Life in first-century Palestine had its drawbacks for the Christian. Opposition was real and persecution intense, but another type of “drawback” was occurring. How do we explain those who left Judaism, embraced Christianity, and then returned? Is it fair to conclude that every person who returned to Judaism was never saved? Or did these “drawbacks” lose their salvation? Is there another possible explanation?
The epistle addresses a distinct group of Hebrew believers (3:1; 6:10, ESV) who are being tempted to return to Judaism because of persecution (Heb 10:32-34; 13:3). Christians faced suffering and possible death, but at least Judaism was legal and somewhat safe to practice. The writer is urging his readers to remain faithful to Christ, warning of the consequences of returning to a previously abandoned system. Going back to Judaism would not cause them to lose their salvation, but advancing in the Christian life would become impossible. Loss of reward would be another tragic consequence.
The immediate context is observed from the end of chapter 5. These believers are described as “dull of hearing” (5:11), “unskillful in the word,” and “babes” (5:13) in “need of milk” (5:12). Chapter 6 continues this theme using the connective “Therefore” (6:1). The writer’s desire is that they “go on to maturity” (6:1, ESV).
“And this will we do” (v3). To what does “this” refer? The immediate antecedent is “going on to maturity” (v1). They are to advance toward maturity as long as God permits them. How could He not? The next section (vv4-6) gives an example of people God will not permit to “go on to maturity.” God did not allow the Hebrews, after the Exodus, to advance into their inheritance because of their failure (Heb 3-4), and it is implied that He will not permit these Hebrews a similar blessing because of their failure. If they go back (i.e., return to Judaism), they will not go forward (i.e., spiritually mature).
In verse 4, there is no hint that the writer is now describing an unregenerate group of people. Rather, he is establishing a link between the Exodus generation and the group he now describes. First, they are referred to as “once enlightened.” The only other use of “enlightened” in Hebrews (10:32) points to those who have had a definite conversion experience. The word for “once” (hapax) often means “once for all.” It emphasizes the finality of Christ’s sacrifice (9:26), the finality of death (9:27) and of Christ’s offering for sin (9:28).
Second, they “tasted of the heavenly gift.” Perhaps this gift refers to regeneration itself. Some contend they only “tasted” (“sampled”) this gift. However, the same verb (geuomai) is used in 2:9 about Christ “tasting” death for every man. Christ did not “sample” death but experienced it to the fullest extent.
Third, these individuals “were made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” The word “partakers” means “partners” (A. T. Robertson). It is hard to see how someone who is in partnership (or in spiritual fellowship) with the Holy Spirit is not a true believer.
Fourth, they “tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the age to come.” Taking the word “tasting” to mean what it did in verse 4, we conclude that these individuals fully took in (i.e., received) the Word of God and made it part of their diet. They also embraced the significance of witnessing “the powers of the coming age.” This phrase likely refers to the miracles of the NT era, which were a foretaste of the miraculous future millennial age.
Why did the writer use these phrases to describe them? Randall Gleason suggests these descriptions correspond to the blessings experienced by the redeemed Exodus generation. They received the pillar of light (Exo 13:21), tasted the manna from heaven, the 70 elders were partakers of the Holy Spirit (Num 11:16-30), the Word of God was given through Moses (Exo 4:28-30), and they witnessed miraculous signs which Moses performed.
The fifth statement is: “If they shall fall away” (v6). “If they” is the connective kai (usually translated “and”). There is nothing conditional here. The phrase is a participle, just like the previous four, and could be translated, “and have fallen away.” So this group has already fallen away. The word here is parapipto (not apostasia). Believers can “fall” (1Cor 10:12; Heb 4:11), but in what sense have they fallen? Contextually, it appears to mean the opposite of “going on to maturity” (v1). The writer is not talking about falling away from salvation, but about wandering from the path that leads to spiritual maturity and entrance into rest (4:11) by going back to Judaism. However, just as the Hebrews’ wilderness failure to persevere did not result in the loss of salvation of millions of Jews, neither would the failure of these Hebrews result in the loss of their salvation. What is in danger is their own spiritual growth as well as loss of reward in the coming kingdom of Christ.
Incidentally, another proof that these are genuine believers is found in the phrase “renew them again” (v6). If these are unbelievers, how is it possible for them to be “renewed” to repentance when they have yet to repent in the first place? Also, implicit in the word “renew” is the fact of previous repentance. Notice, too, that it is “repentance” to which they cannot be restored, not salvation.
The words “crucify” and “put” in verse 6 are present participles and could be rendered “while crucifying” and “while putting.” “The writer did not say that these people could not be brought to repentance. He said that they could not be brought to repentance while they were treating Jesus Christ in such a shameful way” (W. Wiersbe). God would not permit them to repent as long as they persisted in going back to the temple to participate in the defunct sacrificial system. To revert to these pictures and shadows when the reality in Christ had come would be putting their Savior to an open shame (v6). By returning to a system of animal sacrifices, they were stating to all the insufficiency of the blood of Christ. Restoration to fellowship with God is only possible through the finished work and shed blood of the Lord Jesus (John 1:9).
If believers drink in the rain of God’s many blessings, the result will be growth and fruit (v7). However, if the soil is hardened, the rain runs off and there is no fruit. All that springs up are “thorns and briers … whose end is to be burned” (v8). The disobedient believer’s works (i.e., thorns and briers) are burned up at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1Cor 3:15).
Does Hebrews 6 teach that a believer can lose his salvation? No! But it does indicate that there were “Drawbacks.” Some believers returned, probably because of persecution, to Judaism and its rituals, but with heartbreaking consequences.