Preaching Heb. 6.1-8, part 2

November 7, 2013

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

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Hebrews 6:4–6 is the crux interpretum of 5:11–6:8, and really for the entire book. Critical for our interpretation and preaching of the passage is the question of just how vv. 4-6 connect to the previous paragraph 6:1-3. Semantically, the clause “Let us press on to maturity” in v. 1 is the focal point of vv. 1-3. Verse 4 begins a new sub-paragraph with a subordinating conjunction translated “for.” This conjunction indicates that vv. 4-6 will function as the grounds or reason for the statement in v. 3 “if God wills,” or perhaps even the grounds for the entire paragraph 6:1-3. Heb. 6:4-6 explains the reason why those who “fall away” cannot be renewed to repentance, namely, because God will not permit it. The final sub-paragraph is vv. 7-8, also introduced by the same subordinating conjunction as v 4. Here the author presents an illustration to explain further his intended meaning.

Hebrews 6:1–2 is one sentence in the Greek text with the imperative[1] “let us press on to maturity,” flanked on each side by two participles: “leaving behind the elementary teachings” and “not laying again a foundation.” To “leave” connotes the idea of to leave something behind in order to pass on to something else. That which is left is the “elementary teachings” about Christ. The meaning here is not that of abandoning the basic teachings of Christianity, but rather the necessity of recognizing the foundational character of these teachings and thus the impropriety of continually going over the same ground. The readers, including the author (“we”), are exhorted to move on to another level, a level commensurate with those who are spiritually mature.

The clause “not laying again the foundation” is the negative expression of the positive concepts “leaving” and “pressing on.” The goal is “maturity” and pressing on is the means by which the goal is reached. The verb “to press on” indicates swift and energetic movement. Most likely the verb should be taken as passive, suggesting God as the one who moves the readers along to the desired goal. Christians are dependent upon God and his grace to enable them to press forward to maturity.

The meaning of the six statements in vv. 1-2 need not detain us here. They are best categorized into three groups of pairs, possibly arranged temporally, with the first pair focusing on the past, the second pair focusing on the present, and the third pair focusing on the future.

Verse 3 is a somewhat enigmatic statement, often overlooked or given an anemic treatment by commentators. What does the writer mean by stating: “this we will do, if God permits”? The key question here is the antecedent of “this.” Contextually, the antecedent of “this” is the imperative in v. 1 – “press on to maturity.” Since the two participles “leaving . . . and not laying again . . .”  are semantically connected to the main verb “let us press on,” they are pulled into its orbit and constitute the antecedent reference to “this” in v. 3. The force of the Greek and the connection of v. 3 to v. 1 can be seen if we consider v. 2 a parenthesis for the moment and thus translate: “Let us press on to maturity, . . . and this we will do, if God permits.” It is essential to treat vv. 1–3 as a unit for translation purposes and to show that v. 3 refers back to “pressing forward to maturity.”

The question of whether God will “permit” the readers to press on to maturity is crucial to our understanding of 6:4–6. This statement in v. 3 most likely harks back to what was said in Hebrews 3–4 and the reference to the exodus generation’s disobedience in the wilderness and subsequent consequence of God’s judgment: namely, they were not “permitted” to enter Canaan. Because the writer has in mind what he had written in Hebrews 3–4, he makes the statement “this we will do, God permitting.” This is followed by the subordinating conjunction gar, “for,” in v. 4. The sense is: we will press on to maturity if God permits, for we know about those (the wilderness generation) whom God did not permit to press on and enter the Promised Land.

Having examined the overall structure of Hebrews 6:1-8, our approach in this series of posts will be to: (1) determine the syntax of the individual participial clauses, especially those in vv. 4-6 (2) determine the meaning of the four participial clauses in vv. 4–5 and the meaning of the two participial clauses following the infinitive in v. 6, (3) determine the spiritual condition of those described by the four participial clauses in vv. 4–5, (4) determine the meaning of the participle parapesontas (“falling away”) in v. 6, (5) determine what is meant by “impossible to renew to repentance,” (6) determine if this text is related to the Kadesh-Barnea episode, as was the case in Hebrews 3–4, or has other Old Testament echoes or allusions, and (7) synthesize this data into an interpretive theological framework.

We are now well on our way to interpreting Hebrews 6:1-8 in preparation for preaching it!


[1] The verb is a hortatory subjunctive in Greek, but functions with imperatival force.

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