Ben Witherington, “Christian Apostasy and Hebrews 6”

, posted by SEA

Certainly one of the most controversial issues in theological study of the NT is whether or not there are texts in the NT which speak of the fact that genuine Christians are capable of committing apostasy. There are numerous texts one could examine on this issue (e.g. 1 John 5; the Pastoral Epistles discussion about those who have defected and made shipwreck of their Christian faith; the discussion in Rev. 2-3 about Christians bailing out under pressure or persecution) but the locus classicus of such debates is Hebrews 6. The following is an excerpt from one of the chapters in my forthcoming NT theology and ethics volumes entitled The Indelible Image.


Apostasy’s Possibility

One of the issues that many commentators misunderstand, because of failure to read the rhetorical signals, is that our author to some degree is being ironic at the end of Heb.5 and the beginning of Heb. 6, and engaging in a pre-emptive strike. By this I mean that we should not read this text as if it is a literal description of the present spiritual condition of the audience. Were it really true that most of the audience were all dullards or sluggards or laggards, then our author had no business going on to give them the >meat= in Heb. 7-10. That would have been exceedingly inept.


And if it were really true that various members of the audience had already committed apostasy, then on his own showing, this exhortation about apostasy would be a day late and a dollar short. No, our author is simply trying to shame an audience that is shook up into getting beyond the elementary and embracing the mature faith and its substance rather than considering defecting under pressure. He is trying to head off any of them committing apostasy. The most one can say is that the audience is believed to be teetering on the brink of disaster, is weary and considering other options rather than going and growing forward in their Christian faith. Our author=s tactic will be to unveil a more appealing spiritual path to follow which will be both intellectually stimulating and help them to maturity, while painting the course of action he sees as defection in as black a terms as possibleCit would be apostasy, not merely a return to an earlier and simpler form of religion.

If we ask the question why the subject of apostasy is addressed, when the audience is assumed to be (at least in large measure) saved Christians, the answer is that our author has an already and not yet view of salvation, and indeed, as we have seen his emphasis is on final salvation, not conversion, though that is mentioned as well in what follows in Heb. 6. Here perhaps it is well to mention just how important sanctification, both the inward work of God and the human response thereto, is to final salvation in our author’s view. Heb. 12.14 puts it succinctly—without internal sanctification, no one shall see the Lord. F.F. Bruce was right in saying a long time ago that sanctification which involves both divine and human action is no optional extra in the Christian life but something which involves its very essence, and without which, final salvation will not be obtained.[1] Sanctification and perseverance to the end, as it turns out, is not purely engineered either by divine fiat, or by the internal workings of the Holy Spirit, as if the believer were placed on a holy escalator to heaven from which he could never jump off. Thus, the subject of apostasy is addressed here not as a merely hypothetical possibility, but as a real danger for Christians in the audience.

We have arrived here at perhaps the most controverted part of the whole discourse, especially when it came to the medieval debate about post-baptismal sin and whether one could be restored after abandoning the Christian faith. Of course this text is actually about apostasy, a very specific grave sin, not about sins in general that might be committed after baptism. One of the key factors in analyzing this section is realizing that indeed our author is trying to put the ‘fear of God= into his audience by some of the rhetoric here, to prevent defections and so one is not sure how far one ought to press the specifics here, since it is possible to argue that some of this involves dramatic hyperbole. More clearly, our author sees his audience as those who have been Christians for a while who need to be moving on to more mature level of Christian teaching and reflection and living.

Instead, they had become stagnant or sluggish in their progress towards full maturity[2], and so to some extent the rhetoric here serves as an intended stimulus so they will persevere and press on to the goal, and our author gives a passing reference to the fact that he himself believes and hopes for better things from them than apostasy. We must see a good deal of this section as a kind of honor challenge, meant to force the audience to wake up and be prepared to grapple with harder concepts about Jesus= priesthood, but it is also a moral wake up call as well, reminding the audience that those who are not busily moving forward are instead treading water at best, and falling back or defecting altogether at worst. The Christian life is not a static thing, not least because it is based in faith which is either increasing or in a process of diminution. Our author=s rhetorical strategy here can be called stick and carrot, or heavy and light, or shock and reassurance, for we find confrontation followed by encouragement in 5.11-14 and 6.1-3, and in 6.4-8 and 6.9-12 (cf. 10.26-31 and 10.32-39).


At 5.11 at the outset of this exhortation our author accuses the audience of being sluggish or dull in their hearing, or as we might put it, being hard of hearing. Notice the oral and aural character of the teaching in this setting. It is much the same as when Jesus repeatedly exhorted his audience Alet those with two good ears, hear@. Our author nevertheless is going to plow ahead and give them more advancing teaching about Christ the heavenly high priest, beginning in the latter part of Heb. 6. But here he starts with a reminder that the ‘word= has much to say to his audience, but that doesn=t mean it is either easy to explain or easy to understand, especially if one is spiritually deaf, or there are obstacles to one hearing clearly and grasping the implications of what has been heard. We have heard all along that our audience had such hearing deficiencies (see 2.1; 3.7-8,15; 4.2,7). Of course the clarity of the Word is one thing, the acuteness of the hearer quite another. The word nothros is found only here and at Heb. 6.12 in the whole NT, and it is the notion which sets off this unit from what follows. Our author in fact may be thinking of the striking passage in Is.50.4-5 which says literally “the Lord God dug out my ear@ or as we might say cleaned the wax out of my ear. When this term is not used of a physical attribute it refers to being dull-witted, timid, negligent (see Polybius, Hist. 3.63.7; 4.8.5; 4.60.2). Epictetus for example rebukes the sluggish who refuse to discipline themselves by using their reason (Disc. 1.7.30). To be sluggish in this case is to be slow to hear, it does not quite connote the idea of hardness of heart, though the author fears they may be headed in that direction, perhaps due to outside pressure.


Vs. 12 makes the interesting remark that by now the audience ought themselves to be teachers rather than needing to be taught. Seneca complains in a similar way AHow long will you be a learner? From now on be a teacher as well.@(Epist.33.8-9). This suggests a situation where we are dealing with a congregation of persons who have been Christians for a considerable period of time, hence the exasperation of the author with the audience. It=s time for them to grow up and get on with it. In this verse we see the use of the term stoicheia in fact we have the phrase Astoicheia tes arches@ which has caused a good deal of debate. The word stoicheia by itself means rudiments, or parts and can refer to a part of a word (a letter, a syllable— hence the alphabet) or a part of the universe (i.e. an element i.e. an original component). This second possibility is its meaning in Wisd. 7.17,19.18. There is much debate as to what the stoicheia tou kosmou mean in Gal. 4.3,9 and Col. 2.8,20 but probably it means elementary teaching.1 This last meaning especially seems to suit Col. 2.8. In any case stocheialinked with arches surely means first principles or elementary rudiments of teaching that they had already heard from the beginning of their Christian pilgrimage.

There are parallels where clearly enough it refers to the elementary teaching or principles, not to some elemental spirits or beings (cf. Xenephon, Mem. 2.1.1; Quintilian Inst. Or. 1.1.1). In this context the >elementary principles= are the beginnings of instruction in the art of persuasion, presumably some of the elements of the ‘progymnasmata= program. That our author is trying to shame his audience into learning more is clear enough from the fact that ‘milk= is for infants, and his audience is adults, or put another way elementary education was for those between seven and fourteen. It was never flattering to suggest adults were acting like that age of child.

One may wish to ask about vs. 13– What is the word of righteousness, or the teaching about righteousness? One may presume that it has to do with the teaching about apostasy which he will dole out a significant dose of in a moment. However, in Greco-Roman settings instruction in righteousness meant being trained in discerning the difference between good and evil (Xenephon, Cyropaedia 1.630-31). Vs. 14 identifies Christian maturity with the capacity to distinguish moral good from moral evil, which in turn means being able to continue to pursue the course of righteous action and avoid apostasy.


At 6.1 we have the interesting verb pherometha which can be translated ‘move along= but it can also mean ‘be carried along=. Both things are actually part of the process of maturing in Christ, and moving toward the goal of moral and intellectual excellence. Our author does not want his audience to forget what they learned at the earlier stages, for example, forgetting to repent when necessary, these things are foundational. Rather he wants them to move along to more advanced subjects building on top of the original elementary learning. We have here the term teleiotes which can be translated maturity, but unlike that English word has the connotation of arriving a goal or the completion of something one was striving towards, which is why it is sometimes translated perfection/completion. In this case, the author has in mind an intended eschatological goal and state. The “mature Christian is expected not only to ‘ingest= the solid food but also to follow Christ on the path to final perfection, whatever the cost@.2 We should compare Heb. 3.14 and 6.11.

There is debate as to what we should make of the phrase ‘the word about the beginning of Christ=. This could of course refer to what our author was talking about in Heb.1.1-4 but that does not seem to suit this context. It could also refer to the basic moral teaching of Christ, which according to the summary in Mk.1.15 was Arepent and believe the good news@. That comports rather nicely with the content of the rest of vs. 1. Our author has assumed before now in the discourse a knowledge of the historical Jesus= life on the part of the audience (5.7-8), and presumably this would include some knowledge about his teachings. But is this ‘beginning= material to be seen as synonymous with ‘the elementary principles/teachings of the oracles of God= referred to in 5.12?

All the terms that follow didaches are likely seen as the content of this teaching. Our author must stress that becoming a Christian back then involved not only activities, but also involved believing certain things. There were early catechisms that talked about such matters, and we know that early on there was a sort of probationary period for the catechists. As has been pointed out, there appears to be nothing particularly Christian about these matters. Any good Pharisee could have made up this list, but it is worth noting that Christianity, though it taught about many of the same subjects as the Pharisees, did not take the same view about them. Faith in God for instance meant faith in God through Christ, for the Christian. Resurrection, meant not just at the end of history, but already in Christ. Imposition of hands in early Judaism which usually would have been for blessing, or later for ordination of rabbis, in Christianity was connected with receiving the Spirit and/or taking on a work of ministry.

Most commentators have assumed that the list in 6.1-2 refers to the subject matter of elementary Christian teaching, and there can be little doubt that this is correct since our author is stressing that his audience has heard such teaching before and needs to move on to the more advanced teaching. However, something should be said for the generic character of this list of paired opposites here which could well have been said to be the substance of Jesus= own teaching.


Repentance from past dead works— faith towards God

Instructions about baptisms— laying on of hands

Resurrection of the deadCeternal judgment.

There is nothing here that Jesus could not have commented on, especially if we take the reference to baptisms plural to refer either to ritual ablutions or more likely to John=s baptism as opposed to that practiced by Jesus= own disciples (see Jn. 3.22; 4.2). The observation that all these topics could have arisen in synagogue teaching is accurate, and some of the audience may have heard of these things in that context first, and even have been tending in a retrograde motion to focus on such things as they sought to move back under the umbrella of early Judaism. There is a certain progression in this list from repentance at the beginning of the Christian life to final judgment at the end and after the resurrection of the dead.3


But this is all the more reason to suggest that Jesus commented on and taught about these topics as well. Jesus of course engaged in laying on of hands as well a practice that could have to do with blessing, healing or even setting apart for some service or task, and he certainly spoke about coming judgment as well as the coming resurrection of the dead. What we could then have here is a short-hand of the elementary teaching of Jesus that was taken over into the elementary teaching of the church and called — ‘the beginning of the word/teaching of Jesus=. While scholars have often puzzled over the reference to instructions about baptisms (plural) in vs. 2 this conundrum is solved if the suggestion just made is accepted, especially if the author of this document is one Apollos, who had to be instructed about the difference between Christian baptism and John=s baptism (see Acts 18.24-26), a lesson then he applied in his own teaching thereafter, passing on his own ‘elementary education=. It could be objected to this view that another form of the word baptismon would have been used if Christian baptism was in view (i.e.baptisma), but this is overlooking not only the plural here but also that the Jewish Christian audience being addressed would know of various different sorts of ritual ablutions (cf. the use in Heb. 9.10 and Mk. 7.4). We may wish to contrast what we find in 10.22 where clearly enough it is not the water ritual that cleanses the conscience, but rather the internal application of grace by the Spirit resulting from the shed blood of Christ. Whether we see this elementary teaching as essentially Jewish or essentially Christian or both, it is something our author wants the audience to move on beyond as they grow towards maturity. To make sense of vss. 4-8 we must realize from the start that if our author believed that any of the immediate audience had already committed irrevocable apostasy and were irretrievable, there would be no point in this warning, at least for those particular listeners, and vs. 9 makes clear he is not responding to already extant and known cases of apostasy in the audience, he is just warning against it. However, one must take absolutely seriously the word that stands at the outset of vs. 4 like a sentinel at the door— adunaton which means impossible, or completely unable, without power to accomplish the end in view. HermasSim. 9.26.6, perhaps dependent on this usage, seems to take the word to mean impossible, not just incapable. Compare for example the other places where the author uses this Greek word, and it quickly becomes apparent that by ‘impossible= our author doesn=t merely mean ‘improbable=.

6.18C”it is impossible that God would prove false@

9.9— “impossible for gifts and sacrifices to perfect the conscience@ (cf. 10.1)

10.4C”it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins@

10.11C”it is impossible for the same sacrifices offered againY to take away sin@

11.16C”it is impossible to please God without faith@.


There has of course been debate amongst commentators as to wherein lies the impossibility. Does the author mean it becomes psychologically impossible for an apostate to repent? Is it the case that a person who has rejected the saving death of Jesus has repudiated the only basis upon which repentance can be extended? The problem with this view is that it does not say it is impossible to repent, but rather it is impossible to restore a person who commits apostasy. That leaves one to consider whether what is meant is human efforts to restore them, or divine efforts. Koester suggests it is the latter, not meaning that God doesn=t have the power, but that God would refuse to do so if someone ‘crucified Christ afresh=.4 This may be correct, but we must bear in mind that our author is deliberately engaging in dramatic rhetorical statements for the purpose of waking up the audience. The function is not to comment on something that is impossible for God, and some commentators have reminded us of Jesus= remark that what is humanly impossible is not impossible for God, for all things are possible with God (Mk. 10.27).

The description of the person who is impossible to restore is said to be one who has: 1) once (hapax)5 been enlightened; 2) has tasted of the heavenly gift; 3) has become a sharer of the Holy Spirit; and 4) has tasted the goodness of God=s word and the powers of the age to come. A more fulsome description of a Christian would be hard to find in the NT.In the first place the term enlightened is regularly used in the NT for those who have come out of darkness into the light, and so have gone through the necessary conversion of the imagination and intellect (cf. Jn. 1.9; 2 Cor. 4.4-6; Ephes. 1.18; 2 Tim. 1.10; 1 Pet. 2.9). In the second place, the verb ‘tasted= means genuinely experienced as we have already seen in Heb. 2.9 which speaks of Christ experiencing death. In the third place the term metoxous has already been used in this discourse in relationship to the heavenly calling of Christians (3.1) and to Christians being sharers or partners with Christ. Having >shared in= the Holy Spirit is the hallmark of being a Christian as Heb. 2.4 stresses along with numerous other NT witnesses, particularly Paul (see 1 Cor 12), and Luke (see e.g. Acts 2 and 10). The phrase means to have taken the Spirit into one=s own being.6 If it were not perfectly clear that our author is describing someone with the divine presence and power of God in their life our author goes on to add that this person has experienced the goodness of God=s Word and also the eschatological power of the age to come. Paul it will be remembered called such experiences the foretaste of glory divine that only Christians experienced (2 Cor. 1.22; Ephes. 1.14). AIn this and the three preceding participles, the writer withholds nothing in reminding the addressees of the abundance of God=s investment in them. Upon them God has poured out more than they could ever have asked or imagined.@7

There is some debate as to whether we ought to match up what our author says in vss. 4ff about some of the initial things one has experienced in Christ, with the elementary elements mentioned a few verses before. That is, enlightenment could refer to baptism, partaking of the Holy Spirit would correlate with the laying on of hands, tasting of the goodness of God=s word and the power of the age to come would correlate with the teaching about resurrection of the dead which in this case would have to mean something like spiritual resurrection at the new birth, which is unlikely, and renew unto repentance would correlate with the initial repentance of faith. There may be some force in this argument, but it should not be over-pressed.

De Silva tries to cut the Gordian knot of this problematic text here by stressing that for the author of Hebrews salvation is a (purely) future and eschatological matter.8 This however is not quite correct.While the clear emphasis in Hebrews is on ‘final= or ‘eschatological salvation= (see 1.14; 9.28) and de Silva is quite right in his criticism of those who try to read Ephes. 2.6 into the discussion which speaks of initial salvation through faith, as though that text refers to eternal security, when it does not (rather the subject there is conversion)9 it is false to say that the author of Hebrews only thinks of salvation as something future. At the very least one must give the last clause of Heb. 6.5 its due— he speaks of those who have already tasted the powers of the age to come. They are working retroactively. In other words, future salvation and its benefits have broken into the present and one can presently begin to experience its benefits— in the form of enlightenment, life in the Spirit, empowerment with the power of the eschatological age, and so forth. This is surely a description of a person who is saved and converted in the initial sense of the term saved. It is then a distinction without a difference to argue that our author agrees he is speaking about a Christian who has every advantage presently available through God=s grace and characteristic of a Christian, but then to insist our author doesn=t prefer to say they are saved. They have partaken of the heavenly giftCthis is surely the same thing as saying they are saved at least in the sense that they have been genuinely converted and are Christians at present.10

And then our author says what seems almost unthinkableChe uses the verb parapiptô (a verb found nowhere else in the NT) to speak of falling away, not in the sense of accidentally or carelessly falling down, but in the sense of deliberately stepping into a black hole. In the LXX this verb is used to describe acting faithlessly or treacherously especially in regard to the covenant (Ezek. 14.13; 20.27; 2 Chron. 26.18; Wis. Sol. 6.9; 12.2). “The act of falling away is not so much against a dogma as against a person, at 3.12 against God, at 6.6 against the Son of God. The remainder of v. 6, crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to ridicule, makes this abundantly clear. Apostasy, yesYthe sin of abandoning God, Christ, and the fellowship of believers (10.25).”11 It is possible that our author means by ‘crucifying the Son to themselves=that they have cut themselves off from the Son, or have killed off his presence in their lives. They have thereby ended their relationship with Christ. He is dead to them.

But the two clauses are related because ‘to make a public spectacle/paradigm= of someone was one of the functions of public crucifixion on public roads (see Quintilian, Declamations 274). Our author is then suggesting that to commit apostasy is to publicly shame Jesus as well as snuff out one=s personal relationship with him. Heb. 10.26-29 suggests that we should not try to alleviate the severity of the judgment spoken of here in regard to the apostate for it says that for such a person there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins, but rather a terrifying prospect of judgment. Koester says that we should read the stern remarks here in the light of equally stern ones in the OT, which served as a warning against apostasy and tried to prevent it rather than being definitive statements about perdition (so Philo,Rewards 163). In other words these words were intended to have a specific emotional effect, not comment in the abstract about what is impossible.12 We may also note that it would appear that the wilderness wandering generation and their fate lie in the background here (see Heb. 3.7-19), and the argument here is very similar to the one found in 1 Cor. 10.1-4 where the fate of the wilderness wandering generation is used to warn Corinthian Christians against assuming apostasy was impossible for them since they have been converted and had various divine benefits and rituals. 13 As Johnson stresses however, it is not just from rituals that our author says they are in danger of falling away, it is from actual Christian experience itself—“the enormity of apostasy is measured by the greatness of the experience of God it abandons. That is why it is impossible ‘to renew to repentance= people who have proven capable of turning away from their own most powerful and transforming experience.@14 It is right to note how Heb. 12.17 will use Esau as the model of the apostate who sold his birthright for a single meal and “even though he sought it with tears, he was rejected, for he found no opportunity to repent@.

Our author chooses then to describe apostasy in horrific termsCto abandon one=s loyalty to Christ is the same as crucifying him all over again or standing and ridiculing and deriding him as he dies on the cross.In an honor and shame culture this is intended to be shocking language about the most shameful behavior imaginable for one who has been so richly blessed by God in Christ. We must of course compare the similar language about defection that crops up throughout the discourse (cf. 2.2C>turn away=; 10.38-39—‘shrinking back=; 12.15—‘falling short of God=s gift=; 12.17—>selling one=s birthright=). It will be well if we take very seriously the word ‘impossible= in this text, without suggesting that anything is totally impossible for a sovereign God. Our author does seem to believe that one can go too far, past the point of no return and of restoration. This text then cuts both ways, against either a facile notion that forgiveness is always possible no matter how severe the sin in question is, but it equally must count against the ‘eternal security= sort of argument as well. Our author clearly emphasizes the future and eschatological dimension of the pilgrimage to being fully and completely saved, and short of that climax one is not viewed as eternally secure, for one is not yet securely in eternity. But at the same time he is perfectly capable of talking about initial salvation in the terms we find here in Heb. 6.[3]. As Howard Marshall succinctly puts it in regard to Christians committing apostasy: “The writer is dealing with a real, if remote, possibility.”[4]

What then is the alternative to apostasy? Clearly it is perseverance all the way to death or the eschatological finish line whichever comes first.This leads us to discuss the climax of our author=s arguments in Heb. 11-12. First however by way of emphasis it will be wise to sum up the distinctive teaching of our author about Christ as high priest and say something of how it is related to this whole discourse.

The one truly unique concept in this document which makes it stand out from all other NT documents is our author=s vision of Christ as the heavenly high priest. If one has an understanding of this major issue most of the rest of the homily falls into place rather readily. It is difficult to say what sparked our author to write about Christ in this way. It may have been his penetrating study of the OT and its institutions. He may have been looking for a way to say that Christ fulfilled their intention and indeed eclipsed and replaced them. But it is also possible that he was familiar with the varieties of Messianic speculation in early Judaism, which at Qumran and perhaps elsewhere included the idea of a priestly Messiah.1

Whatever his state of knowledge of the speculation about a priestly messiah our author certainly goes beyond what we know of these concepts from these other sources, for he is going to insist not only that Messiah died, but that he was both perfect high priest and unblemished sacrifice offered by the priest. There was also of course a Melchizedek speculation before the time of Jesus as the Qumran documents show clearly enough. There was then certainly a Jewish speculation about Messiah being a priest before our author wrote.

When our wishes to describe Jesus as high priest he uses as his basis the messianic interpretation of Gen 14 and Ps 110. Now it must be understood that the whole idea of priesthood in the OT is dependent on the idea of covenant. The shape that a priesthood takes depends on the shape and stipulations of the covenant or treaty that God’s people are called upon to live by.The way our author is going to show that the Levitical priesthood is obsolescent is by showing: 1) there was a higher and prior priesthood in the case of Melchizedek and Jesus is connected to that sort of priesthood which is an eternal one; 2) the very fact that the Levitical priesthood is linked to heredity (and thus is dependent on death and descendents to determine who will next be priest) is in our author’s mind a clear sign of the inadequacy of the Levitical priesthood; 3) the inferiority of the Levitical priesthood is also shown by the fact that Abraham the forebear of Levi was blessed by and tithed to Melchizedek.In all of this our author, like Jesus before him operates with the idea that the earlier idea or institution has precedence and thus higher claim to authority. But a text like Heb.7.27, or 9.28 makes quite clear that our author is no slave to previous concepts, for he goes on to talk of Jesus voluntarily offering himself up as sacrifice. Heb. 9.28 seems to refer to Is 53.12, and perhaps more than any other NT writer, except perhaps the author of 1 Peter, our author has been affected by reflection on Is 53.


Now it is quite true also that from texts like 4 Macc. 6.29 there was the idea that a martyr such as a Maccabee could offer an atoning sacrifice, and in the case of Eleazar he was a priest. Yet there is a difference here for a death as atonement, is not quite the same as a deliberate sacrifice of atonement, and more to the point the Maccabean concept is tied up with the idea of the suffering of the righteous, which doesn’t seem to be in the foreground here. Our author operates out of the concept of cultic sacrifice, not martyrdom for a cause, per se.

One of the essential elements in understanding the high priestly concept in Hebrews is that the Son of God had to be a human being to be a priest. In other words, all of this reflection on Christ as high priest tells us a lot about his perfect humanity and his human roles, but very little if anything about his divinity. The latter ideas are bound up with our author’s presentation of Jesus as also God’s unique and pre-existent Son and Word. Jesus is the perfect human being, and thus is the perfect candidate to be a perfect sacrifice. But he is also a perfect high priest and thus is the perfect one to freely offer such a sacrifice, and when he does so he is perfected in his intended vocation. It is not that his going to heaven perfects him in any moral sense, but what is meant is that he completes his vocation to perfection. The language of perfection in application to Christ is sometimes thought to be cultic (i.e. in terms of consecration rather than moral sanctification) but I am not at all convinced on this score. Yet is also true that in this homily we learn of Jesus= moral perfection as well, for he was tempted like all humans in every regard save without sin. This resistance to sin is conceived of as part of the way he fulfilled his vocation and so could be both perfect high priest and sacrifice.

But there is more to this that one might imagine for in fact Christ is able to

forgive sins and be the perfector/completer of faithfulness for believers leading them on

to maturity/completion in their vocation only because he was in a position both to have

compassion knowing their temptations, but also successfully passing such tests so he is in a position to judge sin and offer forgiveness, which he himself did not need to receive.

Now the claim that Jesus was sinless is not very meaningful unless it means he voluntarily and willingly resisted temptation (i.e. it was possible for him to have done otherwise). By definition temptation is not tempting unless one is actually inclined and could attempt to do what one is tempted to do. Thus we must take seriously statements like we find in Heb 2.17 or 4.15 and assume that Jesus was subject to all the common temptations including sexual ones that we are, yet he had the victory over them.

We are also told at Heb. 5.8 that Jesus learned obedience. This of course means he

learned through experience, and it may be that he knew it prior to that conceptually, but the point is that Jesus as a human learned things through experience just as we do. His life manifested a normal development and progressive consciousness. What is the connection between learning obedience through death and being made perfect through suffering? Simply this, that Jesus fulfilled God’s will for his life that he die on Golgotha and so he completed the task which would not have been made perfect and complete without that death.

Our author is able to talk of Jesus as a human being having faith (12.2), indeed being our pioneer or model for faith and faithfulness. One of the key things that sets apart Jesus’ work as high priest and all previous such attempts is the unique character of his sacrifice. It is said to be once for all time, unlike the previous repeated sacrifices (which shows that they at most only had temporary and limited efficacy, and in fact it appears our author would dispute they even had that value). Now there is a great deal in Hebrews that could lead one to the conclusion that our author was anti-ritual,and/or that he has spiritualized the very material promises in the OT about rest, land and other things. Against this sort of conclusion it must be argued that our author in fact maintains that there is only one sacrifice that is and was truly cultic–the sacrifice of the human will of Jesus, and by extension the call for believers to make that same sort of sacrifice through the praise of their lips and lives (cf. Heb 13). It is not the abolition of ritual but its perfection in human form that our author is about, for God ultimately wants the obedience and self-giving of humans, the highest form of his creation, the only form of it that can be in personal relation with its maker, the only form of it which could have Ps 8 spoken about it.


Furthermore, our author does not simply spiritualize the OT like say Philo does in the service of his higher philosophy. Quite the contrary, our author believes that God’s promises are now fulfilled in heaven, but that that reality will one day come to earth as well and transform earth. Nor is our author’s perspective simply that the OT merely has to do with externals and imperfection. Our author says nothing of the OT being imperfect, he does say it is partial, piecemeal, shadow, and inadequate finally to deal with human sin. But one must also remember he sees the essential spiritual promises of God such as those found in Jerm.31 as found in the OT and furthermore there is the whole matter of the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek who is more than a mere shadow, he is a likeness of Christ.

Our author’s complaint is not with the OT per se nor with ritual per se but with a

particular ritual system— the Levitical one which was inadequate. He never says it was bad or incorrect in its intent, just inadequate to meet human needs. Our author=s terminology when he discusses Old and New is comparative, not merely positive–the old is a shadow in comparison to the new reality in Christ. Yet there is of course the matter of discontinuity as well, the once for all aspect (Heb 9.12). This means that Jesus not only fulfills all the OT priesthood, but he goes beyond it and overcomes its inadequacy.

Now what is striking about all this high priest language, is that our author in this one concept has a way to bridge both the earthly and heavenly work of Christ, for Christ offers the sacrifice on earth, then takes the blood into the heavenly sanctuary, and intercedes for us on an ongoing basis, as well as proclaiming sins forgiven. Herein we see the picture of the OT priest sacrificing the animal outside the Temple, then taking the blood and pouring it on the altar, and going into the holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, and then coming back out and pronouncing forgiveness of sins and reconciliation twixt God and his people.

It is the genius of our author=s conceptualizing of things that he is able to bridge the past and the ongoing work of Jesus for believers, as a human being. Our author does seem to operate with the well known ancient concept of the earth as the vestibule of the heavenly sanctuary. One enters the heavenly sanctuary by passing through the earthly one, and he envisions the sacrifice of Christ as offered in that earthly portico of the heavenly sanctuary, after which he enters into the sanctuary with the blood to sprinkle.


Of course the analogy with OT practice should not be pressed too far. Does our author really think Jesus took a bowl of his blood with him to heaven? Is there really an altar or curtain in heaven where he sprinkled it? Probably not, but the point is that Jesus effected on earth and in heaven, what these ritual acts symbolized–atonement for sin, placation of God’s wrath, cleansing of the sinner, reconciliation with God. He conveys these profound concepts by using the OT picture language. In contrast to earthly priests Jesus is a priest forever, thus forestalling anyone else ever being, or needing to be a priest (this of course has implications for one=s view of the pastoral ministry) in this sense. Christ is a priest forever because he lives forever, and as 7.25 says he always lives to make intercession for believers. O. Cullmann sums up his masterful investigation of Christ as High Priest in Hebrews by saying the following “… the High Priest concept offers a full Christology in every respect. Itincludes all three fundamental aspects of Jesus’ work: his once for all earthly work, his present work as the exalted Lord, and his future work as the one coming again. Yesterday, today and forever.”2 One might wish to ask how the second coming fits into this schema. The answer intimated by our author is that the high priest had to come again forth from the temple to proclaim to the people the results of his work and the benefits. So also Christ will come again from the heavenly sanctuary. Thus we see the single most comprehensive Christological concept in the NT, which exalts the perfect human work Christ the believer=s high priest.

As we draw this part of the discussion to a conclusion, it is well to ask about the argumentative logic of intertwining an argument about Christ as high priest with an argument urging the avoidance of apostasy. What is the logical connection? On one level our author, by emphasizing both the humanity of Jesus, and the ethical rectitude of Jesus shows how he met the pre-requisites for being our perfect high priest. The implied argument is that he avoided giving way to temptation, even the temptation to avoid the cross, and so void his ministry and its purpose altogether, and this not only functions as an argument that shows how Christ can be our heavenly high priest, but also as an argument that shows why apostasy is not an option for Christians if they wish to obtain final salvation. In other words, while the destiny of Christians is not to be saved and thus become heavenly high priests like Christ, nevertheless, our author is saying that Christ is the trailblazer in terms of moral behavior that shows us and paves the way to our glorious future, and it cannot involve going back on, drifting away from, or repudiating what we have committed ourselves to when it comes to our relationship with God. This very naturally leads into the discussion about faith, its character and goal, and faithfully following Christ’s pattern of behavior.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 364.

[2] And it is perfectly clear that teleiotēta here means maturity, not perfection or sinlessness, or an experience of ‘perfection’ in the Wesleyan sense. See Gordon J. Thomas, “The Perfection of Christ and the Perfecting of Believers in Hebrews” in Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament, eds K.E. Brower and Andy Johnson, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 293-310, here p. 301. Furthermore, when we hear of Christ being perfected through suffering, the term also does not seem to have the moral sense of ‘being purified’. It means he was being made complete or completely like us in all respects, save sin. Similarly in regard to the comments about Jesus’ death, what is meant is that he was made fit, or complete to be our high priest in heaven, one who could fully identify with us, through such difficult experiences. At Heb. 10.14 it seems that the idea is that Christ’s death has dealt with the necessity of atonement for sins, and in that respect believers have been ‘perfected’ while they are still in need of and are being ‘sanctified’ internally.

1 See Witherington, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, pp. 154-62.

2 Attridge, Hebrews, p. 215.

3 Koester, Hebrews, p. 311.

4 Koester, Hebrews, p. 313.

5 A word which normally carried the connotation of something that occurs only once, and so is unique.

6 Koester, Hebrews, p. 314.

7 Craddock, AHebrews,@ p. 75.

8 See de Silva, Perseverance in Gratitude, pp. 221-22 and his articles AHeb. 6.4-8: A Socio-Rhetorical Investigation,@ Tyn. Bul. 50 (1999), pp. 33-57; 225-35 and AExchanging Favor for Wrath: Apostasy in Hebrews and Patron-Client Relations,@JBL 115 (1996), pp. 105-09.

9 See Witherington, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians,(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).

10 See Attridge, Hebrews, p. 170: AThe >heavenly gift=Yis best understood as a general image for the gracious bestowal of salvation, with all it entailsCthe Spirit, forgiveness, and sanctification.@

11 Craddock, AHebrews,@ p. 76.

12 Koester, Hebrews, p. 320.

13 Johnson, Hebrews, pp. 161-62.

14 Johnson, Hebrews p. 163.

[3] The attempt by F. Thielmann and others to suggest that our author does not talk about initial salvation but only final salvation simply does not do justice at all to text like Heb. 6. Like Paul. Our author has an already and not yet view of salvation and he makes that clear through out his discourse. But see F. Thielmann, Theology of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Press, 2005), pp. 606-07.

[4] I.H. Marshall, New Testament Theology, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 620.

1 Not surprisingly the literature on this subject is vast, most of it focusing on Heb. 7. See e.g. R.H. Culpepper, AThe High Priesthood and Sacrifice of Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews,@ Theological Educator 32 (1985), pp. 46-62. F.L. Horton, The Melchizedek Tradition: A Critical Examination of the Sources to the Fifth Century A.D. and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, (Cambridge: C.U. Press, 1976); J.H. Neyrey,A=Without Beginning of Days or End of Life= (Hebrews 7.3): Topos for a True Deity,@ CBQ 53 (1991), pp. 439-55; D.W. Rooke, AJesus as Royal Priest: Reflections on the Interpretation of the Melchizedek Tradition in Heb. 7,@ Biblica 81 (2000), pp. 81-94.

2 O. Cullman The Christology of the New Testament,(Phila.: Westminster Press, 1964, rev. ed.), pp. 103-4.

[This post was taken from Ben Witherington’s blog, where the original post and comments can be found.]