4 views on warnings in hebrew-ONE: responses- via LAD Rosenkranz
A CLASSICAL ARMINIAN VIEW
Grant R. Osborne
Certainly one of the more difficult theological exercises is finding the balance between the sovereignty of God and the free will of mankind. After nearly sixteen hundred years of speculation on the issues, the discussion has coalesced into two competing schools of thought, the followers of Calvin and the followers of Arminius. Both sides largely agree on the meaning of total depravity—that when a person is given a choice to accept Christ, that person will reject him. It is on the solution to the dilemma posed (can anyone ever be saved?) that the differences emerge. For the Calvinist there is no hope until God sovereignly acts and on the basis of his mysterious will elects some to salvation and then overwhelms them with his irresistible grace so that they choose Christ (this is where the will of mankind comes in). Those who are elect, then, are “kept by that same power” (1 Peter 1:5) so that they are absolutely secure from falling away.
For the Arminian, God still acts sovereignly but sends his Spirit who convicts every person (thus an equal opportunity convicter!) and overcomes their total depravity so that they make a choice. Through foreknowledge God knows who will choose Christ (but does not force them to do so) and on the basis of that foreknowledge predestines them “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29 NIV). Moreover, for the Arminian, faith-decision is not a work (Eph. 2:8–9) because it is not an active agent by which we save ourselves (the Pelagian heresy, often erroneously attributed to the Arminian position). Rather, faith is a passive surrender to the God who saves us, an opening up of ourselves to God, who works salvation in us. But it is still a free choice. This freedom then passes over into the life of sanctification, as the Spirit continues to work in us. But we also decide for ourselves whether to let the Spirit work or live in us. Thus, we can (1) backslide and, at some point, allow sin to crowd Christ out of our life (James 5:19–20) or (2) actively repudiate him (Heb. 6:4–6). The first kind of apostate can be brought back to Christ; the second has committed the unpardonable sin and will never want to come back, nor will God ever convict that person again.
Obviously, the warning passages of Hebrews are a key component of this debate. Yet before we turn to them we must rehearse the situation and strategy of the book of Hebrews. Nearly everything about the book is debated; the one area of general agreement is that the danger addressed in the book is apostasy. Lane says, “The writer sensed that some members of the groups were in grave danger of apostasy, which he defined as a turning away from the living God (3:12) and the subjecting of Jesus Christ to public contempt (6:4–6; 10:26–31).” Ellingworth adds, “Inner weakness may have been a chronic condition presupposing some of the readers to abandon, at some critical point, their faith in Christ, but the writer stresses in the strongest terms the personal responsibility of those who (almost by definition willfully) apostatize.”
Let us also note briefly the social situation behind the book. There is general agreement that the church addressed is Rome (perhaps a specific house church), and two phases of the history of the church there are presented. The church probably was founded by an evangelistic team similar to that of Stephen and Paul, whose ministry was accompanied by miracles and charismatic gifts (Heb. 2:4). In the early years the church was predominantly Jewish (there were 40–50,000 Jews in Rome), though Gentiles began to enter the church and by the time of writing it was a mixed congregation. The early years also saw a great deal of persecution (10:32–34). The refusal of the Christians to participate in the guild festivities honoring their patron gods and in the general cultic life of the Romans would result in serious repercussions. Their conversion caused a serious social rift, as they were estranged from their previous social world and slowly assimilated into their newfound faith community. DeSilva labels this new self-perception as “dying to their old life” and being “reborn to the new,” resulting in their marginalization with respect to their past society and its values.6 The persecution took the form of public ridicule, imprisonment, and loss of property (10:33–34a), but they triumphed over it through reflecting on their “better and lasting possessions” (10:34b NIV) and following the influence and example of their leaders (13:7).
Many years later the imprisonment and disgrace were stronger than ever (13:3), but the spiritual situation had changed. The believers had been Christians long enough to be teachers (5:12), but a spiritual malaise had set in, a “laziness” that led them to refuse to work at understanding the implications of their walk with Christ and caused them to be “mentally dull” (νωθρός 5:11; 6:12). They listened but failed to grow or even respond to the truths of Christian teaching. This led to several dangers. Due to the severity of the persecution and the discouragement that ensued, many were slipping back into their old patterns and “drifting away” (2:1). In this sense there was a “pedestrian inability to live within the lower status that Christian associations had forced upon them, the less-than-dramatic (yet potent) desire to once more enjoy the goods and esteem of their society.” For others, however, there was the danger (as yet unrealized but still very real) of an active repudiation of Christ, an apostasy that meant a return to their Jewish roots (or to paganism for the Gentile minority). The author is warning both groups of the consequences of where they are heading.
The issue is obviously the definition of apostasy and the spiritual makeup of those being warned. Can an actual believer, one of the elect, truly apostatize and lose his/her salvation? Therefore it is important to study the spiritual identification of the addressees. McKnight does an excellent job of drawing together the places where the author describes his audience: he identifies with them and uses a “we” address (2:1–4; 3:14; 4:1, 11, 14–16; 6:1; 10:19–26; 12:1–3, 25–29) and so includes himself in the warnings; he calls them “brothers and sisters” (3:1 [“holy brothers who share in the heavenly calling”], 12; 10:19; 13:22); they are saved and made holy by Christ (2:11, 12, 17); they are believers (4:3); they are sanctified (10:29); they have experienced conversion (2:3–4; 10:22); they have been enlightened (10:32); they have lived the Christian life (6:10; 10:32–34). In addition is the list in 6:4–6 that will be discussed below. The most likely conclusion is that they are regenerate and not just quasi-Christians. This fits well the descriptions above; indeed, it is hard to see this language as fitting those who are members of the church but not actually saved. Such strong depictions can hardly describe such people—they must be actual believers. If this is the case, the warnings are delivered to true believers. It is this facet of the book that we are studying. As agreed by the authors of this book, the warning passages are 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–29. We will discuss each in turn.
The Danger of Drifting Away (Heb. 2:1–4)
This first warning occurs in the middle of the passage on the Son’s superiority to the angels (Heb. 1:5–2:18), but it actually builds on the whole of Hebrews 1:1–14. In 1:1–4 the author shows Jesus’ superiority to the old revelation, climaxing in “(God) has spoken to us in his Son” (ἐν υἱῷ, 1:2a), followed by a creedal affirmation of Christ’s death and exaltation that provides the tone for the rest of the epistle. In fact, this section is framed by Psalm 110:1 (1:3, 13), an enthronement passage that occurs four times at critical points in the book (1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12) and provides a spatial orientation involving Jesus’ heavenly session at God’s right hand. Then a catena of fulfillment quotations (1:5–13) establishes Jesus not only as above the angels and the object of their worship but also as both the Davidic Messiah and divine Son who alone is worthy of worship.
Following this impressive beginning, the author feels he must stop and address the danger to which the readers are exposed. DeSilva sees a syllogism in the progression of thought from chapter 1 to chapter 2:
• God spoke to us by a Son (1:2)
• The Son is greater than the angels (1:4–14)
• We must hear and obey that message, seeing the penalty that attended earlier transgressions (2:1–2)
This, the mildest of the warnings, centers not only on the process but also on the consequences of falling away. The solution is to “pay the closest possible attention” (περισσοτέρως προσέχειν, with the comparative adverb having superlative force), possibly utilizing a nautical metaphor for holding a ship on course as it nears a port.15 The readers are required (δεῖ) to maintain the strictest discipline in paying heed to the teaching given in 1:1–14. The situation is serious and involves “drifting away” (παραρυῶμεν), another nautical concept involving a ship drifting off course and shattering (in this context; see below) on the shoals. This verb also could connote a ring slipping off the finger, but the combination with the other verb probably favors the nautical idea18 (combined) of “stay on course with the teaching, and do not let yourself drift away into danger.”
Thus far it sounds like the author is worried about “backslidden” Christians who have lost their moorings and need to get serious once more. But it is more than that. The consequence/danger is spelled out in Hebrews 2:2–3, using a qal waḥomer (light to weighty) reasoning and building on the superior revelation of 1:1–2a. The “lesser” is the old revelation (in particular, the Sinai community who received the Torah that was “spoken by angels”), which was legally “valid, binding” (βέβαιος, a forensic term for legally reliable laws) and so required that every “transgression” of God’s law be punished. Moreover that punishment was a “just penalty” (ἔνδικον μισθαποδοσίαν, 2:2), reflecting both “justice” and a proper “payment” (a commercial metaphor for what was earned). Connected to the negative legal terms “transgression” and “disobedience,” it means each and every breaking of the law had a corresponding “just penalty.” Often, as seen in many Old Testament stories, that penalty was physical death.
The “greater” revelation is the gospel message revealed through Jesus first (1:2a–2:3–4) and enacted through the cross. The law “was spoken through the angels” (2:2) but the gospel “was spoken through the Lord,” utilizing the very contrast between the angels and the Son from chapter 1. The parallel to “drift away” (2:1) is “ignore, disregard” (ἀμελήσαντες, v. 3), which elsewhere speaks of “paying no attention” to a banquet invitation (Matt. 22:5) or God’s “turning away from” his disobedient people (Heb. 8:9, a quote from Jer. 31:32). It connotes the idea of a people who know the truth but do not care enough to give it any attention whatsoever. What they are disregarding is “so great a salvation,” meaning “so much greater” than the Torah. Paul says throughout his letters that the Torah could only point out individual sins (i.e., show that they are transgressions, namely, that they break God’s laws), but it could never solve the sin problem (e.g., Rom. 3:20; 4:13–15; Gal. 2:16; 3:19–4:7). The law pointed forward to Christ who provided the once-for-all sacrifice and therefore produced final (“so great”) salvation.
The new covenant reality has a greater confirmation: announced by the Lord himself (Heb. 2:3; the same exalted Lord of 1:2b–3), guaranteed or “proven accurate” (ἐβεβαιώθη, the cognate of βέβαιος in 2:2 and another legal term) by eyewitness testimony (in 1 Cor. 15:6 Paul said in effect, “Many are still alive and you can ask them yourselves”). Finally, God himself “endorsed their witness” (the strong συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος, meaning God added his official legal witness to theirs) in two ways: by signs, wonders, and miracles (as seen in Acts, where the miracles served to validate the apostolic witness, cf. Acts 2:22; Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12) and by the “distribution” of the spiritual gifts by the Spirit (unpacked in Rom. 12:4–8 and 1 Cor. 12:7–11). In other words, the authenticity and greatness of the new covenant is beyond question, and one ignores it to his eternal peril.
So if the salvation is “greater,” one would expect the punishment to be greater as well. We know the punishment for breaking the covenant; one came under the covenant curses, which often meant the death of the lawbreaker. So what kind of “penalty” would befit one who “turns away from” and “disregards” Christ’s salvation? The author does not say here, for he is introducing an issue that is to be spelled out in greater detail in the other warning passages. He begins with pianissimo, but the crescendo is coming soon. He leaves us with the basic question, “How will we escape?” The implied answer is, “We will not.”
The Greater Danger of Losing God’s Rest (Heb. 3:7–4:11)
This second warning passage is by far the most extensive; in fact, it is by far the longest midrashic exposition of an Old Testament text in the epistle. It dominates its section dealing with the superiority of Christ to Moses and Joshua (3:1–6; 4:8). Yet it is intimately related, as it utilizes Psalm 95:7–11 (which itself develops Num. 14) as a call to submit to God, unlike Israel in the wilderness. There is a literary connection as well, as Hebrews 3:1 calls on the “holy brothers and sisters” to κατανοήσατε or “observe attentively, fix your thoughts” on Jesus, connoting careful attention to the creedal “confession” they had been taught. This prepares for 3:6b, the challenge that specifically leads into the warning passage. Having developed the idea that both Moses and Jesus were “faithful in (God’s) house,” the author concludes that “we are his house (the church as the house of God), if indeed (ἐάνπερ) we continue.…” As Lane says, this “implies that the outcome is contingent upon the response of the hearers.” This is one of several New Testament conditional statements regarding salvation (Heb. 3:14; cf. Rom. 8:9, 17; 11:22; 2 Cor. 13:5; Col. 1:23; et al.) and should be considered another warning passage, as well as the introduction to Hebrews 3:7 and following. The believers here must “hold firm” or maintain their grip (κατάσχωμεν) on their “boldness” (possibly before God [Lane] and in their witness [Ellingworth]) and on a settled “pride” in the “hope” (objective genitive, τὸ καύχημα τῆς ἐλπίδος) they have before God. Finally, there is a contrast between Moses, who was “faithful” (3:2, 5) and Israel, who was unfaithful (3:7ff.). The readers are called to be like Moses, not Israel.
The midrash on Psalm 95 flows out of this. There are two primary parts: Hebrews 3:7–19, centering on the past unbelief of Israel and its terrible consequence (they all died in the wilderness) as a warning to the believers; and 4:1–11, building on Psalm 95 but turning to the future promise of a final rest with God (and the loss of it) as the warning. Then Hebrews 4:12–14 forms a two-part conclusion dealing with the power of the Word (vv. 12–13) and the need to “hold fast the confession” (v. 14, in an inclusio with 3:6b).
The Past Model (Heb. 3:7–19)
This also has two parts, the quote from Psalm 94:7–11 (LXX; 95:7–11 MT) in Hebrews 3:7–11 and the author’s midrashic exposition in verses 12–19. The quote itself looks to the terrible rebellion of Numbers 14, when Israel was camped at Kadesh, ready to enter the Promised Land. However, when the leaders sent to spy out the land returned with a fearsome report (contra Joshua and Caleb) regarding the size and prowess of the inhabitants (“we seemed like grasshoppers,” Num. 13:33 NIV, NRSV), the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter the land. With that, God’s anger burned against the people, and he refused to allow them to enter the land, so that they died in the wilderness. We will go through Psalm 95 along with the exposition the author uses. Note that the Holy Spirit is seen as the ultimate source of the quotation (Heb. 3:7; cf. 9:8; 10:15), stressing the revelatory nature of the psalm and making this a direct message from God to the hearers.
In the following, we will proceed by discussing the quote and the exposition side-by-side, in essence, showing how the author develops Psalm 95 one point at a time. The first admonition is to “obey his voice,” which both in the psalm and in Hebrews 3 is exactly what Israel failed to do (and where the readers are tempted to fail as well). In verse 12 the author begins similarly with βλέπετε (“take heed, see to it”), the basic New Testament challenge to spiritual vigilance and obedience (it means to “see, comprehend and obey”) of the commands of God (e.g., it is a key to the vigilance theme in Mark’s Olivet Discourse [13:2, 5, 9, 23, 33]). In this negative context it also means, “Beware” of the same “evil, unbelieving heart” Israel showed in the wilderness. The image of “hardening28 the heart” (Heb. 3:8) is also unpacked in this image; unbelief and hardening are virtual synonyms here. “Unbelief” (ἀπιστία) frames the exposition (vv. 12, 19) and thus becomes the primary warning. In verse 12 it is a descriptive genitive meaning an “unbelieving heart” that then becomes “evil” (πονηρά), or filled with wickedness, interpreting “their hearts are always going astray” in verse 10b. This unbelief also leads them to “fall away from the living God” (ἐν τῷ ἀποστῆναι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ζῶντος), extending the image of “they have not known my ways” in verse 10b. This is the heart of the issue, preparing for the full use of this image of apostasy in 6:6 (where it will be discussed more fully). The movement is from unbelief, to evil, to falling away, and that is obviously a serious warning with dire consequences.
The idea of “Today (see below on 4:7–8), if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” (3:7b–8a NIV) is developed further in verses 15–16, linked with Israel’s “test” in the wilderness. In fact, the two ideas in Psalm 95:8–9 are Meribah (rebellion = “quarreling” against God) and Massah (“testing” God), which introduce a second incident—Israel’s complaints about water in Exodus 17:1–7 (the sin recurred in Num. 20:2–13). The two incidents in Exodus 17 and Numbers 14 became prime examples of the rebellion of the nation and are combined here. The hope of the author is that the Jewish Christian community will not fall into the same sin of rebellion/apostasy. The author uses a negative typology, an antithesis that the readers should not emulate.
The two results of Israel’s hardened hearts are God’s wrath (Heb. 3:10a, elaborated in v. 17) and his penalty that they would never enter his rest (the Promised Land in Num. 14, the temple in Ps. 95—Heb. 3:11b, elaborated in v. 18). The divine anger intensified from Numbers 14:11–12 (“I will strike them with a plague”) to verse 23 (“none of them will ever see the land I promised”) to verse 32 (“your bodies will fall in the desert”) to verse 43 (“you will fall by the sword”), always because of their stubborn unbelief. The basis for God’s anger and judgment is repeated in 3:18b–19—they failed to enter God’s rest because of disobedience and unbelief.
But there is hope. In Hebrews 3:13–14 the author tells his readers how they can emerge triumphant over the terrible danger. Both verses deal with the corporate dimension of the Christian life. In our age of rugged individualism (a most unbiblical concept!), this is all the more important. In Hebrews, in fact, there are two antidotes to apostasy: the vertical side, the confession of our hope before God; and the horizontal side, the involvement of the community in the life of the individual believer.
This is the horizontal aspect: (1) Within the community, they must παρακαλεῖτε ἑαυτούς, often translated wrongly here as “encourage one another.” The verb actually means to “exhort” and in a positive context does mean to “encourage”; but in a negative context (as here) it means to “admonish, warn.”33 The positive is found in 10:25, “not giving up meeting together … but encouraging one another” (cf. Gal. 6:2), but here the danger of being “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” calls for warning (cf. Gal. 6:1). The readers are faced with enormous pressure, and in their spiritual lethargy (Heb. 5:11; 6:12) are in serious danger of allowing sin to deceive them and therefore of “falling away” into “unbelief” (3:12, 19). The desperate need, therefore, is to constantly “warn each other” (note the present tense) as the community utilizes spiritual vigilance, with each member helping the other watch out for the temptation. (2) They must maintain their relationship with Christ as “partners” in the Christian life. To do so, however, they must35 “hold firm” (the same verb as in 3:6) their “confidence” in Christ to the very end. “If we hold” refers not just to “confidence” (ὑποστάσεως) but even more to an “assurance” that Christ is there. Ellingworth argues that it means a confident “frame of mind” like they had when they were first converted. The main thing here is a corporate sharing of Christ in the community that yields a sense of confidence that, in Christ, God would continue to be with them.
The first half of the passage is summed up in Hebrews 3:15–19 with a series of three rhetorical questions designed to center the hearers on the parallel with the wilderness generation who “heard and rebelled” and who thereby “fell in the desert.” The reasons for the harsh penalty are twofold: disobedience and unbelief. The seriousness of this is seen in τὰ κῶλα, a term for unburied “corpses” (v. 17), designating an accursed death (Gen. 40:19; Deut. 28:26; 1 Kings 14:11) that was proper for apostates (Isa. 66:24). Disobedience is the action resulting from unbelief and signifies not a casual slippage or drifting away but a studied rebellion that has a two-sided meaning—the failure of the wilderness people to trust God and the resultant falling away from that relationship.
The Present Promise (Heb. 4:1–11)
While Hebrews 3:12–19 centered on the last line of Psalm 95:7–11 (“They shall never enter my rest”), Hebrews 4:1–11 centers on the first line (“Today, if you hear his voice”) and adds Genesis 2:2 (“And on the seventh day God rested from all his work”) to turn the warning of judgment into a promise of rest. In this, there are two parts (vv. 1–5 and vv. 6–11) that cover four issues: the promise of rest that remains (vv. 1, 6a); the good news formerly received with unbelief (vv. 2, 6b); Psalm 95 connected to the present generation (vv. 3, 7–8); and Psalm 95 connected to Genesis 2:2 (vv. 4–5, 9–11).
It will be helpful to note the developing thrust of the rest theme in the Old Testament. First, of course, is Genesis 2:2, God’s “Sabbath rest” after the six days of Creation. Then there is Israel’s rest of entering the Promised Land, followed by Israel’s rest in experiencing the blessings of being the covenant people. Finally, in the intertestamental period there developed the idea of rest as eternal life, utilizing all three of the above in a metaphorical sense of entering the promised eternal kingdom. All four are intertwined in Hebrews 4:1–11. It is also important to understand the concept of “rest” as used here. Hurst studied the debate as to whether entry into God’s rest is accomplished now through faith, at death (12:23), or at the final consummation (13:14), and concluded rightly that all three are found here.
We will proceed in the same way we did in Hebrews 3:7–19, showing how the second half of the passage develops the first part. The whole passage, however, begins with “Let us fear lest” (Φοβηθῶμεν … μήποτε). This sums up the implications of 3:7–19; as Israel was excluded from the rest of God and died in the wilderness, the readers are in serious danger of falling into the same fate. Yet the author introduces a new topic, the promise to God’s people that still stands, namely, the inheritance of the rest of God as eternal life. At the same time, this ups the stakes, for now their eternal destiny is in jeopardy. So this section walks the tightrope between promise and warning.
First, we note the promise itself (4:1, 6a). Verse 1 continues the warning: “since the promise remains” (causal participle), there needs to be a real fear that “some of you” (τις ἐξ ὑμῶν) might “seem to have fallen short” (δοκῇ … ὑστερηκέναι) of it. While the promise remains, the danger is quite real, for some might fail to receive the promise due to unbelief. Attridge catches the thrust of “seem to fall short,” noting that two major options are open: (1) “Thinking that they have come too late,” making this a warning against a mistaken presupposition on the part of the readers, which does not fit the severity of the warning here; and (2) the better option of taking it as “found to have fallen short,” a true warning of a real danger.42 It is difficult to know whether it is God or the community who finds one falling short; Ellingworth is probably correct in saying that in Hebrews δοκέω usually refers to human judgment (10:29; 12:10–13), so this implies that the people of God should be vigilant in watching out for one another in terms of this danger.
This is the first place “promise” (ἐπαγγελία) appears in Hebrews. But it is a major theme, always centering on the unfailing nature of God’s promises. The theme is the guarantee in 10:23 that “he who promised is faithful.” In 6:12, 13, 15, 17 it refers to the believer “inheriting” the promise as Abraham did, a promise guaranteed by the divine oath. In 7:6 Melchizedek blesses Abraham as “the one who has the promises,” namely, the certain promises from God, and in 8:6 the new covenant Jesus brings is superior to the old one because it is “founded on better promises.” In 9:15 we have “the promised eternal inheritance,” and in 10:23 and 36 the promise (pun intended) that those who persevere “will receive what he has promised.” Finally, in a series of passages in chapter 11 (vv. 9, 13, 17, 33, 39) the guarantee is exemplified in the “heroes of the faith” who waited for the promises but “welcomed them from a distance” (v. 13) and did not receive them until after they died. In other words, the promises of God are absolutely guaranteed but relate to eternal life, and the believer is called to persevere in faith and hope.
In Hebrews 4:2, 6b this danger is highlighted by returning to the Psalm 95 story of the failure of Israel to enter the “promised” land because of unbelief (v. 2) and disobedience (v. 6b). The “good news” that Israel heard was the good report of Caleb and Joshua that God would help them take the land. The “good news” for the Christians of course was the gospel (v. 2a), and because of that “some” (τινάς, v. 6a), unlike the wilderness generation, would indeed “enter” God’s rest. However, they must make certain that they are not guilty of the same unbelief (4:2b = 3:12, 19) and disobedience (4:6b = 3:18).
The author addresses the present generation of Hebrew Christians in 4:3, 7–8. Even though the wilderness people were excluded, the promise of rest remains open to “we who have believed” (οἱ πιστεύσαντες, with the aorist participle probably having a perfective aspect, looking at the belief as a complete whole). As Lane says, “Faith brings into the present the reality of that which is future, unseen, or heavenly. For that reason, those who have believed can be said to enter God’s rest already.”45 The last part of verse 3 says that God’s work has been finished since the world was created. This idea, that God has finished his work and yet the believer is “entering” that rest, has occasioned vigorous debate as to whether the rest is apocalyptic, experienced only at the end of the age, or a present experience beginning now as the believer walks with God.47 This is probably too disjunctive, and it is likely best to see an inaugurated thrust, with the “rest of God” a process beginning now (note the “today” theme in vv. 7–8) and finalized at the end of life. In other words, the Christian life is indeed a pilgrimage with every moment a “today” experience. Bengel said that while each of the six days of Creation had an evening, the seventh did not and so is open-ended. Thus God’s rest is an eternal “today” for the one who perseveres in faith. For the author, “today” is the day of decision, and there might not be another opportunity. The readers cannot put off the determination to remain faithful to Christ.
The final section centers on the connection of Psalm 95 to Genesis 2:2 (Heb. 4:4–5, 9–11). The connection is made in Hebrews 4:4–5 using the Jewish technique of gezērah šāwāh or “verbal analogy,” with the hook word being “rest” (κατάπαυσις). Here the connection is made without explanation. The meaning is explicated in verses 9–11. Since God’s rest is open-ended, it still “remains for the people of God.” Israel failed to enter the “rest” in the Promised Land, but the readers can enter a far better rest, the “Sabbath-rest” (σαββατισμός) of the seventh day of Creation. The σαββατισμός that the author is utilizing normally connotes the Sabbath activity of praise and celebration. By joining it with the idea of “rest” here, it may well connote “a new Covenant Day of Atonement Sabbath in which they are cleansed from their sins,” thus combining the Sabbath imagery in the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:26–28, 32) with the idea of Jesus “passing through the heavens” into the heavenly Holy of Holies (Heb. 4:14). In other words there is a final Sabbath available that will involve true rest from sin and an eternal time of joy and celebration. “Today” is the time of labor,50 when the believer must “make every effort” or “work hard” (σπουδάσωμεν, not “haste” here but “zealous” energy) to enter God’s rest (v. 11), but in the rest of God the faithful will “rest from their work.” This primarily speaks of the final eschatological rest in eternity, but it also applies to the believer currently (“Today”) resting in God and basking in the strength he supplies (1 Peter 1:5).
Conclusion: The Power of the Word (Heb. 4:12–13)
Primarily in mind here, of course, is the power of Psalm 95:7–11 and Genesis 2:2, with their respective expositions, to penetrate and change the lives of the Hebrew Christians to whom this letter is directed. Yet while at one level this description of the Word of God is indeed “a rhapsody on God’s penetrating word,”53 on another level it provides a serious warning on the importance of “hearing” God’s “voice” from Psalm 95. First, we are told that it is “living and active,” a dynamic force (note “the living God” in 3:12) that is always at work in our lives. It has God’s power to penetrate and change our perspective. The double-edged sword should not be allegorized to mean the two Testaments or some such thing, but rather refers to the razor-sharp Roman sword and thus speaks of its power to “pierce or penetrate” (διϊκνούμενος) the heart. The three areas (soul/spirit, joints/marrow, thoughts/attitudes) are not separate categories, nor are they dichotomous. The third one defines the first two, and all mean that the Word penetrates and discerns the innermost thoughts so that everything is exposed to the light of God. As Attridge puts it, they serve “as a complex summary of the whole of human nature.” Everything, even “in all creation,” is laid bare before God.56 This section closes with “to whom we must give account,” an important reference to the great assize, when we face God and are “judged by our works” (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 1 Cor. 3:12–15; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev. 2:23; 11:18; 14:13; 20:12–13; 22:12). The readers dare not think they can get away with anything.
The Danger of Apostasy (Heb. 5:11–6:12)
The Problem (Heb. 5:11–6:3)
Like the other warning passages, this one occurs in the middle of a critical passage contrasting Jesus to the central Jewish tenets. It is the core of the writer’s argument, in that it addresses Jesus’ high priestly ministry. In Hebrews 4:14–5:10 the author has shown how Jesus has fulfilled the qualifications for priesthood and then become “high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10). However, the author felt obligated to break off the discussion at that point and challenge the readers who were νωθρός, a negative term that means “lazy, sluggish, dull, dim-witted, stupid, negligent.” This is the key term, framing the parenthetic section (5:11–6:12) with the basic problem of the readers, their lethargic Christianity.59
This is amplified in what follows. They had been believers long enough to be teachers but have regressed rather than progressed. So on the one hand, they need to relearn the elementals (5:12), and on the other hand, they need the “solid food” that will give them the maturity to avoid apostasy (v. 14). The two contrasts between milk and solid food and between infancy and maturity are intended to wake the readers up to their dangerous lack of receptivity to the truths of the faith. Some have argued that this is not their true state, but that irony and sarcasm are used to wake them up, and their true state is the maturity expressed in verse 14. Yet this seems very unlikely, for the warnings in both 2:1–4 and 3:7–4:13 would support the view that the readers truly are dull, though they should be mature. The reality here is their lack of maturity and the danger that they are not ready to hear or heed the admonitions the author must give. The “teaching about righteousness” (λόγου δικαιοσύνης) in 5:13 could refer to the ethical side of δικαιοσύνης, namely, “right living before God,” and so advanced instruction in discipleship, or it could be parallel to “discern good and evil” in 5:14 and refer to spiritual discernment. Both make sense, but the first better fits the meaning of the phrase. The point of 5:14 then details the goal they should strive for, the maturity to eat “solid food.” The way they can do this is to work hard at their knowledge. The imagery of “training” (γεγυμνασμένα from γυμνάζω) and “constant use” (ἕξις) has led many in the past to consider both athletic metaphors. But ἕξις is more likely a philosophical metaphor, and the tendency today is to consider ἕξις more of a fixed state (“condition, habit”), so that the meaning is that the mature become so by training or developing a spiritual condition that knows how to distinguish good from evil.
The solution to their spiritual lethargy is further developed in 6:1–3, where the readers are challenged to “move on to maturity,” meaning to begin to respond to their “training” and develop the “habits” (5:14) that will finally make them complete enough in Christ to handle the deep teaching introduced in 5:10. So the author wants these immature Christians to quit loitering in the elementary truths and change their diet to the “solid food.” Note how the pronouns keep changing: the author uses the rhetorical “we” (or “us”) in 5:11; 6:1, 3, 9a, the second person “you” in 5:12; 6:10, the third person in 5:13–14; 6:4–8, and mixes first and second persons in 6:9–12. The author is struggling to get his point across to a group of believers who obviously have not as yet responded well to exhortation. The list of elementary truths in 6:1b–2 are those “foundation” (θεμέλιον) issues they must go beyond. Many think this only a list of Jewish teachings, but at the least these are issues that are held in common between Judaism and Christianity,67 and some (like “baptisms”) may be plural to emphasize the superiority of Christian baptisms over Jewish ablutions. While the organization of the six items is not critical for this paper, it is probably best to see three groups of pairs, probably consisting of a “foundation” of repentance and faith with “instruction” regarding baptisms and laying on of hands as well as on resurrection and judgment (Bruce, Grässer, Attridge, Guthrie, Koester). These are the elementary teachings that are not jettisoned but built upon with the deeper truths the author wants to introduce.
The Danger (Heb. 6:4–8)
This is naturally the key passage and issue. In light of the low spiritual commitment exemplified in this house church, the author has a terrible fear that some may well commit apostasy. He does not think they will (6:9–12), but he has to warn them because this is the direction they are moving at present. It is difficult to be neutral at this point, for this passage has excited such heated debate that everyone for the most part has taken strong positions. In fact, I am arguing for one of those positions, so how can I be objective? Nevertheless, I must do my best to try!
The structure of 6:4–6 is difficult due to the parallel participles and complex coordination with τε and καί. The best solution is probably to take καί as the major and τε as the minor, yielding this structure:70
having been once-for-all enlightened
having tasted the heavenly gift
having become partakers of the Holy Spirit
having tasted the goodness of the Word of God
and the powers of the age to come
having fallen away
First, the NIV was wrong to translate the final parallel participle “if they fall away”71 (it is corrected in the TNIV; see further below). Second, it is nearly impossible to relegate these descriptions to non-Christians.72 If this passage were found in Romans 8, we would all hail it as the greatest description of Christian blessings in the entire Bible. Third, to take “tasted” as referring to a mere partial or superficial sipping is quite erroneous, for in 2:9 it says Jesus “tasted death,” and that was hardly a partial thing but a full-fledged experience of death (cf. also 1 Peter 2:3, “tasted the kindness of the Lord”).
While some have tried to take the six items one at a time, it is important to feel their cumulative effect. “Once enlightened” (ἅπαξ φωτισθέντας) is most likely a reference to the completeness of their conversion. The idea of “tasting the heavenly gift” (γευσαμένους τῆς δωρεᾶς τῆς ἐπουρανίου) further deepens the image, picturing the full experience of God’s grace in the gift of salvation. The word “heavenly” is used because it comes from above (cf. John 3:3, “born from above”) and thereby encompasses forgiveness, the Spirit, and sanctification. “Partakers of the Holy Spirit” (objective genitive) continues the meaning of 3:1, 14 (see above) that they participate fully in the gift of the Spirit (including the “gifts … distributed” in 2:4). This deepens the meaning of the salvation experience they had when the Spirit came upon them (cf. Rom. 8:9–11, 14–17), as they have partaken of a heavenly calling, of Christ, and now of the Spirit. Next, the emphasis shifts to the Christian life, as they have “tasted” (from γεύομαι) or fully experienced two things: (1) “the good Word of God,” often described as good to the taste (Pss. 19:10; 34:8; 119:103; Ezek. 3:1–3; 1 Peter 2:2–3; Rev. 10:9–10) and meaning the goodness of the Word of God has been experienced in their lives (cf. on 4:12–13 above); (2) “the powers of the age to come,” undoubtedly referring to the “signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts” of 2:3–4. The “age to come” refers to the final kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus’ first coming (Mark 1:14–15; Luke 11:20) and operative in the fact that the believer is even now living in “the heavenlies” (Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6–7; 3:10; 6:12). They have experienced the Holy Spirit and the power seen in the charismatic gifts.
This is a truly remarkable list of experiences, and there is hardly anything to compare with it elsewhere in terms of a brief, creedal-like presentation of the privileges in being a Christian. Yet it occurs in the strongest warning passage in Scripture. In fact, the author says it is “impossible” (ἀδύνατον) to ever again “bring them back to repentance” once they “have fallen away” (παραπεσόντας), not a conditional participle as the NIV erroneously translates (corrected in the TNIV but strangely retained in a footnote) but part of the string of substantival participles (“those who have once been enlightened … and have fallen away”). Virtually all recent commentators admit this must be final apostasy, the absolute rejection of Christ. The major question is identifying the readers. Could they be true believers who are in such great danger? Our study above of the terms in the epistle for the readers as well as the six participles in this passage force us to answer in the affirmative. So is this the unpardonable sin? Koester notes the options: (1) impossible for the apostate to repent; (2) impossible for other Christians to restore the person (but not God, cf. Mark 10:27, “impossible for men but not for God”); (3) impossible that God would restore such a one (not “could not” but “would not”). This third is by far the more likely in light of passages like 10:26–31 and 12:15–17. In Jesus’ teaching the unpardonable sin was blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28–30), but Jesus is now the exalted Lord, and final apostasy is unpardonable.
The participles in Hebrews 6:6 (“crucifying,” ἀνασταυροῦντας and “exposing to ridicule,” παραδειγματίζοντας) are certainly causal (so Bruce, Lane, Attridge, Guthrie, Koester) and detail both the reason they cannot be restored and, with the present tenses, the ongoing attitude they will have. Those who come and say they wish they could repent show by their very words that they have not committed this sin. If they had, they would have nothing but “open contempt” for things Christian for the rest of their lives.
In 6:7–8 the author illustrates his point by building on the parable of Israel as God’s vineyard in Isaiah 5:1–7, which explains the basis for the divine judgment. There are two kinds of land, both blessed by abundant rain from God. The one that produces a good crop is blessed, but the land that produces only “thorns and thistles” will be cursed. The meaning is clear: the good land refers to those who “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1), while the bad land refers to those who “fall away” (v. 6). The thorny soil alludes to Genesis 3:17–18, the curse of Adam, who was told, “Cursed is the ground.… It will produce thorns and thistles” (NIV). The fact that “in the end it will be burned” (Heb. 6:8) refers to fiery final judgment (Heb. 10:27; 12:29, cf. Matt. 13:30, 42, 50; John 15:6).
The Encouragement (Heb. 6:9–12)
After challenging his readers’ lack of maturity (5:11–6:3) and warning them of the greatest danger they will ever face (6:4–8), the writer makes a total reversal of tone and turns to encouragement. He calls them “beloved” for the only time in the epistle (to assure them he has said these things out of loving concern) and tells them of his absolute “confidence” (πείθω, showing strong assurance) that they are headed not for apostasy but for “better things” (κρείττων, the term used throughout Hebrews for the “superior” things of Christ [cf. 1:4; 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 12:24] as well as of the people of God [cf. 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40]). They are better because they concern “salvation” (σωτηρία), which in Hebrews is a future attainment more than a present possession (1:14, “will inherit”; 5:9, “for all who obey him”; 9:28, “appear a second time … to bring salvation”). In other words, he is confident the readers are not moving downward to apostasy but upward to the salvation they will inherit. They are the good soil of verse 7 not the bad soil of verse 8. However, this does not warrant a hypothetical view of apostasy, as though the danger was stated only as a means of stimulating them to persevere but could never happen. The danger is very real, but the author wishes to encourage them with a positive statement regarding their true stance vis-à-vis Christ.
The reason God is still gracious to them is their hard “work” and their “love” both for God and for one another (shown in their “service” to one another). This is also why the author is convinced of better things for them; though they are indeed lethargic in their spirituality (5:11; 6:12), they are still not yet showing signs of the ultimate downward spiral. It remains a danger rather than a reality. In actuality, this sums up the vertical (love for God) and horizontal (community relationships) solutions to apostasy discussed above.
The writer concludes with a similar admonition to 5:11–6:12. The key is that they, as a community, continue to be “diligent” (σπουδή, indicating zealous action and eager, concerted effort) to “make [their] hope sure” (πρὸς τὴν πληροφορίαν τῆς ἐλπίδος), showing that the goal (πρός) is the “full assurance” (also in 10:22) that their hope will indeed come to pass (chap. 11) and that God will be faithful to his promises (10:23). “Until the end” (6:11) brings back the future dimension of salvation discussed above in verse 9. The problem is their spiritual lethargy (νωθρός, see 5:11 above), and the solution is to “imitate” (μιμητής, which means not only patterning your life after someone but also being obedient to the person’s teaching) the models from the past, probably the heroes of the faith in chapter 11 as well as leaders mentioned in 13:7. Again, the goal is the future inheritance of salvation, attained by persevering in the faith. This is the place where Calvinism and Arminianism meet, in the realization that the elect will be known after they have persevered to the end.
The Consequences of Apostasy (Heb. 10:19–39)
The ABA pattern of Hebrews 10:19–39 is clear—the serious warning (vv. 26–31) is framed by the comfort of knowing what Christ has done for us (vv. 19–25) and the positive example of the recipients’ past endurance (vv. 32–39). The first section (vv. 19–25) recapitulates the positive message of the book, with verses 19–21 summarizing the superior work of Christ in 1:1–10:18 (Jesus the great Priest who has opened a new access to God by becoming the once-for-all sacrifice) and verses 22–25 providing a word of exhortation via three hortatory subjunctives. The result of what Christ has accomplished is a new “opening” (ἐνεκαίνισεν from ἐγκαίνιζω, which has a liturgical coloring connoting dedicating or inaugurating a new practice) to enter the inner sanctuary into the very presence of God (v. 20), and a new “boldness” (παρρησία, which also has an objective thrust meaning we are “authorized” or “free”) to enter God’s presence (v. 19).
The three exhortations of 10:22–25 sum up the solution to the great danger of apostasy that threatens these believers. The vertical aspect is seen in the first, as the present tense calls for a continual “approach” (προσερχώμεθα) that reiterates the new covenant relationship (seen in the use of this verb in 4:16; 7:25; 10:1; 11:6; 12:18, 22). The four characteristics of this new bold worship are a “true heart” (ἀληθινῆς καρδίας), meaning pure, undivided worship; fullness of faith (the same πληροφορία discussed above in 6:11), meaning an absolute certainty that God will hear and respond; and then two images of the cleansed heart that results from salvation (“hearts sprinkled” and “bodies washed”). The second exhortation (10:23) is both vertical and horizontal, with a corporate confession that is done before the Lord. The idea is to stimulate one another to “hold fast” (κατέχω, the same verb discussed in 3:6, 14), or maintain their hold on, their “confession” (ὁμολογία, both the act of confessing and the creed that is confessed) and to do so “without wavering,” a very real danger in light of their spiritual lethargy (cf. 2:1 above). Third, there is the horizontal aspect of encouragement to love and good deeds in 10:24–25. This is the deepest exhortation on love and good works in the New Testament, for it goes two steps beyond the normal command. First, we are to “stimulate” such action (παροξυσμός, a term sometimes used for “inciting to riot,” so we must incite others to a riot of good works!). Second, we must “consider” ways in which to do so, that is, look for opportunities. It is clear that loving works are a necessity in any Christian group. The problem was that some of the members had stopped participating in corporate worship, so the author exhorts them to continue “assembling together” (ἐπισυναγωγή). This refers primarily to attendance in church but includes other fellowship times as well. In Hebrews corporate fellowship is the primary deterrent to apostasy.
From the proper approach to God in Hebrews 10:19–25, the author now turns to the terrible danger of an improper response. The danger from 6:4–8 is reiterated in 10:26–31, which adds the consequences of such a terrible sin. Many have called this warning “arguably the harshest in the book” because of the severity of the language. The closest thing to a definition of apostasy in Hebrews is found in “we willfully keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth” (v. 26). The emphasis is on “willfully” (ἑκουσίως), an allusion to the Old Testament concept of “sin with a high hand” (Num. 15:30–31). Unintentional sins could be expiated with a sacrificial offering, but deliberate sins meant exclusion from Israel. So it is with apostasy here. The idea of “receiving the knowledge of the truth” (the strong term ἐπίγνωσις, with “truth,” also in 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25; Titus 1:1) definitely refers to repentance and conversion, favoring the view that apostasy entails true believers denying their faith.
The consequences are severe. “No sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:26) uses Old Testament language of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (9:23–28; 10:10–14), meaning they have spurned Jesus’ blood and rejected God’s mercy. The twofold expectation of “judgment and raging fire” (10:27, πυρὸς ζῆλος, an avenging [cf. v. 30) ‘fiery zeal’ that consumes)” alludes to Isaiah 26:11: “Let them see your zeal … the fire reserved for your enemies consume[s] them” (NIV). This judgment is certain (ἐσθίειν μέλλοντος, “about to consume,” 10:27), for they have become “the enemies” (τοὺς ὑπεναντίους, meaning those whom God “opposes”) of both God and Christ.
The reason for this unbelievably harsh sentence is threefold (10:29; cf. 6:6; note the qal waḥomer argument [cf. on 2:1–2 above] with 10:28, the death penalty for rejecting the Torah). First, they have “trampled on the Son of God,” an Old Testament metaphor for contempt or disdain (cf. 2 Sam. 22:43; Isa. 63:18; Mic. 7:10). Second, they “treat the blood of the covenant” (the new covenant established by Christ’s blood, Heb. 9:20–28) as κοινός, that is, as “profane, unholy.” Third, they have “insulted the Spirit of grace,” with ἐνυβρίζω connoting the “hubris” or haughty insolence and outrageous arrogance of the apostate; the “Spirit of grace” may echo Zechariah 12:10 LXX (the “Spirit of grace and mercy” poured out on the house of David) and refer to the Pentecost outpouring.93 Together they refer to a studied contempt and repudiation of everything the Godhead has done in salvation. No wonder God will “avenge” (cf. Deut. 32:35) and “judge” (cf. Deut. 32:36) such people who “fall into his hands”; it should be a “terrifying” thing to fall into the hands of such a Judge (Heb. 10:30–31).
DeSilva calls Hebrews 10:26–31 “pathos,” or an appeal to fear (note “fearful” in vv. 27, 31) the God who comes as Judge and Avenger: “The apostate has outraged the embodiment of the virtue of favor and generosity in insulting the Spirit of grace and thus can expect to be visited by an act of God’s power seeking satisfaction.” The fact that this follows the solution to apostasy, namely, faithful adherence to both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Christian life (vv. 22–25), adds to that pathos. The readers have so much and are in grave danger of throwing it all away.
Facing the Consuming Fire (Heb. 12:14–29)
This warning follows one of the beautiful passages in Hebrews, 11:1–12:13, in which the heroes of the faith from the Old Testament provide models of faithful perseverance for these Christians in their great race (12:1–2a) as they run over an obstacle course of trials set by a loving Father who disciplines them (vv. 6–10) so that they might have a “harvest of peace and righteousness” (v. 11). A key passage on the solution to apostasy occurs in verses 12–13 (building on Isaiah 35:3–8 and Proverbs 4:26), in which the weak believers with “feeble arms and weak knees” are about to drop out of the race but are helped over the obstacles to the finish line by the stronger members. The plurals make this a corporate activity and not just individual determination. Thompson says of Hebrews 12:12–17 that “Christian existence is a pilgrimage to the heavenly κληρονομία (9:15; 11:8; cf. 6:17; 11:7; 1:14; 6:12).”
The call to holiness in Hebrews 12:14–17 contains a call to spiritual vigilance (ἐπισκοπέω, looking back to the imagery of vv. 12–13) and three μή τις warnings that build on earlier material: (1) Missing the grace of God means that they “fall short of” (ὑστερέω) God’s gracious salvation (cf. 2:1; 4:1; 6:4–6; 10:26–29). (2) Allowing a “bitter root” (ῥίζα πικρίας) to develop and “defile” (μιαίνω) many alludes to Deuteronomy 29:18, which occurs within a context of idolatry and apostasy from the covenant community, and there it is not bitterness but a “bitter poison” that destroys. The danger of spiritual “contamination” is an Old Testament metaphor for the impurity of the entire community as a result of the sin. The whole passage in Deuteronomy refers to a person who is calloused with a false sense of security in his hardened condition. (3) An “immoral or godless person like Esau” is someone who is both sexually immoral (later Judaism considered his marriages to Hittite women in Genesis 26:34 to be immorality) and spiritually unfaithful to God (πόρνος). The point is that as Esau was “rejected” when he sought to get his inheritance back, so will such an unbeliever be rejected by God. This echoes the point of 6:4–5 and 10:26–27 that such an apostate has committed the unpardonable sin and will not be accepted back. It is important to note that repentance (μετάνοια) here is not true repentance but a secular “change of mind,” and “with tears” is likewise not tears of repentance but the secular tears of one who wants his inheritance back.
There is an ABA pattern in Hebrews 12:14–29, with the contrast between the covenants (vv. 18–24) sandwiched between the two warning passages (vv. 14–17 and vv. 25–29). The powerful antithesis (οὐ … ἀλλά) between the two mountains, earthly Sinai (Moses) and heavenly Zion (Christ) is not a warning but centers on the contrast between the fear of the old covenant and the festive joy of the new covenant. The message reenacts the contrast between the old ways of Judaism and the new ways that Christ brought about that permeates Hebrews 1:1–10:18 and again asks the question, “Why would you want to return to the lesser when in Christ you have the greater?” Sinai “cannot be touched” (cf. Exod. 19:12), and the author of Hebrews centers on the palpable visual elements of fire, darkness, gloom and storm (Exod. 19:16–19), as well as the auditory trumpet blast (cf. Exod. 19:16, 19; 20:18) and voice (cf. Deut. 4:12). The result in each instance was terror.
In Zion, one encounters not the unapproachable God of Sinai but the indwelling God of Zion, leading to a festive atmosphere of worship and joy as one enters the “city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22), an apocalyptic image not for the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 but for the “heavenly” experience of the church in corporate worship (cf. the “heavenlies” of Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12), where one has a foretaste of the “city with foundations” that Abraham longed for (Heb. 11:10, 16). In this city, the saints are “written” or “registered” in the heavenly book (Exod. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Ezek. 13:9; Dan. 7:10; 12:1; Luke 10:20; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 20:12) as citizens of heaven (Eph. 2:19; Phil. 3:20). They are the “assembly of the firstborn” (ἐκκλησίᾳ πρωτοτόκων, Heb. 12:23) and share the inheritance of Jesus, the Firstborn (Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18; Rev. 1:5). They also share worship with “myriads of angels in festive assembly” (πανηγύρει, Heb. 12:22, emphasizing the festivity and the gathering of angels in Christian worship) and “enjoy communion in advance with the righteous of earlier generations with whom they will be made perfect at the end.” Finally, in the life of the church believers boldly approach both “God, the judge of all men” (Heb. 12:23; for the righteous, a judgment of rewards [cf. Rev. 22:12], but perhaps a hint of warning in preparation for vv. 25–27) and “Jesus, mediator of the new covenant” (v. 24, emphasizing the superior experience of the Christian), whose “sprinkled blood” has made salvation possible. Again, why return to a religion of fear and austerity when one has a religion of joy and corporate festivity?
The final warning of the book follows. The scene is similar to 2:1–4. Since the way of Christ is so superior, the penalty for falling away is also more severe. The theme is the “God who speaks,” both at Sinai (v. 19) and Zion (v. 24). When God speaks, people must respond. If those who “refused” (especially the wilderness generation in 3:7–4:13) did not “escape” his judgment, how much less will “we escape” (note the emphatic ἡμεῖς, including the author and thus a warning for true Christians) if “we turn away” (ἀποστρεφόμενοι, emphasizing not just a gradual withdrawal, but a studied repudiation; cf. 2 Tim. 4:4; Titus 1:14) from the heavenly warning (Heb. 12:25).
This in effect sums up the previous warnings of the book and adds a note of final judgment centering on the “shaking of the heavens,” an allusion to Haggai 2:6 (an apocalyptic theme seen in Isa. 13:10; 34:4; Joel 2:10–11; 2 Bar. 32:1; Sib. Or. 3.675; Mark 13:24–25; Rev. 6:12–14; 16:18–21) and the “once-for-all” (ἅπαξ meaning both a definitive action and a single event) destruction of the present creation (cf. 2 Peter 3:7, 10; Rev. 21:1). In the contrast between “removed” (μετάθεσις) and “remain” (μένω) in verse 27, not only the earth and heavens are intended but also the people inhabiting the earth. There is a choice to be made by the readers, and that choice will determine whether they are eternally “removed” or “remain.”
There is both encouragement and warning in the conclusion (12:28–29). There is a similar positive note to Hebrews 6:9–12 and 10:39 in verse 28. The believers are “in the process of receiving” (present tense παραλαμβάνοντες) “an unshakeable kingdom” (12:28; cf. 11:10; 13:14), an eternal home that is a present possession and yet a future attainment. This provides an anchor in the present troubles and should lead to both thanksgiving and reverential awe (with εὐλαβείας καὶ δέους a hendiadys, returning to the idea of 10:22–23). The solution to lethargy (5:11; 6:12) is dynamic worship. Then the section concludes with a very serious warning taken from Deuteronomy 4:24—Moses’ warning to Israel regarding idolatry and apostasy from the covenant. The idea of God as “consuming fire” (πῦρ καταναλίσκον) is used often for fiery judgment (Isa. 33:14; Joel 2:3; Dan. 7:11; Pss. Sol. 15:4; Matt. 25:41; 1 Cor. 3:13, 15; Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14–15) The options are absolutely clear: the readers will either face a loving God in reverential worship or a judging God in absolute terror.
What will we make of all this data? Certain positions are clearly wrong from the outset: (1) To think this represents merely loss of rewards is virtually impossible because the language is much too strong. (2) To take this as a hypothetical warning that cannot be committed but is used to stimulate perseverance (e.g., NIV) also flounders because of its artificial nature. An interesting possibility is the view of Verbrugge that the falling away is done not by individuals but by a community, and so individual salvation is not at stake.108 However, this type of separation between individual and community is hard to maintain, and if the community falls away, it is difficult to comprehend how individuals within it will not do so. McKnight points out that Hebrews stresses the individual in “none of you” in 3:12 and 4:1 and in the warning passages generally (3:13, 17–18; 4:3, 10–11). Moreover, the illustrations of apostasy are not just corporate (the wilderness generation) but also individual (Esau; cf. the individuals as models in 11:1–40).
The best option from a Calvinist perspective is to approach the issue from the standpoint of election: there is a real danger of apostasy, and it is directed to members of the church; but those who commit the sin were not true believers, that is, not of the elect. We will know the elect only when they persevere until the end. This makes a great deal of sense theologically but still falls prey to the basic problem of having to say the descriptions of Hebrews 2:3b–4; 3:1, 6; 6:4; 10:26; and 12:22–24 and the “we” of 12:25, 28 do not speak of true believers. It is difficult to see how that can be upheld in light of the material we have uncovered. The descriptions are incredibly powerful portrayals of real Christian experience.
So the conclusion can be stated as the more likely of several viable options: Hebrews is describing a very real danger of apostasy that true believers can commit, and if they do so it is an unpardonable sin from which there is no possibility of repentance, but only of eternal judgment.
CLASSICAL REFORMED RESPONSE
Buist M. Fanning
As I respond to Grant Osborne, I want to thank him for his fine work in this essay and for his many other significant contributions to biblical interpretation over the years. It is especially helpful to find in the beginning of his essay an evenhanded summary of the standard theological constructs (i.e., Calvinism and Arminianism) that come into conflict over the interpretation of the warnings in Hebrews with their areas of agreement and disagreement clearly laid out.
Another feature of Osborne’s essay that I particularly want to commend is his example of how exegesis and theology should proceed in handling evidence and drawing conclusions. At various points he reflects the need of all interpreters to weigh exegetical evidence in the light of available options and to make a well-considered judgment of what is more or most likely among those options. Depending on the level of ambiguity in the evidence, we come to different levels of certainty about the conclusions. So Osborne does not speak about what must be so regarding the warning passages but about what is more or less likely. It is instructive to see him at various points acknowledge alternative ways of putting the pieces together and then proceed to give his frank assessment of how plausible those are, moving from some he regards to be “virtually impossible” to others that are almost certainly true in his opinion. This is refreshing to see, given the history of posturing and invectiveness that sometimes accompanies controversy over these passages.
As I say about the other two essays in this book, I want to acknowledge here also my agreement with much of what Osborne concludes about Hebrews. Because of space constraints this response will focus on areas of disagreement, but that should not obscure how close we are on many points.
In this response the reader will notice parallels in my reply to Gareth Cockerill since they follow similar approaches and reach similar conclusions. However, in these two responses I will take up slightly different matters based on prominent themes or distinctive points in each treatment.
Spiritual Identification of the Addressees
My first area of response concerns the way the writer of Hebrews describes those whom he is warning. This feature seems to carry considerable weight for Osborne, leading him away from the conclusion that I prefer and instead to the view that they are genuine Christians in danger of repudiating Christ and suffering eternal judgment as a consequence. Many over the centuries have taken the same view of Hebrews and have regarded it as the obvious sense (and for some, though not seemingly for Osborne, the only defensible interpretation).
In interacting with this line of evidence, I think it is important to look carefully at the specific descriptions Hebrews uses and make some distinctions, at least initially. Whether these descriptions all apply to the same people must be assessed as part of the process of evaluation.
First, we can observe the descriptions used directly to address or portray the readers in general. These consist of vocatives and second person pronoun and verb reference (addressing the readers directly), first person pronoun and verb reference (describing the readers and the writer together), and wider implications of his argument in various places.
For example, using direct address the writer refers to his readers as holy (3:1), sharers in a heavenly calling (3:1), brothers (3:1, 12; 10:19; 13:22), and beloved (6:9). He states that they have loved God and his people in a commendable way (6:10) and have faithfully endured suffering and persecution (10:32–34). They are addressed by Scripture as God’s children and have received his fatherly discipline (12:5, 7) and have come into connection with God and his people of all ages (12:22–24).
In using “we” forms, the writer includes himself along with his readers as those to whom the gospel has come and been “confirmed” (2:1, 3; 4:2), as those who have believed (4:3) and received knowledge of the truth (10:26), as those who partake of the fulfillment of God’s salvation and are perfected together with the faithful of earlier days (11:40), and as those who must be warned and exhorted to continue in faith (2:1, 3; 3:6, 14; 4:1; 6:1; 10:23; 12:25).
The wider implications of his approach involve the Old Testament parallels drawn in chapters 3–4 (i.e., that they are people of God just as the wilderness generation were God’s people) or the Old Testament quotation in Hebrews 10:30 (that God will judge his people). These imply that the readers are genuine Christians; if they are not, the argument fails according to some interpreters.
But how should these addresses and descriptions of the readers be interpreted? There are several options: (1) they are absolute and authoritative (i.e., God-inspired) designations of the true spiritual status of all of the addressees; or (2) they are descriptions of what is assumed to be true of most of the addressees, and if they happen not to be true of some, the exhortations and warnings are really not intended for their ears; or (3) these constitute a charitable and pastoral form of address describing the readers in keeping with their public stance of associating with the Christian assembly and identifying the writer with them in that stance but with full awareness and concern that some may not truly be Christians. I prefer this third view for reasons that will be developed as this section moves along.
Second, we should examine the descriptions used to portray the apostates in particular, those who are said to fall away or repudiate Christ. These occur predominantly in third person and generic reference. In fact, the most severe warnings in the book are almost entirely expressed in third person, not “we” or “you” forms of reference. For example, the descriptions of 6:4–8 are entirely in third person plural (generic “they”) or singular (“it” referring to the blessed or cursed ground). This is in marked contrast to the previous passage of exhortation (5:11–6:3) and the subsequent passage of reassurance (6:9–20), which are filled with “we” and “you” references. The same is true of Hebrews 10:27–31, especially the key verse 10:29 (in contrast to “we” forms in the exhortations of vv. 19–25 and “you” forms in the reassurance of vv. 32–39).
There is one instance of first person reference in the most severe passages: the reference to willful sin that “we” may fall into, resulting in no further sacrifice for sin (10:26). The other warnings also more freely intermingle addresses to the readers with less severe expressions of consequences for those who fall away. We see examples of this in the “we” forms in Hebrews 2:3 and 12:25, the generic reference along with second person in 3:12–13, and the generic reference and first or second person in 4:1, 11, and in 12:15–16.
Again we must ask what options should be considered for interpreting these descriptions of those who fall away (predominantly third person) and how they relate to the descriptions of the readers (first and second person) surveyed earlier. One possibility is to see no distinction between these. On this reading the third person references are a milder, indirect form of expression compared to saying “we” or “you,” but they potentially describe the readers nonetheless: all are genuine Christians, and the writer fears that some may fall away. Yet even in this view there is a distinction between the readers in general and the apostates in particular: what is envisioned is not that all of them would fall away but that some among them may do so (as 3:12–13; 4:1, 11; and 12:15–16 explicitly reflect).
My view is that the writer maintains a similar distinction between two groups but explicitly signals a more fundamental difference between them. He addresses all of the readers together in a charitable and pastoral way as Christians, since this is how they have identified themselves by associating with the Christian community. On this basis he also identifies himself with them in his concern as a Christian pastor. It is, of course, conventional even today in sermons and pastoral communication to address Christian groups in these ways without intending to define the true spiritual status of each individual.
As the writer addresses this community, he is aware of mixed evidence concerning their spiritual health. While he has seen positive general indications of their love, service, and endurance through suffering (6:9–10; 10:32–34), there are also worrisome signs of flagging commitment to Christ on the part of some. Since the writer is not omniscient, he does not truly know the heart condition of all the readers, and they have not yet fallen into apostasy as he fears some might, though this is threatening. He is concerned about how some will fare as they are battered by the new crisis pressing upon them. So he addresses them all according to their profession as Christians. In case some may not be genuine, he indicates that the true test is perseverance and those who fall away thereby demonstrate that they have not genuinely been partakers of God’s new covenant salvation (3:6, 14). He issues strong warnings that any who repudiate Christ despite clear knowledge of Christian claims about his person and work will face deserved judgment for their willful rejection of God’s full and final salvation (6:4–8; 10:29). But to the larger community, he provides encouragement that their past and present fidelity is a clear sign of their participation in Christ’s enduring new covenant salvation, an encouragement intended to exhort them to persevering faith, not complacency or self-assurance (6:9–10; 7:25; 9:14–15; 10:39; 12:28).
In defense of this view of the various descriptions, I cite both the wider context of the book and the near context of the verses about those who fall away. The wider contextual evidence is the soteriology of Hebrews, which focuses on the enduring and transforming character of salvation. Any reading of the warnings of Hebrews must take into account this soteriology and not focus only on the descriptions of 6:4–5 and 10:26–29 as though they are the sole consideration. Yet all too often assessment of the warnings of Hebrews begins and ends with 6:4–5, and by the time an interpreter gets to the end of 6:5, he has decided that genuine Christians must be in view and no other evidence counts. But as McKnight and many others have argued, a synthetic approach is needed, one that weighs all the relevant factors together before drawing conclusions.6
As I argue in my essay, such a synthetic approach leads to an unavoidable tension in putting all the evidence together coherently. Is God absolutely faithful to bring genuine Christians through to eternal salvation, yet they may in fact repudiate Christ and fall into eternal condemnation? A “straightforward” reading of all the elements leads to contradiction, so we must make adjustments from the superficial sense somewhere Osborne and Cockerill would make adjustments on the former point (although they fail to give it much attention in their essays). I think the latter point (about genuine Christians repudiating Christ) must be further nuanced due to the greatness and adequacy of salvation as presented in Hebrews. I contend that the writer explicitly points to this in Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 in citing enduring faith as the evidence of genuine salvation (not its cause and not a condition for maintaining genuine salvation). And so repudiation of Christ does not cause the loss of saving participation in Christ’s salvation but indicates that it was an apparent and superficial participation only.
Given this wider theological framework, the near context also supports this view of the descriptions of Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–29. What I call for here is the necessity of reading the entire description all the way through in each passage. So in 6:4–6 it is the final attributive participle in the series (v. 6a “falling away”) and the two adverbial ones (v. 6b “crucifying and scorning the Son of God”) that give the light in which the descriptions of verses 4–5 must be seen. Yet how many interpreters decide on the theological sense of the whole sentence after studying only the first two-thirds of it (vv. 4–5)? Similarly the description of 10:26 (“sinning willfully after receiving knowledge of the truth”) must be read in light of what follows, where the general introductory statement (“willful sin”) is surely filled out and specifically defined by the participles of 10:29 (“spurning, profaning, insulting”). It is only when we read the whole description that we grasp the true sense of the earlier part of it. This is commonly true of descriptions focusing on how things appear to be: the whole expression is needed to see that the appearance is not actually the case, and we cannot see that it is phenomenological language until we read to the end.9
This is why I conclude in my essay that in Hebrews 6:4–6; 10:26–29, and so forth, the writer is describing the phenomena of the conversion of those who fall away. While the details of these descriptions taken by themselves seem to point to true Christian experience, the full statements belie this impression. The writer has portrayed the apostates in distinctly Christian terms to emphasize how close they have been to new covenant salvation and what they are spurning if they depart. Their enlightenment, experience of the Spirit, repentance, knowledge of the truth, sharing in the sanctifying effects of Christ’s blood, and so forth will prove to be only preliminary and spurious if in fact they repudiate Christ. Their repudiation will constitute willful departure, or apostasy, from the religious convictions and public stance they once seemed to hold.11 Only irrevocable judgment can follow for such rejection in spite of close familiarity and experience with God’s full and final provision for salvation. The wider soteriology of Hebrews and the explicit statements of 3:6 and 3:14 should sensitize us to see that this is the intended meaning of these descriptions. In any case the descriptions alone should not be the only factor considered in the interpretation of the warning passages.
Contingency of Salvation in Hebrews
My second area of response to Osborne concerns his comments on contingency of salvation in Hebrews. At two different places in my essay in this book, I discuss his ideas on the conditionality of salvation (as reflected in his earlier writings) and try to show why I think he has misinterpreted Hebrews on this point. The reader may consult those pages for details. Here I want to respond to several comments on the issue from his current essay.
In his exposition of Hebrews 3:6, Osborne quotes the verse as follows: “We are his house (the church as the house of God), if indeed (ἐάνπερ) we continue …” He then cites Lane’s comment that this “implies that the outcome is contingent upon the response of the hearers.” By this Osborne means to say that maintaining their present relationship with God all the way through to final salvation is dependent on the readers’ continued faith in Christ. But he deals with the conditional sentence too simplistically and fails to consider other possible senses for this statement.13 I agree that the “outcome is contingent,” but I maintain in my essay that the verse explicitly points to a different “outcome” conditioned on continued faith. The outcome is not whether they will maintain their current status all the way to the future consummation, but whether they are his house even now (note verb tenses in 3:6). Lasting faith is the evidence of genuine Christianity; failure to continue in faith is evidence that a person is not genuinely Christian.
In his treatment of Hebrews 3:14, Osborne includes a footnote stating that the Greek construction is the same as in 3:6, and so “the relationship is conditional.” Again, I agree that the relationship is conditional, but we must ask, what relationship (future or past-present) and what (logical) kind of condition? I argue that the condition is not one of cause-to-effect, as is so often assumed without examination, but is one of evidenceto-inference. So the writer’s point is not that holding firm in faith to the end causes their salvific participation with Christ to continue to final salvation, but that holding firm in faith to the end is the evidence that they have become and are truly partakers with Christ. I believe the tenses and lexical character of the verbs used in 3:6 and 3:14 make this the preferred interpretation, but it is not dependent on my view of Greek verb tenses alone. Nor is it a novel explanation of conditional sentences I have concocted due to theological presuppositions. It has a long, if not widely known, existence among linguists with no connection to these issues.16
As Osborne continues to explain Hebrews 3:14, he adds the comment, “they must maintain their relationship with Christ as ‘partners’ in the Christian life. To do so, however, they must ‘hold firm’ … their ‘confidence’ in Christ to the very end” (italics mine). I contend that the soteriology of Hebrews focuses Christian perseverance on God’s ability to save to the end, not on human capacity or willingness to continue to accept his saving work. Yes, it is true that according to Hebrews true Christians will hold their faith firm until final salvation is reached, so in that sense it is a “both-and,” not an “either-or,” process. But how is this accomplished according to Hebrews? It seems invalid to speak of human responsibility to maintain the relationship based on our free choice to hold fast, without speaking as Hebrews does of God’s power at work within to carry us through to the end. Osborne’s treatment is, unfortunately, slanted away from this because he says little about Hebrews’s strong statements on security. As I develop in my essay and in my response to Cockerill, the verses in Hebrews about Christian security (e.g., 7:25; 9:14–15; 10:14) do not speak at all of continued Christian response as a necessary means for the fulfillment of final salvation. The verses instead say that those who have become partakers of Christ’s saving work will certainly reach final salvation because and by means of God’s ability, not their own. Maintaining the relationship is dependent ultimately on his lasting and transforming work in us, by which we are able to continue in faith.
Finally, in discussing Hebrews 3:6, Osborne cites a list of “several New Testament conditional statements regarding salvation” including Romans 8:9, 17; 11:22; 2 Corinthians 13:5; and Colossians 1:23. The implication is that these support his interpretation of 3:6. While I do not reject this sort of appeal entirely, I think it is important to insist that evidence from Hebrews itself be sifted fully before we turn to the theology of other books for insight. As I have repeated perhaps too frequently here, I think Osborne should have considered other features of the theology of Hebrews itself more than he has. Furthermore, it is not clear that the other verses he cites really support the point he is making. These conditional statements are better seen, I think, as evidence-to-inference conditionals or should on other grounds be interpreted in a different sense than Osborne prefers.
A Final Point
One final area of brief response concerns the issue of Christian assurance. In several comments Osborne implies that assurance is not possible for Christians until they reach the end of life. In his exegesis of Hebrews 6:11, he writes, “The goal is the future inheritance of salvation, attained by persevering in the faith. This is the place where Calvinism and Arminianism meet, in the realization that the elect will be known after they have persevered to the end” (p. 117–18). In his conclusion, he adds the word “only” to the statement: “We will know the elect only when they persevere until the end” (p. 128). Osborne does not elaborate on this point, but his comments echo the view of other writers who charge that a Reformed understanding of perseverance precludes any assurance of salvation in this life or that there is no difference between Calvinist and non-Calvinist regarding the basis or possibility of assurance.
It is certainly true that, in isolation, a verse like Hebrews 3:14 (according to my view of it) could be taken to deny any assurance until the end of life is reached: “We have become partakers of Christ [inference], if in fact we hold the beginning of our confidence firm until the end [evidence].” If continuance is the test of reality, then we cannot know our real status with Christ until we continue to the end, or so the charge goes. But as I have tried to show throughout, we must not read any of Hebrews in isolation! We must couple the meaning of Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14 with the astonishing statements of what God accomplishes in the lives of those who “have become partakers” of Christ’s high priestly work. It is God’s powerful, transforming, and lasting work of salvation that is the primary basis of assurance for Christians. The beginnings of assurance gained by seeing this saving work begun and furthered in my life are reinforced immeasurably by the realization that Christ is completely able to bring me through to final salvation, not because of my continued response to him but because of his eternally effective high priestly ministry. It seems to me that, in regard to the possibility of Christian assurance, there is a vast difference between this understanding of Hebrews and Osborne’s view.
In conclusion, what I am arguing in overall response to Osborne is the likelihood of various interpretations. In concert with his own expressed sentiments along this line, I am not saying that his interpretation of Hebrews absolutely cannot be right and mine must be. Both are viable and defensible options. But in regard to the spiritual identification of the addressees as well as the contingency of salvation in Hebrews, I have tried to argue here and in my essay that my interpretation is more likely to be correct based on the exegesis and theology of Hebrews itself.
WESLEYAN ARMINIAN RESPONSE
Gareth Lee Cockerill
Since Wesleyans are known as Arminians with an emphasis on expressive, experiential religion, it would be appropriate for a Wesleyan to respond to this Arminian perspective by saying “Amen!”
Osborne has provided us with a clear, well-written study that allows the text of Hebrews to speak for itself. His opening paragraphs give a fair and balanced summary of the Calvinist and Arminian understandings of the way God works to effect salvation. Thus he puts the debate about Hebrews squarely within this broader theological context.
In this study we are treated to a comprehensive exposition of each warning passage in Hebrews. Osborne does more than ask what each passage says about apostasy. He presents a fuller exposition of each one, highlighting those aspects of the text that identify the readers’ spiritual condition, the nature of the sin against which they are warned, and the threatened results of that sin. Although this approach is less direct and requires the perseverance [sic] of the reader, it assures attention to context and a balance in handling the evidence. At the conclusion of his work, Osborne evaluates alternative views in light of the evidence he has presented.
In my judgment, Osborne is correct in his assessment of Hebrews’s teaching on apostasy. The way in which the writer describes the readers, their potential sin, and its consequences indicates that the recipients of Hebrews were true believers in danger of eternal loss. They were in danger of rejecting God’s only sufficient provision for sin. Such a definitive rejection of the only means of salvation would leave them beyond the possibility of return.
The Setting of Hebrews
Osborne begins by establishing the social situation behind Hebrews. Hebrews was written to a mixed Jewish-Gentile Roman church that had suffered persecution in the past and was again facing pressure from the surrounding society. Osborne finds solid support for this position in deSilva’s location of Hebrews in the milieu of Graeco-Roman rhetoric. This reconstruction is in much closer agreement with the data in the text of Hebrews and has support from a much broader scholarly consensus than Gleason’s proposed Palestinian destination, which will be presented later in the book. Unlike Gleason’s interpretation, Osborne’s does not suffer the vulnerability of dependence upon his vision of the readers’ situation. He gains credibility by providing a plausible, though not necessary, situation to which Hebrews as he interprets it could have been written.
Osborne believes that some of those to whom Hebrews was addressed were in danger of “drifting away” and others of “an active repudiation of Christ” and return to their Jewish or Gentile roots (p. 89). In my judgment it is more likely that Hebrews warns against a “drifting away” that may lead to an “active repudiation.” In 2:1–4 it is “drifting away” that may result in purposeful “neglect” of Christ’s provision. The laxity described in 5:11–6:3 is fundamental to the danger of apostasy described in 6:4–8. The hearers must get over their laxity lest they expose themselves to the possibility of apostasy. Recognition of this fact would only have strengthened Osborne’s overall interpretation of the warning passages.
All the contributors to this book agree that the author of Hebrews appears to describe his readers as genuine Christians. Osborne begins his study by summarizing the evidence for the integrity of their faith. He argues, rightly in my judgment, that the recipients of Hebrews are described in terms that exclude unconverted church members. When discussing 6:4–8 Osborne says, “If this passage were found in Romans 8, we would all hail it as the greatest description of Christian blessings in the entire Bible” (p. 112). In like manner we might say, “If the descriptions of the recipients of Hebrews scattered throughout the book occurred in any other book, none would doubt that those so described were true believers.”
After marshalling this evidence for the recipients’ faith, Osborne presents us with a carefully executed analysis of each warning passage. He is sensitive to the context of each and to the distinct contribution made by each to the argument of the whole.
Osborne clearly grasps the role that Hebrews 2:1–4 plays in preparing for the later warnings. Although the writer does not describe the consequences of the sin against which he warns in this passage, the fact that this sin is willful “neglect” of the “great salvation” the Son has provided forebodes the eternal nature of these consequences. As Osborne says, the writer of Hebrews “begins with pianissimo, but the crescendo is coming soon” (p. 94).
Osborne’s solid exposition of this passage might have been strengthened, however, by giving even more attention to the term “such a great salvation.” God spoke his “word” through the angels but provided “such a great salvation” in the Son. Thus God’s revelation in the Son has a saving efficacy anticipated by previous revelation. This salvation is not merely greater than the Torah (p. 93) but effective where the Torah was not. It is a fully adequate and therefore complete and final salvation.
“Such a great salvation” not only anticipates the eternal consequences of neglect but also provides a direct link with the other warning passages. The severity of the warning in Hebrews 6:1–8 and 10:26–31 is based on the writer’s description of how great this salvation is.
I would express only one caveat with Osborne’s exposition of Hebrews 2:1–4. Osborne argues, “So if the salvation is ‘greater,’ one would expect the punishment to be greater as well” (p. 94). However, a closer look at the details of this passage would indicate that the writer is not concerned with the severity but with the certainty of punishment. He does not say, “How much more shall we suffer?” but “How shall we escape?” Since the punishment for the old covenant disobedient was assured, the punishment for those who turn away from Christ is even more certain. In fact, as consideration of Hebrews 3:7–4:11 below will show, failure under the old covenant also led to eternal loss.
The second warning passage, Hebrews 3:7–4:11, is the longest in the book. The first half of this passage, 3:7–19, describes the past loss of “rest” by the wilderness generation; the second half, 4:1–11, describes the consequent present promise of “rest” still before the recipients of Hebrews. Osborne recognizes that this passage clarifies the eternal nature of the loss anticipated in 2:1–4. He carefully demonstrates the seriousness of the wilderness generation’s unbelief and the dire nature of the consequences as described in 3:7–19. This unbelief was disobedience, rebellion, and falling away from God. The wilderness generation suffered God’s “wrath” and were excluded from the Promised Land. Osborne notes that the fall of their “corpses” in the wilderness designates “an accursed death” appropriate for apostates (p. 101).
In Hebrews 4:1–11 the writer warns against loss of the eternal rest promised to the recipients of Hebrews. Osborne shows how appropriate the imagery of Sabbath celebration was for such eternal rest. In 4:12–13 the author makes it quite clear that there is no way the readers could avoid the issue of faithfulness put before them.
While Osborne clearly affirms the eternal nature of the “rest” anticipated by the recipients of Hebrews, his argument could have been strengthened by a straightforward presentation of the way in which the writer of Hebrews substantiates this eternal reality. The closest he gets is his discussion of the gezārah šāwāh connection with Genesis 2:2 in Hebrews 4:4–5 (p. 105–6). He does make references to the “heroes of faith” in chapter 11 (p. 104), but he could have reinforced the eternal nature of the “rest” by demonstrating its identity with the heavenly homeland toward which those faithful directed their pilgrimage.
Osborne agrees that this “rest” is primarily “the final eschatological rest in eternity,” though he tries to make room for the believer’s current rest in God (p. 106). While the writer to the Hebrews certainly does teach a present experience of inner cleansing (9:14), access to God (4:14–16; 10:19–21), forgiveness, and the inscription of God’s law on the heart (10:15–18), in 3:7–4:11 his focus is on the final eternal rest. This orientation is substantiated by the fact that the rest proffered (4:1) is the rest spoken about in Psalm 95, and therefore the rest lost by the wilderness generation in Numbers 14. They most definitively did not share in the cleansing and access available to current believers through Christ (Heb. 11:39–40), but they did anticipate the same eternal reward.
These suggestions would not materially change but would strengthen and clarify the conclusions Osborne reaches in regard to Hebrews 3:7–4:11.
Osborne examines the crucial warning in Hebrews 6:4–8 within the broader passage of 5:11–6:12. He is correct in his contention that what has been indicated in the earlier warning passages has now become explicit. As noted above, Osborne has already presented conclusive evidence from the rest of Hebrews that the recipients were people of genuine faith. The four participial phrases used here substantiate that earlier conclusion—“having been enlightened,” “having tasted the heavenly gift,” “having become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” and “having tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come.” His words cited above are certainly correct: “If this passage were found in Romans 8, we would all hail it as the greatest description of Christian blessings in the entire Bible” (p. 112). Furthermore, the “falling away” here mentioned must be apostasy because it is caused by showing open contempt for Christ and results in the impossibility of repentance.
It is instructive to compare Osborne’s and Gleason’s handling of these texts. Gleason argues that the wilderness generation in Hebrews 3:7–4:11 was not apostate. Then he attempts to make the clear description of apostasy in Hebrews 6:4–8 conform to his understanding of the wilderness generation. Osborne, however, follows the flow of the author’s thought. The apostasy anticipated in Hebrews 2:1–4 and clarified in 3:7–4:11 is now made explicit in 6:4–8.
As noted above, in the introduction to his study Osborne speaks of two problems facing the recipients of Hebrews. Some were in danger of lethargy or “drifting away.” Others were in danger of “active repudiation of Christ” (p. 89). However, in his exposition of Hebrews 5:11–6:12 he correctly treats these problems as one. The unnatural immaturity described in 5:11–6:3 is the impediment that prevents the recipients of Hebrews from grasping the “solid food” necessary to persevere and avoid apostasy (pp. 108–11). Osborne rightly identifies this “solid food” with Christ’s priesthood introduced in 5:10, but he does not clearly say that this “solid food” will be expounded in Hebrews 7:1–10:18.
Osborne boldly faces the thorny issue raised by Hebrews 6:6: “For it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” He correctly locates this “impossibility” in God, who will not renew the one who has rejected his provision in Christ (p. 114). He is also correct in arguing that the present tense participles “having crucified again” (ἀνασταυροῦντας) and “having held up to contempt” (παραδειγματίζοντας) express both the cause of final apostasy and the continuing attitude of the apostate (p. 115). Such perpetual contempt characterized the post Kadesh-Barnea wilderness generation.
Nevertheless, I have some hesitancy over the distinction between “passive apostasy” and “active apostasy” (p. 114–15n. 78). Osborne defines the former as sin crowding Christ out of a person’s life and the latter as the active repudiation of Christ. He seems to associate the inadvertent sin of the Old Testament with “passive apostasy,” and willful sin with “active apostasy.”5 From the former there can be a return to Christ. Those guilty of the latter have no recourse.
Would the author of Hebrews have called sin that crowds Christ out “inadvertent sin”? Would he not find “drifting away” tantamount to culpable “neglect” of God’s provision in Christ (2:1–4)? The description of the readers’ immaturity in 5:11–6:3 has impact because it is an unnatural immaturity. They should not be in this state. They are as culpable for their immaturity as a fifteen-year-old would be culpable for acting like a six-year-old. Is not the apostasy here conceived a persistence in disobedience until final rejection of Christ?
The wilderness generation’s example is supportive of this model. Their many acts of disobedience before Kadesh-Barnea were certainly intentional but culminated in the definitive refusal to trust God to fulfill the promise for which he had brought them out of Egypt. If they rejected God’s bringing them into the Promised Land, what other blessing could he bestow upon them? The apostasy envisioned by Hebrews is the final and definitive rejection of God’s provision in Christ. When people have rejected Christ’s once-for-all and only effective sacrifice, what else can God offer them?
“Apostasy” by definition is a definitive turn away from God. Thus “passive apostasy” for which repentance is available is a misnomer. One might call it “backsliding” but not apostasy. Furthermore, in Hebrews whatever innocence there is in “drifting away” or immaturity does not preclude the fact that, persisted in, such behavior may lead to true apostasy.
Osborne handles Hebrews 10:19–31 with expert contextual appropriateness. He recognizes that this passage makes the terrible consequences of the sin against which the writer warns patently clear. The writer of Hebrews can now speak with such lucidity because he has described the finality and effectiveness of Christ’s high priestly work in 7:1–10:18 (one might say 4:14–10:18). Hebrews 10:19–25 summarizes the glorious benefits of this high priestly work and urges the hearers to enter into its blessings as the means of perseverance and sure defense against apostasy.
In light of these blessings, the writer is in a position to make patently clear the consequences of rejecting this final, climactic, and only sufficient work of God for human salvation. Osborne argues convincingly that all that was said in Hebrews 6:4–8 is now articulated with renewed perspicuity and directness in Hebrews 10:26–31. For those who reject this only effective sacrifice, there remains “no sacrifice for sin” but only eternal judgment because they have practiced “a studied contempt and repudiation of everything the Godhead has done in salvation” (p. 121).
This passage reinforces the teaching of Hebrews 6:4–8 on the nature of apostasy. The author does emphasize the adverb “willfully” (ἑκουσίως) by locating it at the beginning of Hebrews 10:26 (p. 120). Yet, the primary distinction here, as above, is not between willful and unintended sin. The emphasis is on persistence in willful sin. Note the NRSV translation: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth.” This is persistent sin that leads to a final rejection of God’s provision in Christ. This final rejection is described in verse 29 as profaning “the Son of God,” spurning “the blood of the covenant,” and outraging “the Spirit of grace.”
The final warning in Hebrews 12:25–29 is presented within the broader context of 12:14–29. Use of this larger passage is particularly appropriate because of the warning character of verses 14–17. Osborne correctly sees that the rejection of Esau in this passage reinforces the teaching of Hebrews 6:4–5 and 10:26–27 on the impossibility of restoration for the apostate. He is correct in affirming that Esau did not seek godly repentance but the restoration of lost blessing.
Osborne treats the contrast between “Zion” (12:22–24) and “Sinai” (12:18–21) as a straightforward comparison/contrast between the two covenants. One must note, however, that the name “Sinai” does not appear. In my judgment, the unapproachable mountain is not the old covenant, per se, but the old covenant without grace. Many of the people of faith described in chapter 11 lived under the old covenant. The point is that for present-day believers rejection of Christ’s final sacrifice is a total rejection of God’s grace. Therefore, to turn away from Christ is to turn away from grace to judgment.
Osborne makes the climactic nature of the final warning clear. Hebrews 12:25–29 “sums up the previous warnings of the book and adds a note of final judgment centering on the ‘shaking of the heavens,’ … and the ‘once-for-all’ … destruction of the present creation” (p. 126). At this destruction the faithful will “remain,” but others will be “removed.” “The options are absolutely clear: the readers will either face a loving God in reverential worship or a judging God in absolute terror” (p. 127).
This fine presentation of the final warning could have been strengthened by more attention to the fact that God now speaks from heaven (v. 26). God’s address is no longer on the earthly Sinai or even in the incarnate, exalted Christ. The final word of judgment comes directly from God himself in heaven.
A Concluding Evaluation
We should compliment Osborne for his attention to the corporate dimension of Christian life in Hebrews. In commenting on Hebrews 3:13–14, he points out that the involvement of the Christian community in the life of the believer is a major antidote to apostasy. Members are to warn one another lest they fall away (pp. 99–100). According to Hebrews 10:24–25, participation in the life of the Christian community is “the primary deterrent to apostasy” (p. 119).
As noted above, in his conclusion Osborne evaluates alternate positions in light of the evidence he has presented. In my judgment he is correct when he says that the best option from a Calvinist perspective is the option based on election: while the writer addresses all of his readers as true believers, some do not have genuine faith. Only final perseverance will reveal the elect who truly trusted in Christ. This is the position advocated by Fanning in the present book. However, I would agree with Osborne that this interpretation does not do justice to the way the readers are described as true believers in Hebrews 2:3b–4; 3:1, 6; 6:4; 10:26; and 12:22–24. Nor does it accord well with the use of “we” in Hebrews 12:25 and 28. It does not fit easily with other evidence presented by Osborne. In my judgment, such an interpretation imports a category alien to the context of Hebrews. There is no reason to believe that either the writer or readers of Hebrews held this assumption.
The above discussion has indicated several points of disagreement with Osborne. I would argue that the problem faced by the recipients of Hebrews is one, not two. There are not two groups of people, one in danger of “drifting” and another in danger of open repudiation. There is one group of people. They are in danger of a “drifting” or of a “lethargy” that may lead them to a final, open repudiation. Osborne seems to sense this essential unity between “lethargy” and “apostasy” in his comments on Hebrews 6:4–8.
I have argued that the author’s concern in Hebrews 2:1–4 was with the certainty rather than the degree of punishment for neglecting salvation in Christ. I have suggested that Osborne’s treatment of Hebrews 3:7–4:13 could be strengthened by a clearer description of how the writer substantiates the eternal nature of “rest.” I also have argued that in 3:7–4:13 the writer’s focus is on the “rest” of final entrance rather than present experience. This concern with final “rest” makes the parallel between the wilderness generation and present believers more direct.
Finally, this response would propose an adjustment to Osborne’s understanding of the sin that leads to apostasy. The primary distinction is not between inadvertent and intentional/willful sin. Certainly the sin that leads to apostasy is “willful,” but it is also persistent. The cause of apostasy is persistence in willful sin climaxing in the total rejection or repudiation of Christ. This understanding is parallel to the persistent disobedience and climactic rejection of the wilderness generation at Kadesh-Barnea. It is in accord with the writer’s anxiety over the laxity, immaturity, and unconcern of the hearers that may lead to persistent disobedience. It is in agreement with the way the final act of apostasy is described as spurning “the Son of God,” profaning “the blood of the covenant” and outraging “the Spirit of grace” (10:29).
These caveats, however, do not detract from the overall persuasiveness of Osborne’s study. He has thoroughly grasped and clearly expressed the eternal and final nature of apostasy in Hebrews. His arguments are unexaggerated and irenic. He is to be commended for drawing together the relevant evidence and effectively interacting with those of other opinions. In summary, Osborne’s presentation is thorough and balanced. The evidence presented for his main contentions is quite convincing.
MODERATE REFORMED RESPONSE
Randall C. Gleason
I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to Grant Osborne for his book The Hermeneutical Spiral (1991), which has taught me much about the science and art of biblical interpretation. I also admire his skill in blending biblical exegesis with an irenic spirit in his contribution to this volume. Consequently, I find much to agree with in his treatment of the warning passages in Hebrews. First and foremost, I strongly agree with Osborne that those warned in Hebrews “are regenerate and not just quasi-Christians” (p. 90). This makes the best sense of their description as “holy brethren” (3:1, 12) who have “once been enlightened” (6:4) and “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (10:22) “after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (10:26). For me this is both the most compelling argument for an Arminian interpretation and the greatest obstacle to alternative readings that often appear to smother the warnings by either theological presuppositions or concepts imported from other New Testament authors (e.g., election/predestination in Paul or John).
I also commend Osborne for his helpful reminder that Arminians share with the Reformed tradition strong convictions regarding the total depravity of humanity and the sovereign work of God in salvation. This point is often lost in the rhetoric over theological differences and helps to dismiss common caricatures that unfairly label the Arminian tradition as “Pelagian.” I thank Osborne for stressing our common ground as we wrestle with these difficult texts. Yet I find that he also appears to assume areas of “general agreement” on the Hebrews warnings that too quickly dismiss certain distinct features of the view I affirm in my chapter. It is with several of these assumptions that I will begin my critique.
Roman or Palestinian Recipients?
By assuming that the book of Hebrews was written to the church in Rome, Osborne misses the author’s allusions to the coming destruction of Jerusalem. This leads him to conclude that the warnings must refer to the loss of salvation and final judgment. Since I believe that the author warns his readers of physical judgment that would soon fall upon the Jewish nation, I must take issue with Osborne’s assumption of a Roman destination. Osborne’s view is not without basis, for a number of scholars argue that the book was written to Rome because of the salutation “Those from Italy greet you” (13:24).
However, this greeting is far from conclusive since it could also indicate the letter’s origin “from” Italy. The author’s emphasis upon the Jewish sacrificial system (Heb. 7–10) has convinced many interpreters of a Palestinian audience. Their “former days” of suffering (Heb. 10:32–34) could then refer to the Jewish persecution of Christians in Judea following Pentecost (Acts 9:1; 12:1–2; 1 Thess. 2:14–15). The use of the LXX does not preclude a Palestinian audience since Hellenistic Jews made up a significant portion of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1–6, 9; cf. John 12:20). Furthermore, the Greek biblical texts found at Qumran and Nahal Hever provide ample evidence that even Hebrew-speaking Jews living in Palestine used the LXX. Similar use at Qumran of the expression “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:11, 13) to mean outside of Jerusalem also suggests that the exhortation to bear the “reproach” of Christ “outside the gate” (v. 12) was intended for Christians living in or around the Jewish capital.
The Jewish identity and Palestinian location of the readers are important because both help us to understand the immediate crisis in view throughout Hebrews. Though the “last days” (1:2) had begun, the author exhorts his readers to hold fast to their baptismal confession (10:23) and to faithfully attend their Christian assembly “all the more as you see the day drawing near (ἐγγίζουσαν)” (10:25). Many claim that this can refer only to “that ultimate eschatological day … of judgment” when Christ returns (cf. 9:28). However, in the Old Testament “the day” was the common designation for a time of destruction coming upon the land of Israel due to covenant unfaithfulness (Isa. 24:21; Ezek. 7:7; Joel 1:15; Zeph. 1:14–18; cf. Matt. 24:36). The word “day” is modified in three ways in Hebrews 10:25. First, the article (τήν) suggests it points back to a definite crisis understood by the readers. This would most naturally refer to the burning of the land (6:8) and destruction of the “first” covenant symbols mentioned earlier (8:13; 10:9). Second, “the day” is described as “drawing near” (ἐγγίζουσαν), depicting by the present tense a current event unfolding before the readers. This is consistent with the idiomatic expression—“day(s) drawing near”—used in the Old Testament to denote an event that would occur immediately (e.g., nearness of death, Gen. 27:41; Deut. 31:14; 1 Kings 2:1; cf. 1 Macc. 2:49). Third, the terminology of “drawing near” (ἐγγίζουσαν) ties this event to the “nearness” (ἐγγύς) of both the burning of the land (6:8) and the destruction of the “first” covenant system and its temple (8:13–9:1). Finally, the nearness of this event is confirmed by the words “as you see” (βλέπετε—present indicative), indicating that signs of the coming crisis were already visible to the readers. Although all Christians “eagerly await” the second coming of Christ “for salvation” (Heb. 9:28), this generation of readers were warned against the specific physical threat that would soon fall upon the nation of Israel and Jerusalem as foretold by Jesus (e.g., Matt. 23:37–24:28).
Even if the readers lived outside of Israel, the future of Jerusalem would have been of vital concern for the Jews of the Diaspora since the city continued to be their center of worship. Furthermore, the devastating consequences of the war with Rome were not limited to Palestinian Jews. Josephus records how the wrath of Rome fell on many Jewish communities throughout the region. The hostilities against Jews that began at Caesarea quickly spread to the cities of Syria (J.W. 2 §§ 457–66, 477–79). In Alexandria, the Roman legions not only plundered and burned Jewish homes but also killed thousands of Jewish inhabitants (J.W. 2 §§ 494–98). Following the war, the Jews of Antioch continued to suffer Roman reprisals under Titus (J.W. 7 §§ 37–38, 46–62). The threat against those who identified with the symbols of Jewish nationalism was real, regardless of their location. Hence, the author’s exhortation to seek the heavenly city (Heb. 11:10; 12:22; 13:14) rather than the earthly Jerusalem would have been meaningful to Jewish Christians everywhere.
The Definition of Apostasy
A second assumption of Osborne is that the apostasy of Hebrews must refer to a persistent and active repudiation of faith in Christ. Osborne regards “willful sin” (Heb. 10:26) to be the clearest of this kind of apostasy in the book. I agree that their “drift” and “neglect” of Christ’s teaching (2:1–2), persistent immaturity (5:11–13), and “forsaking” of the Christian assembly (10:25) would eventually result in “willful sin.” However, I do not believe “willful sin” refers to “a studied contempt and repudiation of everything the Godhead has done in salvation” as Osborne claims (p. 121). Since we draw the term apostasy from the author’s warning against “an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away (ἀποσῆναι) from the living God” (3:12), it seems best to define its meaning according to the rebellion and unbelief of the people at Kadesh-Barnea (Num. 14:9–11). For the warning against “an evil, unbelieving heart” (καρδία πονηρὰ ἀπιστίας) echoes back to the “evil congregation” (τὴν συναγωγὴν τὴν πονηράν, Num. 14:27 LXX) who were guilty of “unbelief” (οὐ πιστεύουσίν) at Kadesh-Barnea (Num. 14:11 LXX). Furthermore, apostasy “from the living God” (ἐν τῷ ἀποστῆναι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ζῶντος) echoes back to Israel’s apostasy (ἀπὸ τοῦ κυρίου μὴ ἀποστάται, Num. 14:9 LXX) from the God who claimed “I am living and living is my name” (ζῶ ἐγὼ καὶ ζῶν τὸ ὄνομά μου, Num. 14:21, LXX).11
Therefore, the apostasy of Hebrews refers to deliberate covenant unfaithfulness that would incite God to discipline his people without “repentance.” The severe “punishment” (Heb. 10:27–31) demanded for this kind of “willful sin” (10:26) echoes back to the public execution of the defiant man found picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Num. 15:30–36; cf. Heb. 10:28) and the deadly plague that fell upon Israel from “the hands of the Lord” (2 Sam. 24:15; cf. Heb. 10:31) because David numbered the people (see my chapter). Yet none of these Old Testament examples depict “a pagan-like absolute rejection of God” as Osborne claims (p. 98n. 29). Furthermore, the author’s call for mutual encouragement (Heb. 10:24–25; 12:12–13) and corporate worship and accountability (13:15–17) are appropriate means to prevent spiritual drift, neglect, dullness, and willful disobedience against God’s commands. However, such measures would seem to have little effect upon those who persist in their atheistic repudiation of God and his Son Jesus Christ. Also Osborne’s identification of “falling away” in Hebrews 6:6 with the “unpardonable sin” is unlikely since the participles of Hebrews 6:4–5 parallel the Septuagint description of the Exodus generation, whom God both pardoned and judged at Kadesh-Barnea (Num. 14:20–23). The impossibility of repentance (Heb. 6:6) is therefore best understood as an echo back to Israel’s failed attempt to reverse God’s verdict the day after their rebellion (Num. 14:39–45). They learned too late that the Lord was “a forgiving God … yet an avenger of their evil deeds” (Ps. 99:8 NASB).
The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 3–4
The Old Testament was the “Bible” of first-century Christians and therefore was more than a source book of illustrations to serve the New Testament author’s rhetorical purposes. The Old Testament provided him a redemptive-historical theology from which to draw in order to instruct and exhort his readers. Therefore to suggest that “salvation” in Hebrews is eschatological and spiritual while limiting the “salvation” of Israel to mere physical deliverance from Egypt is to break apart the redemptive story progressively revealed through Scripture. Although the book of Hebrews stresses how the new covenant has replaced the old covenant, this change does not mean there are multiple kinds of salvation. The basis for salvation has always been the gracious activity of God culminating in the death and resurrection of Christ. The sole requirement for salvation has always been the human response of faith to God’s provision as it was progressively revealed throughout biblical history. For these reasons Israel’s faith in the Lord (Exod. 4:31; 14:31) and their deliverance from the Egyptians (Exod. 14:13, 30; 15:1–17) served as an important archetype for salvation elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Neh. 9:9–21; Ps. 106:6–12; Isa. 63:8–9; Heb. 11:29). Therefore it is proper and necessary for us to draw upon the Old Testament narratives of Israel’s redemption to determine the relationship between salvation and the warnings in Hebrews.
Osborne overlooks many of the Old Testament echoes and their interpretive significance to the warnings. This is most apparent in the second warning that contains the most explicit reference to Israel’s failure in the wilderness (Heb. 3:7–4:13). For example, Osborne’s claim that the author calls the readers “to be like Moses, not Israel” (p. 95) misses the point of Moses’ contrast to Christ (3:2–5). It is Jesus our perfect “high priest” (3:1; cf. 2:10, 17–18; 4:15) and “forerunner” (6:20) on whom we are to “fix our eyes” (12:2). For though Moses was regarded as a “faithful” servant (Heb. 3:5; cf. 11:23–29; Num. 12:7), by comparison Jesus “has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses” (Heb. 3:3) because He, unlike Moses, was “without sin” (4:15). With the Old Testament account of the wilderness in view, a subtle allusion to Moses’ shared guilt and fate with the Exodus generation may be found in the author’s critique of “all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses” (Heb. 3:16). For unless he intended to draw attention to Moses’ inclusion in the group, the added phrase “led by Moses” seems unnecessary.
Osborne also misses the significance of the Old Testament background (in Hebrews?) in his definition of “rest” as “eternal life,” which leads him to conclude that to “fall short of [rest]” (4:1) means loss of “eternal life.” Yet there are many Old Testament individuals who failed to enter “rest” without forfeiting “eternal life.” First and foremost is Moses, who forfeited his right to enter “rest” (i.e., the Promised Land) due to unbelief (Num. 20:12) and rebellion (Num. 20:24) and yet is numbered among the “righteous men made perfect” in the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22–23; cf. 11:24–28). Hence the loss of “rest” in the present does not require exclusion from final eschatological “rest” in the future as Osborne suggests.
The Shaking of Earth and Heaven in Hebrews 12
To prove that the author of Hebrews is warning his Christian readers of final eschatological judgment if they fail to persevere, Osborne claims that the shaking of earth and heaven (Heb. 12:26–27) refers to the destruction of the present creation and its wicked inhabitants. Hence, he argues that the final warning in Hebrews 12:25–29 presents the readers with a choice to be either eternally “removed” or to “remain.” However, a final “cosmic catastrophe” bringing an end to the created universe is no longer assumed to be part of Jewish and early Christian eschatology by a growing number of scholars. Furthermore, in light of the author’s focus on the imminent demise of the sacrificial system (Heb. 8–10), it seems best to understand the “shaking of earth and heaven” as a symbolic description of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
This is confirmed in the following ways. First, the Jews considered the temple to be a microcosm of the Jewish cosmos—“the Gate of Heaven” and “the Navel of the Earth.”16 According to Josephus and Philo, the colors of the veil (Exod. 26:31; 36:35) were meant to symbolize the elements of the universe and the seven lamps to represent the seven “planets.” Hence, to enter beyond the temple veil into the Holy Place was to pass through the heavens into the very presence of God. This connection between temple and cosmos was such that the glory of the temple symbolized the stability of the Jewish world.
Second, the context of the citation from Haggai used in Hebrews 12:26 also suggests temple symbolism because the prophet declares that “the heavens and the earth” will be shaken in order to establish a greater, more glorious temple (Hag. 2:6–9). This is consistent with the use of temple symbolism throughout the Old Testament.
Third, cosmic imagery is used elsewhere in the New Testament to describe the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. For example, Jesus summarized his prediction of the temple’s destruction with the promise that “heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33).
Fourth, the author’s own use of cosmic symbolism throughout his epistle also indicates that the temple’s destruction is in view. For example, the author declares that the earthly tabernacle is “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5; cf. 9:23). Since the Holy Place typified “heaven,” the author declares that Jesus passed both “through the heavens” (4:14) and “through the veil” (10:19; cf. 6:19) to offer his sacrifice. This also explains why the author describes “heaven” in Hebrews 12:27 as something “made” (πεποιημένων) of this creation, like the Holy Place “made with hands” (χειροποίητα) spoken of in Hebrews 9:24. In this way, he distinguishes the symbol of “heaven” which is about to be shaken (i.e., the temple) from “heaven itself” (9:24), where the true Holy Place is found—“the perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, … not of this creation” (9:11). The “heavens” and “the earth” of Psalm 102 cited in Hebrews 1:10–12 also may refer to the Jerusalem temple since the psalm’s original purpose was to lament the destruction of Solomon’s temple. Notice the Jewish exiles in Babylon are reminded in the psalm that even though the “stones” of Zion lay in “dust” (Ps. 102:13–14), they should not despair. Even though “earth” and “heavens (i.e., the temple) … perish … [and] wear out,” yet “You endure”—“You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end” (Ps. 102:26–27 NASB). In a similar way the author of Hebrews appeals to Psalm 102 to assure his readers of the stability of Christ as they witness the demise of the Herodian temple. Rather than warn of the final destruction of the physical universe, the shaking of “heaven” and “earth” (Heb. 12:26) refers to “the removing of those things which can be shaken” (12:27 NASB), that is, the Jewish temple. This anticipates his final appeal to “go … outside the camp” (13:13) where Jesus suffered (13:11), that is, leave Jerusalem, “for here we do not have a lasting city” (13:14 NASB) since the earthly Jerusalem would soon be destroyed along with its temple.
The Example of Esau
Osborne’s description of Esau as “an unbeliever … rejected by God” (p. 123) is doubtful for several reasons. First, it draws too sharp a division between the scourging discipline of a son in Hebrews 12:5–10 and the example of Esau in the following paragraph (Heb. 12:14–17). The author argues that the painful discipline of God is meant to train us in righteousness “that we may share his holiness” (12:10). He then warns that one who “comes short” of this “grace” (12:15) may be “rejected” like Esau (12:17). By equating “grace” with salvation, Osborne uses Esau to illustrate how one can lose God’s “gracious salvation.” However, “grace” is not limited to final salvation in Hebrews but rather describes all that we receive without merit through Christ, including the “grace” that strengthens the “heart” (13:9) in times “of need” (4:16) and temptation (2:17–18). According to this broader sense, Hebrews 12:15 warns not against the loss of salvation but, as Westcott explains, against “falling behind [ὑστερῶν] … the movement of divine grace which meets and stirs the progress of the Christian.” Hence, Esau illustrates how the son who neglects such grace invites God’s discipline.
Second, the fact that “by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come” (Heb. 11:20 NASB) suggests that Esau, in spite of his irreverent behavior, was not cut off from “the age to come” (Heb. 6:5; cf. 13:14). Hence, though Esau forfeited the temporal blessings of his birthright, he did not lose his status as a genuine son. Therefore it seems best to interpret the verb “rejected” (ἀπεδοκιμάσθη) in a similar sense as its cognate (ἀδόκιμος) used by Paul to denote the danger of being “disqualified” as an apostle (1 Cor. 9:27). As Esau suffered the loss of his firstborn rights, Paul expresses his fear of losing his apostolic rights. Neither example warns of the loss of salvation, though both reinforce the cost of divine discipline.
Third, the failure of Esau was not a total and persistent repudiation of God and his redemptive work as Osborne suggests. For Esau grieved over the loss of his birthright and immediately sought another blessing (Gen. 27:34–38). Furthermore, in spite of Jacob’s deceit Esau eventually came to be reconciled to his brother. Therefore, Esau is not an example of an apostate who is forever excluded from the life to come because of his atheistic repudiation of God. Rather, he serves as a sober warning of divine discipline for covenant unfaithfulness.
Although Osborne is correct to dismiss the warnings as merely “the loss of rewards,” his view neglects the important nexus between the author’s covenantal language (i.e., διαθήκη is used seventeen times in Hebrews) and his examples of divine discipline drawn from the Old Testament. Though every relationship between God and his people was entered through faith in his promises, the blessings of that relationship were experienced by following the covenant stipulations. Disobedience to the stipulations not only resulted in the loss of covenant blessing but also incurred covenant discipline. However, these covenant stipulations never served as conditions to redemption but presupposed a faith response by those whom God had already graciously redeemed. According to this covenant framework, Hebrews warns against the threat of covenant discipline rather than the loss of salvation.
Osborne, G. R. (2007). A Classical Arminian View. In H. W. Bateman IV (Hrsg.), Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (S. 86–171). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional.