Interpreting & Preaching Hebrews 6.1-8, part 10
by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Click the links below to read previous posts of
Preaching & Interpreting Hebrews 6.1-8.
This is the final post in our 10-part series. Today we look at how to structure a sermon on Hebrews 6:1-8 based on the exegesis of the passage in the previous posts.
Text-driven preaching attempts to respect the structure, substance, and spirit of the text. The spirit of the text is a one of warning. Heb 6:1-8 is the third of five warning passages in the letter. The substance of the text is the necessity to press on to spiritual maturity and the consequences to the believer who fails to do so. The structure of the text consists in three sub-paragraphs with the main point emphasized by the author in the hortatory subjunctive in Greek (“let us press on”) in the first paragraph. The sub-paragraph beginning at v.4 and again at v.7 are both introduced by the subordinating conjunction gar, indicating that the main point of the entire passage is found in the first sub-paragraph, vv. 1-3.
In light of the structure in the Greek text, preachers should think in terms of outlining the passage along the following semantic lines:
Grounds for Exhortation (4-6)
Since an exhortation semantically outweighs anything else in a text, vv. 1-3 function as the most dominant verses in the passage. I have visually illustrated this by indenting the two sub-paragraphs underneath “Exhortation.” Verses 1-3 communicate the main point the author seeks to make: press on to maturity. The next two sub-paragraphs are subordinated to vv. 1-3 by means of a subordinating conjunction.
Thus, structurally, Heb 6:1-8 contains one main point (encoded in the first sub-paragraph) and two sub-points (encoded in the second and third sub-paragraph).
This illustrates why it is vital to preach the entire eight verses as a unit. It is not possible to interpret properly vv. 4-6, the most troubling portion of the passage, without understanding its position and role in the overall context of the paragraph.
Verses 4-6 modify vv. 1-3 by providing the grounds for the exhortation. The main point of the passage is not vv. 4-6 but vv. 1-3. This needs to be carefully stressed and clearly brought out in the sermon structure. The three sub-paragraphs are not equally coordinated with each other. The text does not express three main points each found in the three sub-paragraphs respectively. The text presents one main point in vv. 1-3: “Let us press on to maturity,” and this is supported by two sub-points in two-sub-paragraphs.
In preaching this passage, the congregation will be lost if you do not make clear this big picture of the overall structure and meaning. Minds will muddle as they lose their way, like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the cave, amidst the six phrases in three groups of two in vv. 1-2, the seven participles in vv. 4-6, and the unusual illustration in vv. 7-8. In preaching this passage, you must help the people not miss the forest for the trees.
That means you cannot get bogged down in spending too much time on the six phrases mentioned in v. 2. The author doesn’t; neither should you. Briefly explain them and move on. The point the author is trying to make is the necessity of pressing on to maturity and not spending time going over and over the ground of the basics of Christian doctrine. If you spend too much time on these phrases in vv. 1-2, you will be inadvertently doing for your hearers just what the author does not want them to do!
In explaining the meaning of 6:4-6, 1) show the connection with 1-3, 2) note that the five statements are packaged together by the author and refer to one group of people: believers, and 3) carefully explain the meaning of “falling away” in v. 6.
Then move to vv. 7-8. Point out they serve to illustrate what the author has been saying. Note there is only one land that is capable of producing either fruit or no fruit; not two different kinds of land. The issue is believers should press on to maturity and reflect that in fruit bearing, but they are also capable of failing to press on as they should, and to do so invites God’s discipline in their lives. Make clear the issue in the entire passage is not loss of salvation.
Be careful in how you illustrate and apply this passage. Remember, you always have at least three kinds of people in your church: 1) members who are unsaved; 2) members who are saved but not pressing on to maturity; 3) members who are saved and who are pressing on to maturity. It is well-nigh impossible sometimes to distinguish between groups one and two. Point out in the sermon that the author is warning those in group two whom he considers to be genuine believers.
But you might also point out that it is always possible for unsaved people to be members of the church. Church membership is no guarantee of salvation. Though Heb 6:1-8 is not addressing them specifically, you can still point out that conversion is necessary to be a Christian. If someone is a church member for years and there is no spiritual fruit whatsoever in their life, the likelihood is you are dealing with someone who was never truly converted.
One final suggestion. Since there are four major interpretations of this controversial passage, I would suggest you list and briefly state each one in your sermon. You can then express to your people which interpretation you think best fits the context and preach the passage in that way.
Though Heb 6:1-8 is difficult to preach, it is vital that it be preached . . . in a text-driven way!
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