- Locate the passage.
Hebrews 6:1-8 is the third of five so called “warning passages.” Contextually, Heb 6:1–8 connects closely with Heb 5:11–14. Heb 6:1–8 should be taken together as a semantic unit. Hebrews 6:9 marks a new paragraph with the use of the vocative agapētoi and the Greek conjunction de, “But.”
Hortatory. Note the imperatival statement in 6:1 – “Let us press on to maturity.”
- Determine the structure of the text
There are three sub-paragraphs that make up Heb 6:1–8: 1–3, 4–6, and 7–8. The first sub-paragraph is introduced with the conjunction dio, “therefore,” and this governs the entire eight verses, serving to connect them closely with Heb 5:11–14. Verses 4–6 are introduced with the subordinating conjunction gar, translated “for.” Verses 7–8 likewise begin with gar and are subordinate to the previous sub-paragraph. The theme of these verses, as clearly stated in v. 1, is the exhortation “let us press on to maturity.” Notice this continues the spiritual immaturity/maturity theme begun in Heb 5:11–14.
- Exegete the passage
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 “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 key section of Hebrews 6:1-8 which causes so much angst for preachers is the middle sub-paragraph 6:4-6. Before we can begin to think about how to outline and preach this passage, we must untangle the Greek syntactical structure. Heb 6:4-6 comprises one sentence in Greek. The subject of the sentence actually does not appear until v. 6 — the infinitive phrase translated “to renew again unto repentance.” The predicate is an understood linking verb translated “is” followed by the predicate nominative “impossible,” which is the first word in v. 4 of the Greek text. The main clause of the entire three verse sentence thus reads: “To renew again unto repentance is impossible,” or to put it in a clearer way: “It is impossible to renew [them] again unto repentance.”
The question then is who is being referred to; who is it impossible to renew to repentance? Asked in another way, what is the direct object of the infinitive “to renew”? The direct object is actually five participles in vv. 4–6a grouped together by the Greek accusative plural article translated “those who.” The sense is “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who . . .” and then follow five participles describing and defining the people to whom the author refers.
They are said to be those (1) “who have once been enlightened,” (2) “who have tasted the heavenly gift,” (3) “who have shared in the Holy Spirit,” (4) “who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age,” (5) and “who have fallen away.” Thus, to this point, the sentence reads: “It is impossible to renew again to repentance those who have been once enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift . . . and who have fallen away.” In v. 6, the infinitive phrase translated “to be brought back to repentance” is followed by two adverbial participial phrases translated “because they are recrucifying the Son of God and subjecting him to public disgrace.” These two participles define the cause or reason for the impossibility of repentance.
The first major exegetical question has to do with the nature of the five participles in vv. 4–6: are they to be construed as adjectival (substantival) or adverbial? The first four participles are easily identified as substantival participles since they are governed by the article tous in v. 4. Grammatically, an articular participle rules out the adverbial (circumstantial) usage. The key question has to do with the fifth participle in the list, parapesontas translated “falling away:” is it substantival or adverbial? Many construe this participle to be adverbial because of its distance from the article and its negative connotation whereas the other four participles express positive notions. It is sometimes given a conditional translation as in the NIV: “if they fall away,” a temporal translation as in the NRSV and the NASB: “then have fallen away,” or a simple adverbial rendering “falling away.”
Although the adverbial usage is certainly possible in this context, it seems much better, on grammatical and semantic grounds, to interpret parapesontas as parallel to the previous four participles. There are three key clues that point in this direction. First, the use of the article in v. 4 at the very least clearly governs the first four participles, and there is no reason to think it does not modify the fifth as well. All five participles in Greek are in the accusative case, masculine in gender and plural in number. All five function as the direct objects of the infinitive translated “to renew again.”
The second clue is the use of the Greek conjunctions te…kai…kai…kai linking the five participles. These are often overlooked by those who assign an adverbial meaning to the fifth participle “falling away.” This use of parallel conjunctions serves to bind these participles together as a unit.
The third semantic clue that these participles are to be viewed as substantival in nature is their bracketing within a single clause which serves to “package” them into a single unit.
The significance of this for interpretation is two-fold. First, the five participles identify and describe one group of people. Second, since the participle is not adverbial, it cannot be given a conditional or temporal translation. Whether the group described in 6:4–6a should be identified with genuine believers or not is a question that awaits examination of the meaning of each participial phrase in vv. 4–5 and the interpretation of parapesontas in v. 6.
For more detailed exegetical data on this text, see Neva Miller, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Analytical and Exegetical Handbook, 160-78; J. Harold Greenlee, Hebrews: An Exegetical Summary, 184-203; and David L. Allen, Hebrews, 339-93.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon.
Text-driven preaching attempts to respect the structure, substance, and spirit of the text. The spirit of the text is a one of warning. Heb 6:1-8 is the third of five warning passages in the letter. The substance of the text is the necessity to press on to spiritual maturity and the consequences to the believer who fails to do so. The structure of the text consists in three sub-paragraphs with the main point emphasized by the author in the hortatory subjunctive in Greek (“let us press on”) in the first paragraph. The sub-paragraph beginning at v.4 and again at v.7 are both introduced by the subordinating conjunction gar, indicating that the main point of the entire passage is found in the first sub-paragraph, vv. 1-3.
In light of the structure in the Greek text, preachers should think in terms of outlining the passage along the following semantic lines:
Grounds for Exhortation (4-6)
Since an exhortation semantically outweighs anything else in a text, vv. 1-3 function as the most dominant verses in the passage. I have visually illustrated this by indenting the two sub-paragraphs underneath “Exhortation.” Verses 1-3 communicate the main point the author seeks to make: press on to maturity. The next two sub-paragraphs are subordinated to vv. 1-3 by means of a subordinating conjunction.
Thus, structurally, Heb 6:1-8 contains one main point (encoded in the first sub-paragraph) and two sub-points (encoded in the second and third sub-paragraph).
This illustrates why it is vital to preach the entire eight verses as a unit. It is not possible to interpret properly vv. 4-6, the most troubling portion of the passage, without understanding its position and role in the overall context of the paragraph.
Verses 4-6 modify vv. 1-3 by providing the grounds for the exhortation. The main point of the passage is not vv. 4-6 but vv. 1-3. This needs to be carefully stressed and clearly brought out in the sermon structure. The three sub-paragraphs are not equally coordinated with each other. The text does not express three main points each found in the three sub-paragraphs respectively. The text presents one main point in vv. 1-3: “Let us press on to maturity,” and this is supported by two sub-points in two-sub-paragraphs.
In preaching this passage, the congregation will be lost if you do not make clear this big picture of the overall structure and meaning. Minds will muddle as they lose their way amidst the six phrases in three groups of two in vv. 1-2, the seven participles in vv. 4-6, and the unusual illustration in vv. 7-8. In preaching this passage, you must help the people not miss the forest for the trees.
That means you cannot get bogged down in spending too much time on the six phrases mentioned in v. 2. The author doesn’t; neither should you. Briefly explain them and move on. The point the author is trying to make is the necessity of pressing on to maturity and not spending time going over and over the ground of the basics of Christian doctrine. If you spend too much time on these phrases in vv. 1-2, you will be inadvertently doing for your hearers just what the author does not want them to do!
In explaining the meaning of 6:4-6, 1) show the connection with 1-3, 2) note that the five statements are packaged together by the author and refer to one group of people: believers, and 3) carefully explain the meaning of “falling away” in v. 6.
Then move to vv. 7-8. Point out they serve to illustrate what the author has been saying. Note there is only one land that is capable of producing either fruit or no fruit; not two different kinds of land. The issue is believers should press on to maturity and reflect that in fruit bearing, but they are also capable of failing to press on as they should, and to do so invites God’s discipline in their lives. Make clear the issue in the entire passage is not loss of salvation.
Be careful in how you illustrate and apply this passage. Remember, you always have at least three kinds of people in your church: 1) members who are unsaved; 2) members who are saved but not pressing on to maturity; 3) members who are saved and who are pressing on to maturity. It is well-nigh impossible sometimes to distinguish between groups one and two. Point out in the sermon that the author is warning those in group two whom he considers to be genuine believers.
But you might also point out that it is always possible for unsaved people to be members of the church. Church membership is no guarantee of salvation. Though Heb 6:1-8 is not addressing them specifically, you can still point out that conversion is necessary to be a Christian.
One final suggestion. Since there are four major interpretations of this controversial passage, I would suggest you list and briefly state each one in your sermon. You can then express to your people which interpretation you think best fits the context and preach the passage in that way.