THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
Lesson 7: Chapter 5:11- 6:20
Jesus the Eternal High Priest of the Eternal Sacrifice
Holy and Eternal Father,
As the forerunner of our salvation Your Son set the example for our journey to salvation by offering Himself in obedience and submission in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Adam, the first priest-king of Your Holy Sanctuary, Jesus in His humanity recoiled against the prospect of suffering and death and yet unlike Adam, who in disobedience led all of humanity into the grinding destruction of sin and death, Jesus' willingly submitted to Your will and untied the knot of Adam's disobedience to lead humanity to glory by offering Himself as both perfect sacrificial victim and as our eternal High Priest. Give us the faith and trust, Lord, to submit in obedience to Your will, to live the Law of the New Covenant in love of neighbor, and to set the example in fidelity for the next generation. Give us a passion for studying Your holy word in Sacred Scripture so that we will mature in our faith and become "a people prepared" to live the Gospel of truth. Send Your Holy Spirit, Lord, to guide us in our study of Hebrews as Your inspired write reveals to us Jesus in His role as Your eternal High Priest of the eternal sacrifice offered up for all of humanity throughout all time. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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"Solid food is for the mature," that is, the passion written in the new Gospel, and about them it was written, "make ready for the Lord a people prepared." St. Ephraim, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, quoting Hebrews 5:14 and Luke 1:17
A sound faith is a mighty bulwark, a true faith to which nothing has to be added or taken away. Unless it is one, it is no faith, as the apostle says, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all." Cling to this unity, dearly beloved, with minds unshaken, and "follow after" all "holiness" in faith. Carry out the Lord's commands in faith because "without faith it is impossible to please God." Without faith nothing is holy, nothing is pure, nothing alive: "for the just lives by faith." Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 25.6 [quoting Ephesians 4:5-6; Hebrews 12:14; and Habakkuk 2:4].
The Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, "priest of God the Most High," as prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique "high priest after the order of Melchizedek"; "holy, blameless, unstained," "by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified," that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross.
It was God's plan for the Son to become a man to serve mankind as His covenant representative just as the first Old Covenant High Priest Aaron was chosen from among men to serve God's chosen people as their covenant representative. With this unique aspect of Jesus' humanity in His mission as covenant mediator in mind, the Bishops of Vatican II wrote: For Jesus Christ was sent into the world as a real mediator between God and men. Since he is God, all divine fullness dwells bodily in him (Colossians 2:9) according to his human nature. On the other hand, he is the new Adam, made head of a renewed humanity and full of grace and of truth (John 1:14). Ad Gentes, 1.3, The Documents of Vatican II. In His Incarnation Jesus is superior to the priesthood of Aaron and to all other Old Covenant priests and all pagan priests, ancient and modern. Jesus united Himself to our suffering in assuming our human nature and in His Passion on the altar of the Cross offered Himself up as a perfect sacrifice of atonement for our sins'something no human priest is able to do and no animal sacrifice capable of accomplishing.
At the end of Hebrews chapter 4 and in the beginning of chapter 5 the inspired writer of Hebrews noted two necessary aspects that must be fulfilled in the one chosen to be the people's representative to God in the role of high priest:
Concerning the perfect selection of Jesus as the High Priest of the New Covenant, Father Vanhoye writes: What is necessary in order to be a high priest? First and above all, it is necessary to be accepted by God, to be admitted into his presence. The function of the priest is specifically that of mediator before God and it is he who is to assume communication with God. By whom is this first condition better fulfilled than by Christ enthroned at the right hand of God and proclaimed Son of God? There is an additional condition: genuine solidarity must unite the priest to those whom he represents before God. Were it otherwise, it is clear that the desired communication could not be firmly established. Christ having made himself our brother even unto dying on the cross, the second condition is fulfilled in him with consummate perfection [Vanhoye, Our Priest is Christ: The Doctrine of the Epistle to the Hebrews, page 24].
Answer: Christ's priesthood is superior to the Aaronic priesthood in that the priesthood of each of Aaron's descendants was limited to their human lifespan while Christ's priesthood is eternal and the sacrifice He offers is perfect while Aaron and his descendants offered the sacrifice of animals which can never be perfect enough to completely remove sins: for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins [Hebrews 10:4]. The priests of the Old Covenant had to continually sacrifice animals and offer them in atonement for the sins of the people while Jesus Christ made one perfect sacrifice that is offered eternally before the Father in heaven for the expiation of the sins of every man, woman, and child who claims God's gift of forgiveness and restoration of fellowship [CCC# 1545].
After declaring the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ to be according to "the order of Melchizedek" and superior to the Aaronic priesthood of the Sinai Covenant, the inspired writer begins this section with a reprimand in 5:11-6:3, then he delivers a dire warning in 6:4-8 and finally he closes with a loving appeal in 6:9-20.
Please read Hebrews 5:11- 6:8, A Call for Spiritual Renewal, Christian Maturity, and the Warning to Remain Faithful:
11 About this we have much to say, and it is difficult to explain, for you have become sluggish in hearing. 12 Although you should be teachers by this time, you need to have someone teach you again the basic elements of the utterances of God. You need milk, [and] not solid food. 13 Everyone who lives on milk lacks experience of the word of righteousness, for he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil. 6:1 Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 3 And we shall do this, if only God permits. 4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit 5 and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are re-crucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt. 7 Ground that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly and brings forth crops useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is rejected; it will soon be cursed and finally burned.
Question: How does the inspired writer identify his audience in 5:12? What does this suggest to you?
Answers: If the audience is qualified to be "teachers" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ they cannot be recent converts. It is this mention of these Jewish-Christians in a role as teachers that some scholars like Dr. Scott Hahn suggest that this address is being given to Jewish-Christian priests, perhaps during an ordination service. We know from Acts 6:7 that many priests of the Old Covenant were converting to the New Covenant in Jesus the Messiah: The word of the Lord continued to spread: the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly increased, and a large group of priests made their submission to the faith [New Jerusalem translation].
Question: Why does the inspired writer say it is difficult to explain to his audience the doctrine of Jesus' eternal priesthood? What does St. Paul say about this same problem of revealing deeper mysteries to the faithful to the Corinthian church in 1Corinthians 3:1-3?
Answer: As with the church at Corinth, the assembly is chastised for their lack of spiritual growth. They are still in need of the basic understanding of covenant doctrine. However, at this stage in their Christian development they should be seeking an understanding of their faith that goes beyond the basics of covenant doctrine; they need to move on to a more mature understanding. He compares them to babies who still need milk when they should be becoming mature enough to eat the "meat" of the Gospel of salvation and therefore qualified to share the Gospel of salvation with others with confidence. There is a difference between the positive attribute of being "childlike" in our faith as opposed to the deficiency of being "childish" in our understanding of our faith.
In order to move from "milk" to "meat" it is necessary to have a through understanding of the teachings Jesus Christ entrusted to His Church and in the light of that teaching to read and study Sacred Scripture to grow in spiritual maturity. The Church has always taught that the Bible is a difficult book that it is often hard to understand. The Fathers of the Church considered it best for those who are young in their faith to seek first a literal reading and interpretation when that interpretation harmonized with the teaching of the Church. But the symbolism and other enigmas of Scripture made a strictly word for word literalist interpretation often difficult because at times it does not divulge the "literal" meaning of the text as the inspired writer intended. Therefore, especially concerning the Old Testament, great teachers like St. Clement of the school of Christian theology in Alexandria and St. Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople urged the faithful "to seek and knock" [Luke 11:9-10] in their studies, in other words, to work hard and to study with diligence and discernment in order to correctly interpret Scripture in the light of Christ and in accord with the doctrine He passed down to His Church. To move from an elementary understanding of the mysteries of the faith to a more mature understanding takes serious effort guided and directed by God the Holy Spirit but unless one works to seek out "meat" and not just "milk", one progresses very little in the understanding of Christ's mission and the service to which He has called all believers. To remain only at the basic level of understanding, a believer is not capable of fulfilling his/or her role as an apostle to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as He commanded [Matthew 28:19-20]. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, Just as we say that it is possible to have faith without being literate, so we assert that it is not possible to understand the statements contained in the faith without study [ Stromateis 1.6.35]. And St. John Chrysostom similarly chastised his congregation when he preached on this passage in Hebrews: I am afraid that this might fitly be said to you also, that "though by this time you ought to be teachers," you do not hold fast to the rank of learners. Ever hearing the same things on the same subjects, you remain still in the same condition as if you heard no one. If any person should question you, no one will be able to answer, except a very few who may soon be counted.
In Hebrews 6:1-2 the inspired writer gives a list of the "basics" his audience should already understand.
Question: What kind of maturity does it take to eat "meat" according the writer of Hebrews and what basic doctrines of the faith does he include in his list? Hint: He lists 5.
Answer: First, they need to be able to discern the difference between what is good and what is evil in order to acquire a more mature understanding of Christian doctrine. His list of basic doctrine includes:
The inspired writer does not mean the "works" of Christian faith as some Protestants may interpret this passage but instead "works" in the same sense which Paul wrote about "ritual works of the old law" in his letter to the Romans which cannot offer a means to salvation [see the study on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans, i.e. 9:31-10:4; and Philippians 3:5-11]. The inspired writers of the New Testament wrote continually and persistently concerning Christian "works/deeds" of charity necessary for salvation as an expression of our response to the Law of the New Covenant to love others as Christ loved us [John 13:34-35]. Also see examples of the necessity of good works in the life of the Christian in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; Romans 2:5-10; James 2:14-26.
Question: How do you rate on your understanding of these doctrines of Christian faith?
The inspired writer may not be limiting this list to New Covenant doctrine. Concerning the inspired writer's mention of works of the old law, Severian of Gabala wrote, The beginning of Christ was from within Judaism, for he lived as a Jew according to the law. He says because of this, "Leaving this behind, let us be borne to the maturity," knowing that the one about to be a high priest apart from the law must be a priest "according to the order of Melchizedek." "Dead works and faith in God, ritual washing", for Christians the earthly things are dead. Therefore he says that it is out of place that they neglect the way of life based on faith and the mortification of all things and return to ablutions according to the law. [..]. This, then, is what he says: it is not necessary to run back to the law [of Moses], leaving behind the repentance from dead works and faith in God and baptism, which he named in the plural because of the multitude of those deemed worthy. And he spoke of baptisms and the teaching and the laying on of hands through which are the elections, and the hope of the resurrection and the rest. Actually all the doctrines the inspired writer of Hebrews listed were part of the Old Covenant faith which prefigured the New and which are continued, transformed and perfected in the New Covenant:
In Hebrews 6:3-8 the inspired writer appeals to his audience to hold fast to these truths of Christian belief in order to obtain, God willing, their eternal salvation [Hebrews 6:3], but then he gives them a dire warning in verses 4-8.
Hebrews 6:4-8: 4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit 5 and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are re-crucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt. 7 Ground that has absorbed the rain falling upon it repeatedly and brings forth crops useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is rejected; it will soon be cursed and finally burned.
Question: What is that warning and what is the consequence of failing to heed the warning?
Answer: Abusing the gift of God's grace and rejecting one's salvation in Christ Jesus will result in judgment and destruction. He warns that it is impossible to return to repentance when one has completely rejected Christ.
Question: What metaphor does he use in his warning and what parable Jesus told can be compared to this warning? To what passage in Genesis might the writer also be alluding to concerning the curse issued for disobedience to God's Covenant with Adam in the event of the Fall of man from grace?
Answer: He uses rain on the land as a metaphor for the gift of God's grace to mankind which should yield in the grateful recipient an abundance of good works and God's blessings just as rain will yield a good crop and a good harvest. But rejecting God's gift of grace will result in bad works, a harvest of weeds good only for a fiery destruction. The inspired writer may be thinking of Genesis 3:17-18 and the curse on the productivity of the earth, Adam's abuse of God's blessings in dominion over the earth in the sin of disobedience in rejecting God's sovereignty yielded thorns and thistles on the earth: Accursed be the soil because of you! Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you live. It will yield you brambles and thistles...[New Jerusalem]. Genesis 2:4b-5 also speaks of the time before sin contaminated nature when there were no weeds. Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 might also be on the mind of the writer. In that parable weeds and wheat grow in the same field but at the time of harvest [Final Judgment] the weeds are separated from the wheat and then, good for nothing, they are burned [see Revelation 20:11-15; CCC# 679].
This passage in Hebrews 6:4-8 is a difficult passage. The inspired writer says in 6:4 that it is "impossible," adynaton in the Greek, for those who have been reborn into the family of God who apostatize and turn away from Jesus, to return to repentance and restoration. But he will also say in 6:18 that it is "impossible," adynaton, that God should not fulfill the many blessings He has sworn to give. There is, however, no conflict in these two statements. Both statements are made in reference to God's justice in His interaction with man and both statements are issued without compromise.
In 6:4 the writer may be speaking in hyperbole to impress upon his audience the seriousness of rejecting God's gift of grace and salvation only through Christ Jesus as some scholars suggest, however there may be another interpretation. The Church defines apostasy in the Catechism # 2089 as, the total repudiation of the Christian faith; and the Catholic dictionary defines apostasy as, the total rejection of a baptized person of the Christian faith he once possessed. If the inspired writer is talking about Jewish practices and doctrine, he may also be referring to those Jews who were baptized into the New Covenant but then apostatized and returned to the Old Covenant rituals and practices which could only identify and judge sin.
Question: What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church teach about the Old Covenant? Did the Old Law have the power to offer forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal salvation? See CCC #s 1962-64; 1967-68
Answer: No it did not have that power. Blessings were temporal under the Old Covenant and so were punishments. In the New Covenant the blessings are eternal and so are the punishments! That is why the persistent rejection of God's gift of salvation, after having received the divine life of the Trinity in the Sacrament of Baptist, can only lead to eternal damnation.
In Hebrews 6:4-6 the inspired writer says: 4 For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the holy Spirit 5 and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to bring them to repentance again, since they are re-crucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt.
Question: What "heavenly gift" is he referring to and what have they "tasted" that is the "good word of God and the powers of the age to come"?
Answer: The "heavenly gift" is divine son-ship and renewed life through the supernatural regeneration of Christian baptism. In the Eucharist baptized believers receive a taste of the Living Word, Jesus Christ which is a promise of the resurrection in "the age to come" when Christ returns. This passage may also refer to the Eucharist, as a "taste" of the heavenly banquet that is promised in the future to those who receive the gift of eternal life.
Question: In Hebrews 6:6 the writer makes a shocking statement. He says that those who reject Christ as Savior after baptism are re-crucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt. What does he mean by this statement?
Answer: When Christ died on the Cross for the sins of mankind, we all crucified Him, no sinner is innocent of His condemnation, suffering and death on the Cross. Every time a redeemed man or woman sins and becomes separated from God, once again Christ's death becomes the sinner's burden. It is the Sacrament of Reconciliation that restores the sinner to fellowship with God. But in this passage the inspired writer seems to be referring to the Sacrament of Baptism. In Christian baptism, every professing believer is crucified with Christ, dying to sin and death and being like Jesus, resurrected to "new life" [Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 2:20; 5:24; Colossians 2:12; CCC#1214; 1987].
Jews began to persecute Jewish Christians immediately after the Resurrection in 30AD [see Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42; 6:8-15; 7:54-8:2; etc.], but organized Roman persecution didn't begin 64AD. If the Letter to the Hebrews dates to the mid to late 60's organized Roman persecution had already begun and although many Christians bravely face martyrdom rather than to denounce Jesus as Savior and Lord, there were Christians who apostatized from the faith. The question that plagued the hierarchy of the Church in the early centuries was "What to do with apostates to want to repent? Could they be readmitted to the covenant and if so what penance was fitting? If readmitted, was life-long penance a necessary requirement since the penance must fit the severity of the sin? Baptism completely removed sins and therefore to avoid a life-long penance there may have been those who demanded re-baptism into the New Covenant. Since the Christian is crucified with Christ in baptism, a second baptism would be crucifying Christ a second time. Then too, if a baptized Christian returned to the Old Covenant faith he was uniting himself to an authority which was instrumental, in cooperation with the Roman authority, in condemning Jesus to crucifixion. If a previously baptized Christian returns to the Old Covenant law to seek salvation then Christ died for nothing as St. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:19-20, and the blessings of new life in Christian baptism are rejected. Speaking of the Old Covenant law he wrote: For through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the [old] law, then Christ died for nothing.
Answer: New life infused by God the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Baptism is a gift that can only be given once and can never again be repeated.
If one rejects one's Baptism, there is no second Baptism. In Baptism we die with Christ on the Cross and with Him are resurrected to new life and if baptized as an adult, one is freed of all past sins and the accountability for those sins. Sins, however, committed after Baptism may be forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, but accountability for those sins still remains and penance for those sins must be given either in this life or in purgatory. If one attempts a second Baptism one is in effect crucifying Christ a second time.
When St. Ephraim wrote about this passage he believed the writer was referring to those who apostatized and then attempted to return, rejecting the sacrament of penance and demanding a second baptism. St. Ephraim identified the difference between second baptism and the Sacrament of Penance: It is impossible to restore again to repentance: through a second baptism "those who have once been baptized" who have tasted the heavenly gift "through the medicine which they received, "have become partakers of the Holy Spirit" through the gifts received from the Spirit. "have tasted the goodness of the Word of God" in the new Gospel and were armed with the power of the age to come in the promises prepared for the pious ones, but now "have fallen away" again. Those who propose two baptisms ask for the crucifixion again of the Son of God and for his dishonor. But crucifixion was performed once and will not be performed once more, and baptism was conceded as an "absolver" and is not conceded a second time to the sinner...[..]. After the apostles said these words and discouraged them from sinning and being in want of propitiation, he changed his tone and encouraged them, as if to say, "If there is no second baptism to purify you, your deeds and charity are to be an eternal baptism for you." "Though," he says, "we speak thus" and close the door of mercy before the just ones least they may sin, nevertheless the door of mercy is opened for penitents. "God is not so unjust as to overlook your work," That is, your gift, "and the love" which you have for the saints and the poor who are in Jerusalem. Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews.
St. John Chrysostom agreed with this interpretation of Hebrews 6:6 and wrote: "They crucify," he says, "the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt." What he means is this. Baptism is a cross, and "our old self was crucified with him," for we were "united with him in a death like his" and again, "we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death." Therefore, it is not possible that Christ should be crucified a second time, for that is to "hold him up to contempt." [..]. He then that baptizes a second time crucifies him again... On the Epistle to the Hebrews 9.6; quoting from Hebrews 6:6; Romans 6:4 & 6; and Philippians 3:10].
If this address was made after 64AD the intense Roman persecution of Christians has begun. Christian families were being rounded up, tortured and executed. Many died bravely refusing to deny Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord but there were those who did fail in faith and courage, who did deny Christ and who made sacrifice to the Roman emperor as god. When Christianity was protected by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313AD the Church had to deal with the divisive issue of receiving apostates back into communion. We know from the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage and St. Dionysius of Alexandria that there was a large number of apostates especially in Africa and Asia Minor, including priests and some bishops. These apostates were divided into two classes:
Many Christians suffered martyrdom during these years, including every Pope who sat on the chair of St. Peter. The edict of 257 issued by the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered all bishops, priests and deacons to sacrifice to the Roman gods and forbade any public or private assemblies. Pope Sixtus II was arrested celebrating the Eucharist in the Catacomb of Callistus and was beheaded along with six of his deacons (August 6, 261AD). The seventh deacon, St. Lawrence, was to be martyred three days later, sentenced to be burned alive. He reply to his tormentors is legendary: "I am roasted enough on this side; turn me round." There were many Christians, however, who failed to imitate St. Lawrence's heroic example, and who later, regretting their lack of courage, asked to be reinstated into full fellowship with the Church.
Unfortunately for these weak brothers and sisters, there were Church leaders who denied it was possible for apostates to be redeemed while others upheld the belief that no sin was unforgivable, even apostasy, that all sins could be forgiven through sincere repentance. During the persecution of the Roman Emperor Decius [250-261] an edict was issued which tried to stamp out Christianity entirely by forbidding the preaching of the Gospel and the reception of Baptism. In this persecution the goal of the Empire was not so much the death of Christians as to turn them from the faith. When the persecution ended many apostates begged to be reinstated to the faith and Pope Cornelius [martyred 255AD] granted their request with the condition that they did penance for the remainder of their lives. In Carthage Bishop St. Cyprian, following Pope St. Cornelius' example, also extended forgiveness to apostates under the same conditions. This decision caused a schism in both Rome and Carthage led by a priest named Novatian who championed those who advocated the permanent exclusion of all apostates. Pope Cornelius' authority was challenged by the opposing forces when they elected Novatian Pope of the Catholic Church, making him the first Anti-Pope in the history of the Church. This schism inspired St. Cyprian to write the beautiful treatise On the Unity of the Catholic Church in which he compares the Catholic Church to the seamless priestly robe of Jesus Christ and to make the statement which the Church has always supported: "Outside the Church there is no salvation. He cannot have God as his Father, who has not the Church for his Mother." [see CCC# 845-46]. Later, however, St. Cyprian ignored his own excellent treatise and fell into a dispute with Pope Stephen I when he championed the re-baptism of converted heretics and apostates, a practice the Church completely rejected as being contrary to the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. The persecution under the Roman Emperor Valerian interrupted their dispute. Stephen was martyred in 260 and St. Cyprian was martyred the following year. The Church upheld St. Stephen's decision and there remains for Christians one baptism in Christ.
Concerning the divisions in the Church caused by heresy, apostasy and schism down through the centuries the Catechism teaches:
Since the inspired writer of Hebrews writes in 6:6 of the "impossibility" to return to repentance that person who has apostatized and rejected Jesus as Savior, it is likely he is referring to the full and complete washing of sins in the Sacrament of Baptism that leads to complete and full remission of all sin and not to the Sacrament of penance, since the Church has always taught, in accordance with Jesus' teaching, that genuine repentance is never rejected so long as the soul is on this side of eternity [see Matthew 20:1-16]. After death, in the final rejection of Christ before passing from life to death, the one facing judgment has already pronounced his own condemnation in that final rejection and there can be no forgiveness and only judgment at that point. Many Christian scholars consider this to be the sin against the Holy Spirit from which there is no forgiveness, the final blaspheme of denying the saving power of God the Holy Spirit over one's soul prior to physical death: "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." There are no limits to the mercy of God but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept His mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss [CCC# 1864]. Also see Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10; CCC# 679; 1037; 2091; John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificanum 46.
Please read Hebrews 6:9-12, Words of Encouragement for the Faithful: 9But we are sure in your regard, beloved, of better things related to salvation, even though we speak in this way. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones. 11 We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises.
The inspired writer now softens his harsh tone. Verse 9 contains his first intimate address to the audience, he calls them "beloved," agepetos; from the Greek root agapao = "to love", meaning spiritual love in Greek and for Christians a word defined by Jesus as self-sacrificial love [John 15:12-13]. Although it is a common term of endearment found in Paul's letters [7 times in the Letter to the Romans; 4 times in 1 Corinthians and in the letter to the Colossians; 2 times in 2 Corinthians and in the letter to the Ephesians; 3 times in the letter to the Philippians; once each in the letters to the Thessalonians; and 3 times in the very short letter to Philemon], it is only used this once in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Question: What are "works," the "service" which the writer refers to in verse 10? What did St. Paul say about the works of Christians in Romans 2:6-7?
Answer: Their "work" is the charity and love that they demonstrate to others in the name of Jesus Christ, within and outside the faith community, this is living the Law of the New Covenant which Jesus defined as loving our neighbors as we love ourselves and to love others as He has loved us [Matthew 5:43-46; John 15:12, 17]. St. Paul said that God will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works... God will honor our works of love done in His name [see 1 Corinthians 3:10-17].
Question: Who are "the holy ones" in any age of Salvation History?
Answer: The term "holy ones" has always been applied to God's holy people, the Church. The Church is holy because God is the Holy One [Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8] and those who are consecrated to His service are also called "holy." In Scripture this term "holy ones", was applied to:
1. the Old Covenant Church, Israel and later the prophet Daniel uses this term for the faithful remnant of the Messianic Era in Daniel 7:18
2. In the New Covenant Church:
· St. Peter calls all Christians to be holy as Christ is holy in 1 Peter 1:15; and he uses the term "holy priesthood" "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" for the New Israel, the Church in 1 Peter 2:5-9.
· St. Paul uses this same phrase, "holy ones" for the Church in Romans 8:27; 12:13; 16:2, 15; 1 Corinthians 6:1ff; 14:33; 2 Corinthians 13:12; Colossians. Paul uses this Greek phrase for all Christians but especially for the mother church in Jerusalem and for the Apostles in Romans 15:25-26, 31; 1 Corinthians 16:1, 15; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1, 12.
In Hebrews 6:11-12 the inspired writer, speaking as a representative of the Church, ardently encourages his audience: We earnestly desire each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who, through faith and patience, are inheriting the promises.
We place our faith in the promises of Jesus Christ and cling to the hope of what He promised. In the exercise of faith we believe everything He taught us about Himself and everything written about Him in Sacred Scripture [CCC# 1814]. "In faith we believe and in hope we receive." Our "hope" is to place our trust in Jesus' Christ's promise of eternal life with Him in heaven [CCC# 1817]. And it is with "eagerness for the fulfillment of hope" that we receive the promises God has made to His covenant people drown through the centuries.
Question: In this passage the inspired writer has touched on two of the "theological virtues." What is the 3rd virtue and what does the application of these 3 virtues mean in our journey to salvation? See CCC# 1812-13; 1822-29.
Answer: The third virtue is love/ charity, or "love in action". "Love in action" is the virtue by which we fulfill the command of the New Covenant Law to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves and as Christ loved us. In building a relationship with God we return the love He has given to us by loving our brothers and sisters in the human family who are most in need of our loving kindness expressed in acts of mercy and charity. Practice of the three theological virtues prepares believers for a future in the life of the Most Holy Trinity.
The inspired writer of Hebrews is not speaking of the "eternal security" and "faith alone" theology of our Protestant brothers and sisters. If we only rely on our "faith alone" to being us to salvation, instead of faith as the first step on our journey to salvation, we are relying on our own "work" to achieve salvation. But when we put our faith in Jesus Christ and cling to the hope of Christ's promises, then we can commit ourselves to actively love as He has taught us to love by letting the works of Jesus Christ work through us. In this way, living the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love we rely on the work of Jesus Christ to bring us to salvation. Notice the inspired writer of Hebrews does not say we must "have faith until the end" to win our salvation in Hebrews 6:11 but instead he says, we must hope until the end, which means we must persevere in faith and good deeds in the name of Jesus Christ until the "hoped for" day of our salvation is at hand.
Question: Whose lives of patient faithfulness and endurance does he urge the Jewish Christians to imitate in verse 12 and how are these faithful "inheriting the promises"?
Answer: He urges them (and us) to imitate the faithfulness of their ancestors, the Old Testament saints who believed by faith and who are now, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, experiencing the promises of eternal life in the heavenly kingdom. This is a theme the inspired writer will develop with several examples from the lives of Old Testament saints in chapter 11: Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen. Because of it the ancients were well attested [Hebrews 11:1]. We are all called to live by their example and to believe by faith in order to grasp the hope of the promises of eternal life.
Pope St. Leo the Great wisely wrote: A sound faith is a mighty bulwark, a true faith to which nothing has to be added or taken away. Unless it is one, it is no faith, as the apostle says, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all." Cling to this unity, dearly beloved, with minds unshaken, and "follow after" all "holiness" in faith. Carry out the Lord's commands in faith because "without faith it is impossible to please God." Without faith nothing is holy, nothing is pure, nothing alive: "for the just lives by faith." Pope St. Leo the Great, Sermon 25.6, [quoting Ephesians 4:5-6; Hebrews 12:14; and Habakkuk 2:4].
It is persevering in faith in Jesus Christ that will strengthen us and perseverance in the hope of our salvation witnessed in acts of Jesus' love flowing through us to others that we become heirs of the promises of Jesus Christ.
Please read Hebrews 6:13-20, The Hope of God's Eternal and Immutable Promise:
13 When God made the promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, "he swore by himself," 14 and said, "I will indeed bless you and multiply" you. 15 And so, after patient waiting, he obtained the promise. 16 Human beings swear by someone greater than themselves; for them an oath serves as a guarantee and puts an end to all argument. 17 So when God wanted to give the heirs of his promise an ever clearer demonstration of the immutability of his purpose, he intervened with an oath, 18 so that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to hold fast to the hope that lies before us. 19 This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil, 20 where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, and becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
Question: Why would God "swear by Himself", meaning by His own Name?
Answer: There is nothing greater than God and so He swore by His own name: since he had no one greater by whom to swear, "he swore by himself". He did not swear by heaven or by earth because these will eventually pass away, but God is unchangeable and will never pass away.
Hebrews 6: 16: Human beings swear by someone greater than themselves; for them an oath serves as a guarantee and puts an end to all argument.
Any sworn oath is an appeal to God to be witness to the promise of the oath and to act as judge concerning the truth of what is being promised. Human beings have the tendency to lie and therefore an oath to tell the truth is necessary. In a court room a witness puts his left hand on a Bible and raises his right hand, which points to heaven, and swears under oath to tell the truth. In such a case the one doing the swearing is putting himself under God's judgment. He may fool the court and the judge but he cannot fool God. During the age of the Roman Empire witnesses in Roman courts and in making contracts or other sworn statements swore by the name of the Roman Emperor who would dispense justice if the witness or contract maker failed in his promises. As Christians we swear to a much greater judge and He in turn, in His covenant formation with us, swears by Himself therefore guaranteeing His promises, God never lies [Hebrews 6:18; Deuteronomy 32:4].
Answer: After God "put Abraham to the test" in Genesis chapter 22, God made a Covenant with Abraham: I swear by my own self, Yahweh declares, that because you have done this, because you have not refused me your own beloved son, I will shower blessings on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will gain possession of the gates of their enemies. All nations on earth will bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed my command [New Jerusalem translation, Genesis 22:16-18]. Years after the initial promise of an heir was made in Genesis chapter 12 and again in Genesis 15:4-5, God gave Abraham and Sarah the son He had promised, a boy He told them to name Isaac. Then in Genesis 22 God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up this beloved son of promise as a sacrificial offering. Abraham passed the test because he had faith in God's promise that from this son he would have many descendants. In Hebrews 11:17-19 the inspired writer tells us that having faith in God's promises Abraham believed if he offered up his son that God would raise him from the dead. Passing the test of faith the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 now become a covenant formed in an oath swearing ceremony. Biblical covenants are family bonds formed by swearing oaths and by blood, in this case, however, the sacrifice was not Abraham's son but a ram offered as a substitute. In the covenant bond which this covenant foreshadowed, Yahweh would not spare His own beloved Son whose blood would seal the New Covenant family bond.
Question: Were these 3 covenant promises of land, descendants as numerous as the stars, and a world-wide blessing fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime? When were the 3 covenant promises perfectly fulfilled?
Answer: No, Abraham did not live to see any of these promises fulfilled. These covenantal promises were not fulfilled until approximately 2,000 years later in the New Covenant in Jesus the descendant of Abraham:
1. All heaven and the earth are the domain of the King of Kings
3. The gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ is a world-wide blessing of the New Covenant
Hebrews 6: 17-18: 17 So when God wanted to give the heirs of his promise an ever clearer demonstration of the immutability of his purpose, he intervened with an oath, 18 so that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to hold fast to the hope that lies before us.
Question: What are the "two immutable things"?
Answer: The two unchangeable things are God's promise and God's oath. God's sworn oath to uphold His covenant and His truthfulness to fulfill His promises. The blessings that Abraham, the father of the first covenant people, received foreshadowed the blessings that the inspired writer's audience, the heirs of Abraham, hope to receive.
Once again the writer of Hebrews uses the Greek word adynaton, "impossible." In 6:4 the inspired writer said that it is "impossible" for those who have been reborn into the family of God who apostatize and turn away from Jesus, to return to repentance and restoration. But now in 6:18 he assures us that it is "impossible," adynaton, that God should not fulfill the many blessings He has sworn to give. Dr. Koester points out that both the warning in 6:4 and the promised assurance of God's faithfulness in 6:18 serve the same purpose to encourage perseverance in faithfulness no matter what the cost because the promised reward will be far greater than the suffering: The warning about apostasy and the promise of God's faithfulness functions differently, the warning disturbs while the promise gives assurance, but they serve the same end, which is that listeners might persevere in faith (6:12). Anchor Bible Commentary, page 321.
Hebrews 6: 19-20: 19 This we have as an anchor of the soul, sure and firm, which reaches into the interior behind the veil, 20 where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, and becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
Anchors in ancient times were sometimes simple stone circles with a hole in the center to which a rope was attached. But in the 1st century AD the anchors of Roman ships were more often made of iron and on one end flared outward in two flukes, the opposite end being attached to the front or rear of the ship with a rope or iron chain [Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 7.209]. This is probably the anchor the inspired writer has in mind. The anchor became a common metaphor in classical literature for steadfastness, security, and moral integrity and the anchor became a common Christian symbol for faith based on the promise of Christ Jesus.
Question: What is the "anchor of the soul" that holds us "sure and firm"? Hint: there are two parts or flukes to this "anchor".
Answer: There were two "veils" or curtains in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The outer curtain was at the entrance to the Holy Place and the second separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. This is probably a reference to the "veil" which separated the Holy of Holies, the cube shaped room [20x 20 x 20 cubits; circa 30 feet cubed] in the Sanctuary where the invisible presence of God resided with His people over the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The linen curtain with twisted linen thread, and twisted thread of blue, purple and red embroidery separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, guarding the Mercy Seat from profane contact with sinful man. The veil symbolized the separation between the sacred and the profoundly holy, the separation between the earthly and the heavenly, the separation between God His people. The High Priest only had access to this sacred space once a year on the Feast of Atonement [Leviticus 16:1-18]. Also see 1 Kings 6:20; 2 Chronicles 3:8; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 8.101-106.
Question: What is the significance of what happened to this curtain when Jesus gave up His life on the Cross and how is it that the inspired writer says in Hebrews 6:20 that Jesus has entered on our behalf as a forerunner...? See Matthew 27:50-51; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:45; Isaiah 25:6-8; 66:18-22.
Answer: There are two conditions within the cosmos: "outside of the veil"'meaning the human condition and "within the veil"'meaning in the presence of the One True God. The "veil" is the boundary between the material, profane world and the transcendent spiritual realm [see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 3.123]. The renting of the veil in the Temple, which was a thickly woven carpet about 30 feet high and perhaps an inch thick, symbolized the abrogation of the Old Sinai Covenant in which the covenant people were separated from the presence of God and the way being opened up to unlimited access to God through a prefect sacrifice of atonement by Jesus who, "passing through the veil," leads all faithful believers into the promised communion banquet of the messianic sanctuary into which all peoples of the earth are invited.
In Hebrews 6:20 the inspired writer assures the faithful that the "veil" no longer separates us from the presence of God the Father because Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, into the presence of God, a path we hope to follow, and becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. This is the third powerful reference to "the order of Melchizedech" which, like Jesus' divine priesthood, is a higher order of priesthood than the Levitical priesthood of the Sinai Covenant.
The "order of Melchizedek" is referenced 5 times in the 8 passages in which Melchizedek is mentioned in Hebrews:
just as in another place he says, "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek:
Declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
This "Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High," "met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings" and "blessed him."
for he was still in his father's loins when Melchizedek met him.
If then perfection came through the Levitical priesthood, on the basis of which the people received the law, what need would there still have been for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedech, and not reckoned according to the order of Aaron?
It is even more obvious if another priest is raised up after the likeness of Melchizedek
For it is testified: "You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek."
Everything that the priesthood of the Old Covenant prefigured finds its fulfillment in Christ Jesus, the "only mediator between God and men." The Christian tradition considers Melchizedek, "priest of God the Most High," as prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique "high priest after the order of Melchizedek"; "holy, blameless, unstained," "by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified," that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross. CCC# 1544 quoting 1Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 5:10; // 6:20; Genesis 14:18; Hebrews 7:26; 10:14
What comparisons and contrasts can be made between the priestly order of the Levitical priesthood in the Sinai Covenant, the order of Jesus' eternal priesthood in the New Covenant, and the order of Melchizedek, if he is indeed Shem the firstborn righteous son of Noah, in the Noachide Covenant?
Priestly order of Sinai Covenant
Priestly order of Melchizedek as Shem
Priestly order of Jesus Christ
No priestly succession order listed in Scripture, the first priest in Scripture appointed by God [Genesis 14:18]
Jesus is the eternal High Priest, the last and the only eternal priest appointed by God [Hebrews 7:26-8:2]
Tithes were paid to the priest Melchizedek by Abram; if he is Shem the tithes are paid within the covenant family [Genesis 14:20]
Tithes are paid to Christ our High Priest through His Church by the covenant family
Abram paid a tithe of a tenth of his spoil from battle to Melchizedek [Genesis 14:20]
The covenant people bring Christ, our High Priest, offerings of bread and wine and He gives us, under the appearance of bread and wine, His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity [Matthew 26:26-29;
In priestly role offered the peoples blessings, gifts, and sacrifices to God [Numbers 6:22-27]
As God's priest he blessed Abram and brought bread and wine as a priestly gift [Genesis 14:18-19]
Offers eternal blessings to the people and an eternal sacrifice to God on behalf of the covenant people
The priesthood of the Sinai Covenant was limited to priestly functions
Melchizedek was both a High Priest and the King of Salem/Jerusalem [Genesis 14:18]
The priesthood of the Sinai Covenant served only the children of Israel through the Covenant God made which was exclusively limited to them [Exodus 19:5-6] .
God's Covenant with Noah extended to all the earth. If the covenant continued through Shem, his priesthood was over all peoples of the earth bound in one covenant family. Melchizedek is titled in Genesis 14 as "the priest" of the Most High God. There is no other priest.
God's New Covenant is extended to include all nations [Matthew 28:19-20]. Jesus is the eternal high priest bringing the peoples of the earth back into one covenant family. Jesus is the eternal priest of the New Covenant. There is no other High Priest of the New Covenant [CCC#1545]
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2007 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.
Hebrews 6:20: ...where Jesus has entered on our behalf as forerunner, becoming high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. The Greek word prodromos, in Hebrews 6:20 and translated "forerunner," was a word used for a soldier or military scout who led the advance in a military campaign or an athlete in a race who led the race with the others following behind. It is a curious word to use and presents a curious image since a High Priest was the only one permitted to enter through the "veil" into the Holy of Holies once a year to make atonement for the sins of the covenant people, and certainly no athlete or soldier was permitted entrance upon pain of death. But this imagery identifies the two-fold purpose of Jesus' "entering the veil":
His action as High Priest and forerunner should give us confidence: He augmented their confidence with the name forerunner: if he is our forerunner and has gone up for us, we too must follow and be granted ascent. Interpretation of Hebrews 6, Theodoret of Cry
Questions for group discussion:
Question: Consulting the chart which compares the order of priesthood in the Sinai Covenant, the order of Melchizedek's priesthood and Jesus' New Covenant priesthood, what similarities and differences do you see? What is Jesus' priesthood like Melchizedek's both priestly and royal?
Question: After a failure in the Levitical priesthood in 2 Samuel chapter 2, God makes a promise to His covenant people in 2 Samuel 2:23. What promise of future fulfillment do you see in the prophecy of 2 Samuel 2:23 concerning an Anointed One Jesus the Messiah and His priest?
Catechism references for Hebrews 5:11- 6:20
[*indicates Scripture quoted in citation]
Resources used in this Lesson:
Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.