Is Apostasy Irreversible? On Hebrews 6:1-8

Hebrews 6:1-8 is a difficult passage which has divided commentators. Is it speaking of truly converted believers falling away? And is the “falling away” in question irreversible? I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to these questions, but my aim here is to situate this passage in its original Jewish context, which sheds some light on the historical situation being considered.

The Elementary Doctrines

The passage begins with the author describing a series of foundational doctrines which the audience needs to move beyond (v1-2). He lists six doctrines, namely:

  1. “Repentance from dead works”
  2. “Faith toward God”
  3. “Instruction about washings”
  4. “The laying on of hands”
  5. “The resurrection of the dead”
  6. “Eternal judgement”

Given that the intended audience of the letter in question is Jewish, it would make sense for each of these doctrines to be standard teachings of first century Judaism. And all of them are, provided one takes “washings” to refer to Jewish ceremonial washings and “the laying on of hands” to refer to acts of consecration such as the ordination of priests, or the setting apart of sacrificial animals.[1]

Why would the author refer to these beliefs and practices as “the elementary doctrine of Christ”? I think this has to do with the fact that in the book of Hebrews, Jesus is viewed as the fulfilment of the law and all its ceremonies. This is seen most clearly in chapters 8-10 of the letter, in which the author explains in great detail how Jesus fulfils the role of the high priest, particularly as seen in the rituals of the Day of Atonement. So then, these “elementary doctrines” are Jewish doctrines.

The Light of the New Covenant

This list of “elementary” doctrines is contrasted in verses 4-5 with a series of experiences. These are listed below:

  1. “Been enlightened”
  2. “Tasted the heavenly gift”
  3. “Shared in the Holy Spirit”
  4. “Tasted the goodness of the word of God”
  5. “[Tasted] the powers of the age to come”

All of these are ways of speaking about the blessings of the new covenant, contrasted with the old covenant realities spoken of previously. Those who have been “enlightened” are those who have entered into the light of the new covenant and tasted of the resurrection life which is available to all believers under the new covenant, the life of the Holy Spirit.

Why is the author drawing this contrast between old and new covenants? He does it to show the superiority of the new covenant over the old covenant. Who, having experienced the blessings of the new would want to return to the old? The answer, implicitly, is some of those reading the letter. The author is warning his audience that to reject the new thing that God has done in Christ and to fall back onto the “elementary doctrines” of the old covenant as a rejection of Christ would be extremely foolish.

The Transience of the Old Covenant

Based upon all of this then, the permanence of the apostasy in question has to do with a unique set of circumstances particular to first century Judaism. When verse 6 refers to those who have “fallen away” after experiencing the new covenant realities, it’s speaking specifically of Jews who fall back upon the old covenant ceremonies as part of their rejection of Christ. The reference to them “crucifying once again the Son of God” may be an allusive nod to the irony of using ceremonies intended to depict gospel realities in place of a living faith in the gospel.

Those who clung to the old ceremonies and refused to embrace Christ would find themselves left behind. Not only would they miss out on the blessings of the new covenant – the presence of the Holy Spirit and the joy of the gospel – but even those ceremonies in which they trusted would disappoint them. In 70 AD, the armies of Titus Vespasian burned down the city of Jerusalem and its temple. Those who rejected the life which Christ offered and clung to old covenant ceremonies lost not only the hope of eternal life, but even lost access to the old realities in which they trusted.

“For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
(Hebrews 6:7-8)

[1] Some take the “washings” to refer to Christian baptism and the “laying on of hands” to refer either to an early rite of confirmation or to the consecration of church leaders. However, “washings” in this verse is a plural noun so it makes most sense as a reference to old covenant cleansing rites. Given this, the “laying on of hands” is likely a similarly generic reference, incorporating a number of different old covenant consecration rites.

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