Friday, November 15, 2013

Hebrews 5:11—6:20

(5:11–14). At this point in the epistle, the apostle interrupts his homily on Jesus the High Priest with a pedagogical excursus (5:11–14). A glance at Hebrews 5:10 and 7:1 will reveal the points at which the priestly treatise is suspended and resumed. Meanwhile, the apostle pauses to note the difficulty of the expository task before him when his readers and auditors "have become dull in understanding" (v. 11). He insists they need a review of the "basic elements of the oracles of God" (v. 12) and compares them to infants in need of milk who are "unskilled in the word of righteousness" (vv. 12b–13), instead of mature teachers (as they ought to be), able to receive "solid food" or "strong meat" [KJV] and "distinguish good from evil" (vv. 12, 14).

It may be worth recalling that, where Calvin cites Paul's Epistle to the Galatians and various texts from the wisdom tradition to substantiate his characterization of the Jewish nation, the "church" in its infancy, as a "child heir" (Institutes, II, XI), here the apostle writing to the Hebrews—these are not Gentiles to whom he writes—asserts essentially the same thing. To paraphrase Paul writing to the Romans, the Jews have the oracles, thus they are "without excuse," yet they remain (with the Gentiles), under the power of sin (Romans 3:1–9; cf. 1:20; 2:1).

(6:1–8). Oddly, the milky review of elementary things never materializes. This abrupt admonition, like the whack of a ruler on the teacher's desk, has more of an awakening than a summary or an instructive effect, for the apostle determines, "Therefore" (we might have expected "Nevertheless"), to "go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation" (6:1–2). What is instructive is the apostle's list of topics that would constitute, or at least be included in, such a review of basic Christology were he to offer one: "repentance from dead works and faith toward God" (notably one topic), "instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." All of these, we should add, impinge upon the aforementioned practical training in the discernment between good and evil (5:10).

The apostle again determines to proceed with his Christological instruction to the mature, as though his readers are mature, and explains this determination with one of the most alarming and seemingly fatalistic passages in the New Testament: a brief, but arresting insertion into this otherwise remarkably hopefully letter. Some, he says, have simply fallen too far to be restored (presumably, by any pedagogical review). Several points merit our "greater attention," however.

First, such a hypothetical restoration would be a restoration "to repentance." As I have argued elsewhere, repentance is faith (Groans of the Spirit, 105–6), as this text bears out; thus, the apostle might just as easily have spoken of a restoration "to faith," since (as we noted above) these are identified (antithetically) with one another as one doctrinal heading, depending on the chosen preposition (from/to) and direct object assigned to it.

Second, when we say that some have "fallen too far," this is with reference not to the depths of their descent, but to the height of their point of their departure. Such an irreversible apostasy, the apostle infers, would only apply to one who has genuinely "been enlightened, ... tasted the heavenly gift, ... shared in the Holy Spirit, ... tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers if the age to come, and then ... fallen away" (vv. 4–5). So, when it comes to the pastoral question regarding those who have "fallen" or gone astray, there is suggested the possibility that, despite all appearances, their enlightenment and their tasting of the word and the heavenly gifts have simply not, or not yet, been true or genuine. On the other hand, when it comes to the irredeemable (i.e., those who have genuinely partaken of heavenly things and fallen away), scripture speaks elsewhere of certain spiritual entities in the created order that have fallen irreversibly (Matthew 25:41; Jude 6; Revelation 20:10; etc.).

Third, pessimistic as this passage reads, there is every implication that what the apostle deems "impossible" here pertains to what he is capable of doing by way of a pedagogical review. In other words, this brief sigh of resignation does not cancel or override such texts as Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27, or Luke 1:37 and 18:27. On the contrary, when Paul issued similar instructions to hand over a promiscuous member of the Corinthian church "to Satan for the destruction of the flesh," this ultimately served a redemptive purpose: "so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord" (1Corinthians 5:5). (To be clear and to avoid any confusion here, in speaking of a redemptive purpose in such a scenario, Paul clearly refers to Satan as destroyer and to Christ as the Savior and agent of redemption; in no sense is redemption to be attributed to the archenemy; nevertheless, the sovereignty of the Redeemer will ultimately extend even over the enemy's domain.) Moreover, there is good evidence that Paul relented from this hard line approach when, in fact, it appears to have achieved its purpose (2Corinthians 2:5–11).

All of this is to say that (1) the language of repentance should permeate our understanding of faith, while identifying them offers two contrasting ways of discussing the same thing, two edges of the sword of the word (Hebrews 4:12); (2) even such seemingly irreversible lapses to which the apostle refers should not be hastily, hopelessly, or presumptuously applied to those who have fallen away, since the heights from which the verifiably irredeemable have fallen are high indeed, so high as to be unambiguously applied only to fallen angels; and for all this, (3) "what is impossible for mortals" (in this case, restoration to repentance and faith) nevertheless remains "possible for God" (Luke 18:27).

Such a hopeful prospect, however, should not be issued prematurely, since the implications of falling away are not trivial or cheap. The apostle warns that apostates "are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up  to contempt" (v. 6); meaning not that that the person of the risen Jesus undergoes a reenactment or a continual reprise of his historical suffering, either on earth or in heaven, but that the "body of Christ," the church militant (so-called) on earth suffers in cross-bearing discipleship as it follows Christ, living out its cruciform, baptismal life, the life of which Paul evidently speaks when he says that he is "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). Such suffering is to be expected by the faithful, and while the faithful are commanded by the Lord Jesus to bless, not curse, those who persecute them, those who compound the suffering of the body of Christ are nevertheless ever "on the verge of being cursed" and "burned over," like ground that, though well-watered, "produces thorns and thistles" (v. 8). Again, such things done and words spoken "against the Son of Man will be forgiven" (Matthew 12:31–32), but as with that word of ultimate assurance, so to with this text: there is a limit, a "verge" that must be respected, one that will only be transgressed at the worst possible and irreversible cost.

(6:9–12). All these warnings the apostle now sets to the side, in order to express the collective confidence of his companions that the present assembly of readers and auditors will fare much better: "for we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation" (v. 9). This word comes with no small relief! But on what is such confidence based? First and foremost, the justice of God, who well knows the love the readers have shown the saints in serving and working with them (v. 10). Second, their ongoing pattern of imitation of the faithful and patient heirs of the promise (vv. 11–12). It is toward "the full assurance of (such) hope" that the apostle urges them, that they might be diligent "to the very end" (v. 11). In other words, he has confidence in God's righteousness and he sees the fruit of faith emerging among this admittedly immature, and even stunted, congregation of Jewish-Christian readers.

Nevertheless, some might say, how can such a general assurance be issued when, on any given occasion on which this epistle is read and proclaimed, anyone may fail its probing examination? Is the apostle offering blind assurance with no specific knowledge of the state of his readers' souls? In a purely objective sense, that is, of course, a possibility. But to read this in a purely objective sense is to miss entirely the participative subjectivity in which the homiletical epistle is written and the worshipful context in which it is intended to be read and proclaimed, i.e., "as long as it is called 'today'" (3:13). In this willing, participative, subjective sense, what is most important is not that we worry about apostasy, but that we arrive at the point of appropriation, specifically, the appropriation of God's "promises" (v. 12).

(6:13–20). At this point, the excursus makes its final turn on its circuitous route homeward, that is, toward resuming the homily on the priesthood of Christ (7:1—10:39). But this final stage is no mere denouement to a detour. It is, rather, a sublime and unrivaled word of assurance, a word regarding the absolutely trustworthiness of God's promissory word. It raises the prospect of promise and endows it with a credibility that God alone can give it. This it does by combining the notion of the immutability of God and his purpose with the gravity of his swearing an oath to make good his promise to Abraham: "because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself" (v. 13); this does not so much mean that God was "all alone" in swearing it, although that sense of holy uniqueness and incomparability is certainly conveyed, but more to the point, it means that he swore so as to endow the promise "in accordance with his supreme credibility and his capability of fulfilling it." Furthermore, the doubling of these "two unchangeable things"—God's unchangeable and purposeful promise and his sworn oath to fulfill it—"in which it is impossible that God would prove false ...", that doubling (cf. Genesis 41:32) reinforces the assurance by which "we who have taken refuge" (note once again the subjective sense of the expression) "might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us" (vv. 17–18).

Remarkably, for all the rock solid certitude of our "refuge" and the dependability of this double and divine confirmation of God's promises, another strong tactile metaphor of security is offered at the conclusion of this excursus; yet, with bewildering fluidity, our hope, "the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul," takes on not a static, but a dynamic character; it moves; indeed, it "enters the inner shrine behind the curtain" (v. 19)—the metaphor is suddenly no longer nautical, but cultic and priestly—and it takes on the personal attributes of Jesus himself, since it has entered "where Jesus (our forerunner) has entered," who has "become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek" (v. 20).

As I often tell preaching students, the prohibitions and warnings against mixing metaphors that we learned in high school English composition frequently require suspension when dealing with biblical literature such as this. For if we follow them too narrowly or slavishly, we shall miss that Christ is at once our hope, our promise, our priest, and our steadfast and sure anchor of the soul; and that is just the beginning of an intermediate course of Christology that would advance on the foundational topics mentioned in 6:1–2. All of this, and so much more, is to be discovered and "seized" in mature Christological reflection as we subject ourselves to his priestly ministry and his double-edged sword (4:12; cf. Revelation 19:15), the word of righteousness with which he himself is unmistakably identified.

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