Lesson 8: How To Fall Away

Recall that in chapter 1, the author provided evidence for Jesus’ superiority over the angels: “having become as much better than the angles, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they” (Hebrews 1.4). Having established this fact, the author this warning: “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2.1). But the author wasn’t done, for after showing Jesus’ superiority to Moses, he repeated the warning: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” More recently in our study, we noted how Israel failed to enter the Lord’s rest because of their unbelief. Thus, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4.9). But to enter that rest we must “be diligent… so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4.11). 

It’s clear that the author was concerned that his Jewish brethren might repeat the mistake of their ancestors and fall away. In fact, he was aware that some had already fallen away (Hebrews 6.6), thus in this passage he exhorts his readers lest they also fall away. As we examine the text, let’s note how a Christian could fall away…

Step 1: Stop Listening (Hebrews 5.11-14)

The high priesthood of Jesus is a very important concept. His work on our behalf is what gives us confidence that we can enter the Lord’s rest; He allows us draw near to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4.14-16). The author had more to say about Jesus’ priesthood, in particular the fact that His priesthood is after the order of Melchizedek, but the author knew that his audience wasn’t ready for it… because they had “become dull of hearing” (Hebrews 5.11). The NIV reads, “you no longer try to understand”, the NASB202 reads, “you have become poor listeners.” The problem wasn’t their ability, but their willingness!

They had the ability to teach others, in fact they should have progressed to that point. But because of their “dull hearing” they still needed to be taught “the elementary principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5.12). Their lack of progress was even more severe than many of our translations may indicate: “Writers used stoicheia to refer to basic elements of the alphabet or the most basic, fundamental concepts in education. Thus, we might, with the NEB translation, think of the term as used in Hebrews 5:12 as meaning ‘the ABCs of God’s Word.’”

They weren’t the only Christians who failed to progress from milk to meat, for Paul used the same imagery to rebuke the saints in Corinth (see 1Corinthians 3.2). Milk is good and has its place, but their failure to progress to meat meant they were “not accustomed to the word of righteousness” and had not been “trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5.13-14). Their listening problems had serious consequences and could result in their falling away!

Step 2: Get Hung-up On Elementary Principles (Hebrews 6.1-3)

Since the problem wasn’t their ability, but their willingness, the author is hopeful that he can move on to teachings which would promote their maturity. Thus, his intention was to leave “elementary teaching about the Christ” and not lay “again a foundation…”. Implied is the audience’s willingness, even desire to stay focused on these elementary principles. Perhaps they thought they were sufficient or more interesting. But their failure to move on was hurting their growth!

What are the foundational principles the author hoped to move on from? Each seems to relate to their former life in Judaism.

  • repentance from dead works: forgiveness from dead works is possible only in Christ, not through the Law (see Hebrews 9.10,14).
  • faith toward God: the ability to draw near to God through faith is the Christians (see Hebrews 10.22). 
  • washings: literally “baptisms” but the term is used of Jewish cleansing rites in Hebrews 9.10)
  • laying on of hands: part of the OT sacrificial system, in particular when the high priest laid his hands on the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement.
  • resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment: perhaps related to differing views of the Sadducees and Pharisees regarding the resurrection. Note Hebrews 9.27. 

The fact that all of these matters related to aspects of Judaism shows that these brethren were still fixated on their past, perhaps they had not firmly grappled with these foundational concepts or they simply enjoyed discussing them. It was time to move on!

Step 3: Forget The Blessings You’ve Experienced (Hebrews 6.4-8

The author makes a rather startling statement regarding those who’ve fallen away: “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (Hebrews 6.6). The impossibility does not lie with Jesus who serves as our faithful high priest (see Hebrews 4.14-16). Rather, the impossibility lies with their rejection of Jesus: “the apostate repudiates the only basis upon which repentance can be extended. To repudiate Christ is to embrace the ‘impossible.’” (Lane, Word Biblical Commentary). Their repudiation of Christ is shown by the fact that “they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame”. “In 13:13 the author notes the proper stance of a Christian, a stance that constitutes standing with Christ, bearing his disgrace. Thus believers are challenged to follow the example of the Lord, who “scorned [the] shame” of the cross (12:2). The apostates used as a negative example in Hebrews 6:4–8, however, have reversed this position, instead standing with those who used the cross, the ultimate instrument of public shame in the Greco-Roman world, to crucify Christ.” (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary)

These weren’t loosely affiliated people who repudiated the Lord, but those who had “tasted” (i.e. experienced) all of the blessings of Christ (vss. 4-5). They had received all the blessings the Lord had to offer, but rather than producing fruit they yielded thorns and thistles. Falling away will certainly result from a lack of appreciation of God’s blessings.

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