THE EPISTLE TO THE HEBREWS*
[* A Study in Hebrews by W. H. ISAACS, M.A.]
Foundations are an absolute necessity: they must be well and truly laid; but no serious builder would dream of laying foundations twice over.
The extreme importance of the foundations is no excuse for never bringing anything but old stuff out of the store-room (Matt. 13: 52). The prime importance of salvation from the penalty of sin, salvation in the first degree, is no reason for neglect to go on to salvation in the second degree, i.e., from the power of sin.
2. Observe that this thing that the Apostle was telling his readers not to do twice, was a thing which could not, from the nature of the case, be done twice.
“Once enlightened,” does not mean once upon a time, but enlightened once for all – once, as distinct from twice. From the very nature of the case a man cannot go back from light to darkness – from knowledge to ignorance. Therefore enlightenment is from the nature of the case not susceptible of repetition.
The antithesis between the “once for all” of verse 4 and the “a second time” of verses 1 and 6, is obviously intentional, and significant.
3. Observe the sequence of thought: the relaying of foundations is undesirable, impossible and unnecessary. Verse 1, “don’t”: verse 6, “you can’t”: verses 7 and 8, “you needn’t.” Repentance (change of mind) is foundational; it is not however sanctification. Sanctification is a change of character – the bad becomes good. Repentance is the change from ungodly to godly – the change of attitude, direction, position, which precedes sanctification. David in 2 Samuel 11 was a contemptible scoundrel, but he was not ungodly.
Not only is this repentance the initial once-for-all foundation repentance, but by means of the word “renew” it is closely connected with another aspect of the first repeatable item of a soul’s salvation – the emergence of the new creature in Christ Jesus in regeneration.
4. Observe that one assumption upon which the current interpretation of this passage is based is that he who falls away is an apostate, and by his apostasy forfeits, in fact flings from him and negatives, the four privileges which have just been enumerated. This assumption lies upon the surface of the Authorised Version: it is the inference drawn by the Jacobean translators, and they translated accordingly. There are two features of their translation which they effectively passed on to their readers the particular view by which they were obsessed. They rendered [one Greek word … which they translated] “if” and [the other Greek word … which is translated] “fall away." Conscientious translation must needs be determined by the translator’s conception of the meaning of the passage.
But here the limits of legitimate translation were clearly exceeded.
We have here in the Greek a series of seven participles:
1. - having been enlightened
2. - having tasted
3. - having been made partakers
4. - having tasted
5. - having side-slipped
and then after a resumption of the main sentence
6. - crucifying
7. - shaming
Glance at the Authorized Version and the reader will see at once the turn of speech by which the translators have conveyed the impression that No. 5 negatives the four which precede it. They have rendered them in such a way as to answer the question:- “Who is the man of whom we are speaking?” To the 5th they allotted quite a different function, making it answer the question:- Under what circumstances is it impossible to restore that man to a state of salvation? And yet this 5th is linked to No. 4 by precisely the same conjunction as that by which No. 4 is linked to No. 3, and No. 3 to No. 2 - the emphatic continuative “if.”
The translators were convinced and determined to indicate that the first four and the 5th were mutually exclusive. The writer of the epistle was careful to use a conjunction which implies emphatically that they were not mutually exclusive.
B. Undoubtedly the crime which THEY imputed to the man here described is the crime of apostasy, for they use the same term “fall away” in Luke 8: 13 of the deliberate withdrawal of those whom our Lord in the parable of the Sower described as shallow-soil bearers, and in 2 Thessalonians 2: 3 of the purposeful rebellion of the last days.
Both in those passages and in this the expression “fall away” is a translational blunder. Here the word “away” is too strong: there the word “fall” is not strong enough. There the word is “apostasy” (verb or noun). Apostasy is a Greek word spelt in English letters, and applicable to a man who intentionally adopts a certain position. One does not “fall” on purpose.
Here the word used means a “fall,” but a fall sideways, not a departure.
Observe that a man who falls sideways is not an apostate. He hurts himself, he suffers, but he has not changed direction, he is still on the road Godwards. That is the case with which the Apostle is dealing here.
But it may be said:- Granted that the separation of the 5th participle from the four that precede cannot be justified, yet surely, by the resumption of the main sentence between Nos. 5 and 6, the 6th and 7th are separated from the first five.
As we read the read of the Authorized Version this certainly seems quite obvious, but when we read the Greek, translating each participle as we go along literally as a participle, this impression is by no means so strong, in point of fact it disappears. It actually dawns upon the mind of the reader that there is nothing in the Greek to prevent the conclusion that these last two participles qualify - not the word “impossible,” which is forty-eight words away but - the words “renew again to repentance” which are actually next door to them.
It is of course a simple rule of all rational writing that a qualifying clause is placed as near as possible to that which it qualifies.
If this be the case here it would follow that the crucifying afresh and shaming of the Son of God was the reason given by the Hebrew Christian teachers for starting the work of conversion all over again from the beginning: not the reason given by the writer of the Epistle for deprecating this policy. The man who gives himself to God cannot do it twice: for what we have once given to God we cannot take back. cf. Nairne on 10: 10. quoted infra.
It follows that the believer’s position in Christ is unalterable. In the case of the man of whom the Apostle is speaking his position (like David’s in 2 Sam. 11.) was all right. It was his condition that was all wrong, and for that contingency - sins committed after conversion (as indeed also for the reward of services rendered after conversion) there is special provision, Psalms 89: 32, 33; Hebrews 12: 6, 8. The love “that will not let go” will chastise the child that misbehaves but will not disinherit him.
There is no truth, however sacred and precious, that
cannot degenerate into an untruth if harped upon to the neglect of balancing
truths. Even the basic and glorious
truth of sovereign grace can be so misused.
We find no such lack of doctrinal balance in Holy Scripture. Our Lord and all the New Testament writers,
That which beareth thorns and briars is rejected - the same word that is grievously mistranslated “cast-away” in 1 Corinthians 9: 27 - and is accursed? certainly not: but something that so far as any onlooker could tell is awfully like it – “nigh unto cursing.”
No, there is no need to fear that the most outrageous and scandalizing sins of a believer shall be allowed on that ground to claim, and take shelter under, privilege. He is incurring such outward darkness, such wailing and gnashing of teeth as many have actually mistaken for eternal death. We shall never understand the tragic bitterness of that cry of agony “Would God I had died for thee, 0 Absalom, my son, my son,” unless we recognize David’s perception of the fact that the whole miserable business of Absalom lay at the door of the man who had given the Lord’s enemies great occasion to blaspheme.
So we see in verses 7 and 8 that that is unnecessary which the Apostle deprecates in verse 1 and declares to be impossible in verse 6.
Verse 1. Do not go on laying foundations over and over again.
Verse 4. For it is impossible to do over again that which from the nature of the case is unrepeatable. For those who
have once for all been enlightened
have tasted of the heavenly gift
have also been made partakers of the Holy Ghost
have also tasted the good word of God, and powers of the coming age
have also side-slipped into sin –
to re-enact the new birth and conversion of these men on the ground that they are
crucifying the Son of God afresh and are
giving his enemies great occasion to blaspheme
is impossible; and not only impossible but unnecessary for they incur a penalty similar to that which befalls an unfruitful garden. If, when its soil has drunk in the frequent showers, its produce meets the need of its cultivators, God’s blessing is upon the tillage and the land shares the benefit; and if it produces thorns and thistles it is judged worthless: it incurs something very like a curse: the rubbish makes a bonfire and there’s an end of it (1 Cor. 3: 13).
It is surprising to find Westcott alluding to [the Greek word] as “an act of apostasy.”
His interpretation of [the Greek word …] is however quite in harmony with that which is here put forward. “The necessity of progress,” he says, “lies in the very nature of things. There can be no repetition of the beginning. The preacher cannot again renew to repentance ... he must go on to the completion of his work. ... It is indeed necessary, the Apostle seems to say, that I should add this reserve,” if God will, “for ... it is impossible for man to renew to …” (those who have taken a false step) To argue from the present tenses … that what the Apostle means is that it is impossible to convert men while they are sinning - in other words that it is impossible to convert them until after they have reformed, is to invert the obvious order of events. What need is there for conversion after reformation? It is those who are in enmity against Him whom God invites to reconciliation.
9. “but” The adversative again is unnecessary. “That which I have been deprecating,” says the writer “is unnecessary also because you (and here he seems to turn from the leaders to the rank and file) do not need to be treated in this way.”
“Better things”. Nairne expands:- “those grander efforts which lay fast hold of salvation.” The English idiom:- “to think better of a person” - suggests itself as the natural equivalent of this phrase. But the phrase loses its idiomatic value as soon as we expand it to include “things that accompany salvation”; and it is a mistranslation because it ignores the definite article which limits its reference to the better of the two things just mentioned.
“that accompany salvation”. Westcott compares “nigh unto cursing” (8).
10. “for”: I am certain that you are the objects of God’s good-will because ...
“towards his name”. Nairne expands - “in the service you devoted to the honour of his name.” “The name.” is always suggestive of one who is personally absent.
“love”. Westcott quotes Bengel’s notice of the sequence of love, hope and faith in verses 10-12.
11. “we desire”. Nairne renders:- “We set our heart on your doing something further.”
“full assurance of hope”.
refers only to that which is future, and is predicable only of the believer:
therefore it never refers to salvation from the penalty of sin, which, for him,
is past - a certainty already achieved.
Does the writer want his readers to get all that they hope for, or only
to be more hopeful? Nairne and Westcott take
the latter view.
12. “that”. Without the incentive of an expected reward, there is danger that love will cool and service slacken.
“patience”. This is relative to the postponed blessing implied in promises.
13. “for”: Their willingness to wait was justified because
14. “blessing I will bless.” Here emerges the significance of the “blessing” of verse 7. There, as in Abraham’s case, it is the reward
15. “so”: amply reassured by this oathless affirmation.
“obtained”. Nairne renders:- “that was how Abraham, after spirited endurance, met with his promise.” Westcott, Vaughan and Way maintain that the phrase following. after, “made promise” and separated from it by “after he had patiently endured” must mean more than “obtained the assurance of future blessing” - that it affirms that in some sense Abraham gained that for which he looked. This is of course true in the sense that when this was written, that which God had promised to Abraham had in Christ eventuated. From the nature of the case it could not have been fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime.
16. “men”. Westcott notices the qualitative effect of the absence of the article – “men, being men.” He compares Jn. 5: 41 (“I receive not witness from men”). So in verse 18.
“for”. Nairne expands:- “An encouragement to us as well as to him for...”
17. “wherein.” Placing Himself in this position - the position of one who is anxious to assure another of his reliability.
renders:- “took the position of an umpire between Himself and Abraham.” Westcott:-
“interposed between Himself and Abraham with an oath.” Way:- “made his oath
the mediator, as it were, between Himself and man.” [The Greek word …] = an intermediary whose
function it is to facilitate business between two parties. Here the writer says that God acts as his own
intermediary with men = “I act as an intermediary”)
stooping to employ the sort of means with which they are familiar, in order to
win their confidence. So
18. “two things”. Nairne
renders:- “through two unalterable sanctions, the oath
He sware, and his own divinity that He sware by.”
“who have fled.” Nairne expands:- “We who have now fled for refuge from the storm of this troubled world to seize the hope thus long ago held forth to us.”