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The “apostacy” passage Hebrews 6:4–6 (compare Heb. 10:26–31) has historically been the focus of considerable theological and pastoral dispute.
The nub of the question is, can genuine believers lose their salvation? Some Christians reply affirmatively, though it is hard to square such affirmations with, for instance, the “golden chain” of Romans 8:29–30 or the unqualified assertions of John 6:39–40, 44. Some Christians have therefore suggested that what Hebrews envisages is not falling away from eternal life but falling away from useful service. On the face of it, the language of Hebrews 6 and 10 is sterner than that. Others postulate that the warning is merely hypothetical or even beneficial—a means of grace that guarantees believers will not apostatize. But if we know that, it is difficult to take the warning seriously, for we are assured in advance that the set of apostates is an empty set—and that makes the warning slightly ludicrous and not the desperately serious thing that the author of Hebrews thinks it is. Still others argue that elsewhere the New Testament may teach the perseverance and the preservation of the saints, but here it presupposes that some will fall away—and we must simply live with the tension, not to say contradiction.
My own view is that the issue turns on two points, with an important pastoral implication. First, it is not as if Hebrews teaches one thing and Paul and John another. Paul entreats Christians to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), yet constructs the golden chain. John warns that branches in Christ (the true vine) may be cut off (John 15:1–8), yet insists that Christ will preserve all those the Father has given him. There is therefore nothing useful to be gained by pitting Hebrews 6 against, say, John. It aligns very well with one element in John and Paul. Second, one must ask if the individual descriptions (“enlightened,” “tasted of the heavenly gift,” etc.) in Hebrews 6 and 10 require us to think of genuine Christians. The answer to this question is tied to our theology of conversion and to what is meant by “genuine Christian.” The New Testament gives many instances of people who taste enough of God’s grace to turn their lives around and join the visible church, even though they do not have the kind of grace that enables them to persevere. Even Hebrews 3:6, 14 presupposes as much. Under such a “tight” definition of genuine Christian, none falls away. The question then becomes, “Will you persevere? Is your experience of grace so light that you can walk away from the cross?”
What are the pastoral implications? The reflections suggest that the Bible provides wonderful reassurance to the weak and fainthearted, but threatens the openly defiant with a stern probing of the genuineness of their profession of faith.
Before they began their duties for the first time, the Levites were set apart by a ritual God himself established to “make them ceremonially clean” (Num. 8:5-14). The details need not concern us here. What we shall reflect on is the theological reasoning God gives for ordering things this way.
Part of it we have heard before: this is by way of review. God himself has “taken them as my own” (8:16), i.e., he has selected the Levites “from among the other Israelites” (8:6) to be peculiarly his, “in place of the firstborn, the first male offspring from every Israelite woman” (8:16). The rationale is reviewed: this stems from the Exodus, from the first Passover, when the firstborn of the Egyptians were struck down but not the firstborn sons of Israel (8:17-18).
But now a new element is introduced. God has “taken” the Levites to be peculiarly his, and, having “taken” them, he has also “given” them as “gifts” to Aaron and his sons, the chief priests, “to do the work at the Tent of Meeting on behalf of the Israelites and to make atonement for them so that no plague will strike the Israelites when they go near the sanctuary” (8:19). So God has “taken” them and then “given” them to his people.
Formally, of course, God has “given” them to Aaron and his sons, but since the work the Levites do is for the benefit of all Israel, there is a sense in which God has given the Levites to the entire nation. The pattern is spelled out again ten chapters later (Num. 18:5-7). God says to Aaron, “I myself have selected your fellow Levites from among the Israelites as a gift to you” (18:6).
The closest New Testament parallel is found in Ephesians 4. By his death and resurrection, Christ Jesus “led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8). The words are ostensibly quoted from Psalm 68:18, where the Hebrew text says that God received gifts from men. But it has been argued, rightly, that Psalm 68 assumes such themes as those in Numbers 8 and 18, and that in any case Paul is melding together both Numbers and Psalm 68 to make a point. Under the new covenant, Christ Jesus by his triumph has captured us, and to each one of us (Eph. 4:7) he has apportioned grace and then poured us back on the church as his “gifts to men.”
That is how we are to think of ourselves. We are Christ’s captives, captured from the race of rebellious image-bearers and now poured out as God’s “gifts to men.” That invests all our service with unimaginable dignity.
8:1 Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to Aaron and say to him, When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” 3 And Aaron did so: he set up its lamps in front of the lampstand, as the LORD commanded Moses. 4 And this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the LORD had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.
5 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Take the Levites from among the people of Israel and cleanse them. 7 Thus you shall do to them to cleanse them: sprinkle the water of purification upon them, and let them go with a razor over all their body, and wash their clothes and cleanse themselves. 8 Then let them take a bull from the herd and its grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and you shall take another bull from the herd for a sin offering. 9 And you shall bring the Levites before the tent of meeting and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. 10 When you bring the Levites before the LORD, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, 11 and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the LORD. 12 Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the LORD to make atonement for the Levites. 13 And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the LORD.
14 “Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. 15 And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. 16 For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. 17 For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, 18 and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel. 19 And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary.”
20 Thus did Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the people of Israel to the Levites. According to all that the LORD commanded Moses concerning the Levites, the people of Israel did to them. 21 And the Levites purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes, and Aaron offered them as a wave offering before the LORD, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them. 22 And after that the Levites went in to do their service in the tent of meeting before Aaron and his sons; as the LORD had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did to them.
23 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 24 “This applies to the Levites: from twenty-five years old and upward they1 shall come to do duty in the service of the tent of meeting. 25 And from the age of fifty years they shall withdraw from the duty of the service and serve no more. 26 They minister2 to their brothers in the tent of meeting by keeping guard, but they shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites in assigning their duties.”
44:1 O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm,
and the light of your face,
for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King, O God;
ordain salvation for Jacob!
5 Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
6 For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes
and have put to shame those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9 But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You have made us turn back from the foe,
and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock2 among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
16 at the sound of the taunter and reviler,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way;
19 yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
and covered us with the shadow of death.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
26 Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings,1 the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 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. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham,2 having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.