ou]ranou? pi<etai

Essentially, the context of Deut 11 is the affirmation of God's requirements

for his people if they are, to enjoy blessings in the land they are about to

enter. The description inv. 11 of the land that drinks rain is descriptive of

the promised land (gh?). But the enjoyment of blessings in the land and

continual rain to cause the land to produce is conditioned upon the stipu-

lation of the people's obedience (vv. 13-15). Conversely, failure to obey

God's commandments will result in the rain being withheld, and the people

will perish (vv.. 16-17). This is all part of the covenantal blessing (eu]logi<an)

and cursing (kata<ran) motif which pervades this entire section (v. 26).

Moreover, the broader context of Deuteronomy 11 suggests the appropri-

ateness of an allusion to 11:11 in Heb 6:7-8. The covenantal blessing and

cursing on the land is placed within the context of the Exodus from Egypt

and the subsequent trek through the wilderness. In Deut 11:2-7, the genera-

tion which stands on the verge of entry into the promised land is, in solidarity

with their ancestors, enjoined to remember the events they experienced

surrounding the Exodus out of Egypt (vv. 2-4), as well as what God did for

them in the wilderness (v. 5), as a basis for obedience and subsequent blessing

on the land. Therefore, the allusion to Deut 11:11 in Heb 6:7-8 continues

the wilderness generation motif developed in this section.

The clear allusion to Deut 11:11 in Heb 6: 7 and the mention of both

blessing (eu]logi<aj, v. 7) and cursing (kata<raj, v. 8) would evoke in the

readers' canonical memory the covenantal blessing and cursing from

Deuteronomy 11 (cf. v. 26).42 The "land which drinks rain" in 6:7 resumes

the divine provisions experienced by the covenant community in vv. 4-6. Like

the people in Deut 11 who witnessed divine provisions during the Exodus and the

time of wilderness wandering and will now experience God's provision in the

land, the readers of Hebrews 6 have experienced the blessings of vv. 4-6 by

virtue of belonging to the new covenant community. Those members of the

 

41 Cf. also Isa 5:1-7. Verbrugge argues that the imagery in Heb 6:7-8 stem from Isa 5:1-7

("New Interpretation"). However, the parallels he adduces are inexact, and in any case are

not as close verbally and contextually as Deut 11:11. For critique of Verbrugge's proposal see

McKnight, "Warning Passages," 53-54.

42 Cf. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 143.



222                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

new covenant community who experience the things articulated in vv. 4-6

and produce fruit of faith and obedience will receive blessing from God,

which corresponds to the covenantal blessing on the land in Deut 11:13-15,

27.43 Conversely, those who experience the same things by virtue of partici-

pating in the covenant community but fail to appropriate these blessings

and obey will be cursed, corresponding to the covenantal curse in Deut 11:16-

17, 28.44 However, for the new covenant community the promises of physical

blessing and cursing on the land have been spiritualized to refer to ultimate

salvation or judgment. The context of entry into the land (gh?) that drinks

rain in Deuteronomy 11 also provides a further connection with Heb 3:7-

4:13, where the warning against failure to enter God's rest was based on

the failure of the wilderness generation to enter rest in the promised land

(Numbers 14; Psalm 95). The allusion to Deut 11:11 in Heb 6:7-8, then,

sustains the author's allusion to the wilderness generation developed in

chaps. 3-4. More significantly, the clear allusion to Deut 11:11 in vv. 7-8

places the allusions/echoes from the wilderness generation proposed for

vv. 4-6 on firmer footing.

 

IV Implications of the Old Testament Background for Interpreting

Heb 6:4-6

The preceding analysis has attempted to show contextually and linguis-

tically that the Old Testament experience of the wilderness generation and

the incident at Kadesh-barnea provide the model for the author's depiction

of the subjects of Heb 6:4-6, and that such an analysis yields important

semantic results. While perhaps none of the proposed allusions are entirely

convincing on their own, when taken together the cumulative evidence and

the clear allusion to Deut 11:11 in Heb 6:7 provide a compelling case for

reading 6:4-6 in light of the proposed Old Testament background. Thus,

the momentum from the use of this illustration in 3:7-4:13 has carried over

into the author's statements in 6:4-6.

The author's primary "intertextual" quarry is the narrative accounts

from Exodus and Numbers 13-14, overlaid with the lists from Nehemiah 9

and Psalms which recount what God did on behalf of his people. While a

case could be made for finding clear allusions to specific Old Testament

texts in some of the descriptions in Heb 6:4-6 (vv. 4a, 5, 7), several other

instances seem to exhibit less precise verbal correspondences, but are allu-

sions to concepts or themes found in several texts, while nevertheless carrying

meaning from the OT into their new context (vv. 4b, 4c, 6).

What semantic effects are produced by the author's allusion to and echo

of the Israelites' wilderness saga? In other words, what difference does

discerning the scriptural substructure of Heb 6:4-6 make in actually reading

 

43 The ti<ktousa bota<nhn in v. 7b also reflects the gh? . . . bota<nhn of Gen 1:11.

44 The a]ka<nqaj kai> tribo<luj in v. 8 also reflects the a]ka<nqaj kai> tribo<louj

 of Gen 3:17.



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                      223

 

this passage? Through influence of OT descriptions of the wilderness genera-

tion, the author intends for the readers to perceive their situation in light

of this precursor event in Israel's history. One of the important ways in

which OT allusions and echoes function is to create a conceptual or semantic

grid through which reality is perceived. According to Michael Fishbane,

the Exodus event “became a lens of historical perception and anticipa-

tion."45 Thus, the author of Hebrews defines the readers' situation in terms

of the experience of the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness on

their way to the promised land. Like their OT counterparts, the audience

of Hebrews is also on a pilgrimage to the promised land and stands on the

threshold of the fulfillment of God's promises. In typological analogy to the

old covenant community, the subjects of vv. 4-5 have also experienced God's

goodness and blessings: they have "been enlightened," have "tasted the

heavenly gift," have become "partakers of the Holy Spirit," have "tasted

the good word of God and the powers of the coming age" (Heb 6:4-5), all

of which they have experienced by virtue of belonging to the covenant

community.46 However, like their OT predecessors, they have fallen away

(v. 6) and have come under the covenantal curse (vv. 7-8), having experi-

enced the blessings of the new covenant inaugurated by Christ. Rhetori-

cally, the OT language in this unit functions to dissuade the readers from

following the same course of action as their old covenant counterparts.

            Similar to the comparison in Heb 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13 the argument in 6:4-6

is implicitly a fortiori. If the wilderness generation committed a grave error

by experiencing all these blessings under the old covenant and then rebel-

ling in unbelief, how much more serious is the situation for those who in the

new era of fulfillment experience all these things in 6:4-5 and then fall away

(vv. 6, 7-8). Consequently, the author is not just alluding to snippets of texts

and isolated vocabulary for rhetorical color, but by alluding to texts which

belong to a larger matrix of ideas he is evoking the entire context and story

of Israel's experience in the wilderness. In this way the story of the old

covenant community becomes the story of the new covenant community as

they live in the era of the fulfillment of God's new covenant promises.47 The

description in 6:4-6, then, is not just of an isolated Christian experience,

rather, it is to be understood against the background of Israel's wilderness

experience as members of the covenant community. In light of this, it is

 

45 Michael A. Fishbane, Text and Texture: Close Readings of Selected Biblical

Texts (New York: Shocken, 1979), 121. Cf. also N. T. Wright, The New Testament and

 the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 36 for discussion of the way communities

perceive reality through a grip of expectations: "Every human community shares and

cherishes certain assumptions, traditions, expectations . . . which encourage its members

to construe reality in particular ways, and which create contexts within which certain kinds

of statements are perceived as making sense" (36).

46 Although the proposal of Verbrugge ("New Interpretation") that 6:4-6 concerns not

individuals but the covenant community is probably to be rejected (see McKnight, "Warning

Passages," 53-54), he has rightly highlighted the communal dimension of these verses.

47 See Sylvia C. Keesmaat, "Paul and His Story: Exodus and Tradition in Galatians," in

Early Christian Interpretation, 319-20.



224                 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

possible that the descriptions in vv. 4-5 are not to be pinned down to precise

referents as most commentators attempt to do, but all refer more generally

to the experience of the people in hearing the Gospel and experiencing the

blessings of the new covenant within the context of the new covenant com-

munity.48 What the readers have experienced as part of the new Exodus

community is to be interpreted in terms of what the first Exodus generation

experienced on their way to the promised land.

More importantly, the above analysis sheds some valuable light on the

vexing question of the status of those envisioned in Heb 6:4-6. After ana-

lyzing the statements in vv. 4-6, McKnight confidently concludes that "[i]f

the author is accurate in his description of the readers' experience, then we

can only say that they are believers-true believers."49 However, the preceding

analysis leads us in a different direction. It appears that in analogy to the

old covenant community the people depicted in 6:4-6 are not genuine believers

or true members of the new covenant community. Like their OT counter-

parts, they have experienced all these blessings (vv. 4-5), but like the wilder-

ness generation they are hardhearted, rebellious (3:8) and possess an "evil

heart of unbelief” (3:12, 19).50 More clearly, 4:2 poignantly states that both

groups (the wilderness generation and the new covenant community) have

had the gospel preached to them, but the wilderness generation to which

the readers of Hebrews are compared failed to believe, and therefore the

message was of no value to them. Thus, the conclusion of Lane that "[t]o-

gether, the clauses describe vividly the reality of the experience of personal

salvation enjoyed by the Christians addressed" is premature.51 Wayne A.

Grudem has recently proposed a similar understanding to the one presented

in this section.52 According to him, the descriptive phrases themselves in

vv. 4-6 are inconclusive as to whether the subjects are genuine believers or

not. Here in Hebrews 6 they describe “people who were not yet Christians

but who had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the

blessings of the Holy Spirit's work in the Christian community."53 The

falling away (v. 6) is not a falling from salvation, but a failure to exercise

saving faith in light of the blessings to which the readers have been exposed

 

48 "There is certainly some overlap of meaning between the four clauses, and attempts to

distinguish sharply between them are contradictory and unsuccessful" (Ellingworth, Hebrews,

319).

49 "Warning Passages," 48.

50 See m. Sanh. 10:3 for rabbinic debate whether or not the wilderness generation would

have a share in the age to come.

51 Lane, Hebrews 1-8, 141. Cf. Oberholtzer, "Warning Passages 3," 321-22.

52 Grudem, "Perseverence of the Saints," The Grace of God.

53 Ibid., 171-72. For further discussion of the issue of assurance see also D. A. Carson,

"Reflections on Christian Assurance," WTJ 54 (1992) 1-29. The issue is not whether 6:4-6

describes a genuine experience (it does). Rather, the issue is whether 6:4-6 is describing those

who have had a genuine saving experience. Therefore, it will not do to conclude that 6:4-6

envisions individuals who gave all the appearances of true saving faith (vv. 4-6), which their

subsequent falling away demonstrated to be spurious.



HEB 6:4-6 IN LIGHT OF THE OLD TESTAMENT                      225

 

through association with the Christian community.54 The preceding

sis of the OT background to 6:4-6 confirms Grudem's conclusions. Thus in

analogy to the old covenant community, those envisioned in vv. 4-6 have

experienced the blessings of the new covenant ("being enlightened," "tast-

ing the heavenly gift,” etc.), experiences common to all by virtue of be-

longing to the new covenant community, but have recapitulated the error

of their old covenant predecessors by failing to believe and rejecting what

they have experienced.  In doing so they come under the covenantal curse.

 

V. Conclusion

 

Heb 6:4-6 provides a intriguing test-case and example of how uncovering

OT allusions and echoes can shed valuable interpretive light on a proble-

matic text. While an OT background to this section of Hebrews has gone

virtually unnoticed (probably due to lack of explicit citations), it has been

argued on contextual and linguistic grounds that the Old Testament depiction

of the wilderness generation and the incident at Kadesh-barnea, which has

"bled over" from its use in 3:7-4:13, provides a compelling background

(through allusion and echo) to Heb 6:4-6 and yields valuable semantic

results. It also has profound implications for dealing with a sticky theological

difficulty.

 

 

 

 

54 Hughes reflects a similar understanding when he concludes: "The sin of apostasy,

then, is a grim (and far more than a merely hypothetical) possibility for persons who through

identification with the people of God have been brought within the sphere of divine blessing"

(Hebrews, 217).

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            2960 W. Church Rd.

            Glenside, PA  19038

www.wtj.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu