When a 22-year old decides to change jobs it normally doesn’t make the news. But when you’re in the Army, and you’re in the middle of Afghanistan, you don’t get to quit without consequences.
In June 2009, then PFC Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban under questionable circumstances. He was later released in 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members. However, the trade proved to be politically unpopular and there was an uproar. Rumors spread that now Sergeant Bergdahl was a traitor who abandoned his unit. On March 25, 2015, the U.S. Army charged him with desertion. If he’s found guilty, Bergdahl could face several serious consequences including a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank, forfeiture of the pay he was owed while captured (over $300,000), and five years in prison.
Some decisions can’t be taken back, no matter how much you may want to.
In Heb 5:11–6:12, the Hebrews were about to make an irrevocable decision.
In a previous article I explored the first two warning passages in Hebrews.1 I won’t repeat the conclusions I came to except to briefly say the letter was written to Jewish believers who were drifting back into Judaism and the author of Hebrews wrote to remind them of Christ’s superiority over the Mosaic system. He warned them that apostatizing would mean losing the blessings of being the Lord’s companions (co-rulers) in the Messianic kingdom and of enjoying the Millennial rest (which refers to sharing in Messiah’s reign in His kingdom). The first two warning passages cannot be understood apart from the Messianic kingdom. That is also true of Heb 5:11–6:12.
The Order of Melchizedek
If you wrote out a list of Biblical truths that were necessary to grow spiritually, what would it include? Justification by faith? Substitutionary atonement? Eternal rewards? The divinity of Christ? Regeneration? Repentance? Loving your neighbor?
Would you mention anything about Melchizedek?
But the author of Hebrews did. The third warning is preceded by the doctrine that Jesus was both the Messianic King (cf. Ps 2:7) and a high priest “according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:10; cf. Ps 110:4).
In other words, Jesus had a right to both the throne and the altar.
We know a great deal about the Messianic kingship. Unfortunately, we do not know very much about the Melchizedekian priesthood.
Abraham met a priest-king named Melchizedek whose priesthood was prior to and completely distinct from the one given to Aaron (Gen 14:18-20; cf. Ps 110:4). Since Jesus was of Judah (not of Levi or Aaron), He didn’t qualify as a Levitical priest. So how could the author of Hebrews say that Jesus was a high priest? The answer is that He was called to the royal Melchizedekian priesthood.2
What is that? Who was Melchizedek? Where did he come from? How did he become king? Where did he get his priesthood? What kind of priesthood was it?
The author of Hebrews wanted to tell them all about it. We have a great deal to say about this, he wrote. However, it was difficult to explain (5:11a HCSB). There was something about the Melchizekedian priesthood the Hebrews needed to learn about in order to mature spiritually (see Hebrews 7). However, the Hebrews weren’t ready because they had become dull of hearing (5:11b). Another translation says, “you have become too lazy to understand” (emphasis added, HCSB).
They were dull. Lazy. They wouldn’t listen. Their love for the Word had grown cold. They were no longer interested in learning.
They weren’t always that way.
The author said they had become dull. Why? Maybe they stopped listening because of the social pressures from their unbelieving Jewish family. Or maybe it was due to the persecution they were facing. Whatever the reason, the Hebrew believers were in arrested development. They needed to move from babyhood to become teachers. So the author challenged them to press on to maturity…And this we will do if God permits (6:1, 3). It was a challenge and a warning. They could only grow with God’s help. But the way they were headed—back into Judaism—suggested that, instead of permitting them to mature, God might have to take a very different course of action.
The Danger of Not Maturing
If the Hebrews did not press on to maturity, if, instead, they continued slipping back into Judaism, they needed to be aware of the irrevocable consequences that would follow.
As believers, they had enjoyed God’s blessings. The Hebrews were enlightened, meaning they understood and believed the message of life (e.g., John 3:16; 3:36; 5:24; Eph 2:8-9). They had tasted the heavenly gift, an experience just as real as when Jesus “tasted” death for all humanity (2:9). They had become partakers of the Holy Spirit, having a vital relationship with Him. They had tasted the good word of God, with its living power to convict and transform (4:12). And they had also tasted the powers of the age to come, a common term for the Messianic kingdom.
However, being regenerate did not make them immune from falling away. Just think of Moses and Aaron and the first generation of Israelites. Many of them were believers. But they still rebelled against God and paid the penalty for it.
Similarly, the author warned the Hebrews that if they fall away, it would be impossible…to renew them again to repentance (Heb 6:6a).
Why would it be impossible to renew them again to repentance? What does that mean?
Reading Heb 12:17 shows us the answer. There we read about what happened to Esau after he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew:
You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears (Heb 12:17 NLT, emphasis added).
Esau made a bad deal, but the deed was done. It was too late for him to repent. His decision was irrevocable. His blessing was gone forever and he had to live with the consequences.
That is how we should understand Heb 6:4-6.
If the Hebrews fell away, they couldn’t be renewed to repentance. It would be too late to avoid the consequences of their decision. There would be no turning back, no chance for renewal, no way to recover the blessings they forfeited, and no way to avoid the judgment (temporal and Judgment Seat of Christ) to come.3 As the author later warned, if the Hebrews did not persevere in the faith, they would lose the reward that should have been theirs, and that God promised to give:
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised (10:35-36 NLT, emphasis added).
When Judgment Is Inevitable
If the Hebrews fell away, they would be liable to judgment. Period. The author used an agricultural analogy to illustrate the consequences of apostasy:
For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned (Heb 6:7-8).
The earth is the believer. That much is clear. However, people see the words cursed and burned and immediately think of hell (or the lake of fire), as if the Hebrews might lose their salvation and be eternally lost.
That can’t be.
Everlasting life is something that God gives apart from works. He will not later take it away because we haven’t worked enough.
Jesus said that believers will never perish (John 3:16) and that no one can snatch them out of His or the Father’s hands (John 10:28-29). Never. No one. Believers are eternally secure.
So what does it mean to be cursed and burned? It refers to God’s judgment in this life and at the Bema.
The agricultural analogy should remind us of the warning Paul (who many think authored Hebrews) gave to the Corinthians about gaining and losing eternal rewards:
If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15, emphasis added).
The author of Hebrews suggested that believers can be good land that produces fruit and receives blessing from God (i.e., gains eternal rewards) or bad land that produces thorns and gets rejected and burned (i.e., loses eternal rewards). Likewise, Paul warned the Corinthians that believers could also produce two types of works: good works that would be rewarded and bad works that would be rejected and burned up.4
The language of having our works burned is not necessarily a reference to eternal punishment in the lake of fire, but to losing rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.5
God’s Temporal Judgment
However, the image of burning the land may also refer to a future temporal judgment the Hebrews would experience if they apostatized.
The Old Testament often portrayed God’s temporal judgment on Israel as a burning fire.
For example, in Lamentations, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is described this way:
He has cut off in fierce anger Every horn of Israel; He has drawn back His right hand From before the enemy. He has blazed against Jacob like a flaming fire Devouring all around. Standing like an enemy, He has bent His bow; With His right hand, like an adversary, He has slain all who were pleasing to His eye; On the tent of the daughter of Zion, He has poured out His fury like fire (Lam 2:3-4, emphasis added).
Despite the fiery imagery, we know that Israel wasn’t condemned to hell. God’s “flaming fire” referred to the temporal destruction of Jerusalem and to Israel’s exile in Babylon.
Similarly, Jesus warned Jerusalem about their impending destruction through a parable:
“But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city” (Matt 22:7, emphasis added).
Burning the city did not refer to eternal condemnation in the lake of fire. It was a warning about God’s temporal judgment against Jerusalem, which came to pass when the Romans destroyed the city in AD 70.
So when the author of Hebrews warned that God’s “fiery indignation… will devour the adversaries’ (Heb 10:27), that “God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29), and that if they returned to Judaism, their end was to be burned, he was warning the Hebrews that God would severely punish them for their apostasy, just as He did to Israel, up to, and including, physical death.
The author may even have been warning them specifically about God’s judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the possibility these Hebrews would share in it. If they rejected Christ and returned to Judaism it would be as if they were crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace (6:6b). If they rejected Christ and chose to side with unbelieving Israel, they would share Israel’s punishment for rejecting and crucifying the Messiah. As Zane Hodges commented, “Their apostasy would be like stepping back over the line again and once more expressing solidarity with their compatriots who wanted Jesus put on the cross.”6 As such, the Hebrews became liable to temporal judgment with the rest of the nation.
Hebrews 5:11–6:12 is not a warning to believers that they may end up in hell. Nor is it a warning to false professors that they may not be saved if they don’t truly believe. This is a warning to Jewish believers in Christ. If they apostatized, and returned to Judaism, they would be subject to God’s judgment, both in this life and at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Once made, their decision would be irrevocable. They would lose their blessings. There would be no chance for renewal. There would be no going back.
Time will tell if Sergeant Bergdahl is found guilty of desertion. Assuming he is, do you think he would make the same choice if he foresaw all the trouble it would get him into?
Do you think a believer would be more eager to grow into maturity if they knew the consequences of falling away from the faith?
If you or someone you know is close to walking away from Christ, will you warn them? They may not realize how much is at stake.
1. Shawn Lazar, “The First Two Warning Passages in Hebrews,” GIF (March/April 2015).
2. Homer A. Kent, Jr., The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1972), 96.
3. R. Mark Musser, Wrath or Rest: Saints in the Hands of an Angry God (Advantage Books, 2010), 164.
4. Editor’s note: It is possible that the issue in 1 Cor 3:10-15 is not precisely good works versus bad works. Instead the issue might be works with eternal value versus works lacking eternal value. The works represented by wood, hay, and straw may be things that are neither sinful nor eternally valuable. This could include like time spent in leisure activities like golfing, hunting, fishing, attending sporting events, etc. While there may be some work of eternal value accomplished during leisure time, there is surely much which lacks eternal value. However, Shawn’s point stands either way.
5. Jody Dillow, Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings (The Woodlands, TX: Grace Theology Press, 2013), 656.
6. Zane C. Hodges, “Hebrews,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, eds. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1983), 795.