Monday, November 15, 2004
A while back I heard a very stimulating conference lecture on the subject of Hebrews 6. The speaker argued that Hebrews 6 is referring, not to Christians, or to secretly unregenerate individuals within the Christian church, but to the Israel of the writer's day. I found the argument very interesting and I believe that it makes a good deal of sense when read in such a redemptive historical manner, although there are a number of loose ends that need to be tied up. I have also seen a number of things that can be added to his argument to support it. There are clear suggestions in the passage that Jews are being referred to, not least in the reference to crucifying Christ again (v.6). Much of the thrust of the passage has to do with pressing on towards perfection. 'Perfection' is a recurring theme within Hebrews and generally carries a redemptive historical force (e.g. Hebrews 2:10; 5:9; 11:40). The people that the book of Hebrews is addressing should have already have become teachers, but they need to be taught again the stoichea and have not attained to the true knowledge of good and evil (5:12-14). There seems to be something of a redemptive historical dimension to this. The author of Hebrews wants to move beyond the very rudimentary teachings about Christ, teachings which barely remove the Hebrew Christians from non-believing Jews who live around them. Teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment were hardly distinctively Christian. Indeed, one might well argue that the author is referring to OT teachings (cf. Hebrews 9:9-15). The author of Hebrews wishes to more clearly distinguish the faith of Christians from that of unbelieving Jews, something that he goes on to do in the following chapters. Verses 4-8 then refer to the unbelieving Jews of their generation. These Jews had been enlightened by the Person and ministry of Jesus Christ (e.g. John 3:19; 9:5; 12:46) and by the witness of the disciples. They had tasted the heavenly gift (e.g. John 3:16; 4:10). They had experienced the Holy Spirit in their midst and had been the beneficiaries of His ministry (Matthew 12:28). The Holy Spirit had been given to Israel at Pentecost and unbelieving Israel had rejected the work of the Spirit through the Church. They had the word of God preached to them in a manner that has been enjoyed by no other group of people. The Incarnate Son Himself spoke in their houses and in their fields. If any group of people had known the powerful deeds of the coming age, Israel had (cf. Hebrews 2:4). Many signs and wonders heralding the kingdom of God had been performed in their sight. Despite all these great privileges, that generation of Jews was one that fell away, stumbling at the stumbling stone of Jesus Christ and rejecting Him. Not only did they reject Christ the first time by crucifying Him; they also rejected Christ in His second visitation through the ministry of the early Church. Here I think of Luke Timothy Johnson's 'two visitation' hypothesis and the manner in which the sufferings of the early Church are described in a manner that is designed to draw our attention to the parallels with the suffering of Christ Himself (e.g. Acts 7:54-60; 12:3-19). These descriptions also seem to punctuate sections of the narrative and draw our attention to the final rejection of the apostolic witness by the Jews. The Jews of those days were putting the faithful Christians, and by extension Christ Himself, to an open shame and disgrace (e.g. Acts 5:41; Hebrews 13:13). Israel had received plentiful blessings but had rejected them, becoming, as a result, cursed by God (cf. Genesis 3:17-18). Israel had brought forth thorns and briers (cf. Isaiah 5:6) and had rejected the One who bore this curse on the land as a crown on His forehead. Israel according to the flesh was not going to be restored as God's special people again, but only had a 'fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation' (Hebrews 10:27) facing her. If this is a correct interpretation, it fits in very nicely with some of the interpretations of the parable of the Sower. N.T. Wright (in JVG pp.230ff.) and James Jordan (in 'Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration') have argued for the possibility of a redemptive historical reading of the parable (though not to the exclusion of other readings). Prophecies of return from exile often talk about God's Word going out and being sown (e.g. Isaiah 55:10-13 — Wright gives many more OT verses in the footnotes of JVG p.232-3). Jesus compares His ministry to that of Isaiah (Matthew 13:14-15). Isaiah was ministering in a day when a vineyard full of briers and thorns faced the prospect of curse, exile and final burning (Isaiah 5-6). If Hebrews 6:7-8 refers particularly to the Jews of the first century, then we find another possible support for the argument that the reference to seeds falling among thorns refer to them too. Thoughts?