In one of the greatest and most strange of human books the argument is sometimes said "to veil itself," and the sustained image of a man battling with the waves betrays the writer's hesitancy. When he has surmounted the first wave, he dreads the second. When he has escaped out of the second, he fears to take another step, lest the third wave may overwhelm him. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews has proved that Christ is Priest-King. But before he starts anew, he warns his readers that whoever will venture on must be prepared to hear a hard saying, which he himself will find difficult to interpret and few will receive. Hitherto he has only shown that whatever of lasting worth was contained in the old covenant remains and is exalted in Christ. Even this truth is an advance on the mere rudiments of Christian doctrine. But what if he attempts to prove that the covenant which God made with their fathers has waxed old and must vanish away to make room for a new and better one? For his part, he is eager to ascend to these higher truths. He has yet much to teach about Christ in the power of His heavenly life. But his readers are dull of hearing and inexperienced in the word of righteousness.
The commentators are much divided and exercised on the question whether the Apostle means that the argument should advance or that his readers ought to make progress in spiritual character. In a way he surely means both. What gives point to the whole section now to be considered is the connection between development of doctrine and a corresponding development of the moral nature. "For the time ye ought to be teachers." They ought to have been teachers of the elementary truths, in consequence of having discovered the higher truths for themselves, under the guidance of God's Spirit. It ought to have been unnecessary for the Apostle to explain them. At this time the "teachers" in the Church had probably consolidated into a class formally set apart, but had not yet fallen to the second place, as compared with the "prophets," which they occupy in the "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." A long time had elapsed since the Church of Jerusalem, with the Apostles and elders, had sat in judgment on the question submitted to their decision by such men as Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James. Since then the Hebrew Christians had degenerated, and now needed somebody -- it mattered little who it might be, -- to teach them the alphabet of Christian doctrine.
Philo had already emphasised the distinction between the child in knowledge and the man of full age and mature judgment. St. Paul had said more than once that such a distinction holds among Christians. Many are carnal; some are spiritual. In his writings the difference is not an external one, nor is the line between the two classes broad and clear. The one shades into the other. But, though we may not be able to determine where the one begins and the other ends, both are tendencies, and move in opposite directions. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the distinction resembles the old doctrine of habit taught by Aristotle. Our organs of sense are trained by use to distinguish forms and colours. In like manner, there are inner organs of the spirit, which distinguish good from evil, not by mathematical demonstration, but by long-continued exercise in hating evil and in loving holiness. The growth of this spiritual sense is connected by our author with the power to understand the higher doctrine. He only who discerns, by force of spirited insight, what is good and what is evil, can also understand spiritual truths. The difference between good and evil is not identical with "the word of righteousness." But the moral elevation of character that clearly discerns the former is the condition of understanding also the latter.
"Wherefore" -- that is, inasmuch as solid food is for full-grown men -- "let us have done with the elementary doctrines, and permit ourselves to be borne strongly onwards towards full growth of spiritual character." The Apostle has just said that his readers needed some one to teach them the rudiments. We should have expected him, therefore, to take it in hand. But he reminds them that the defect lies deeper than intellectual error. The remedy is not mere teaching, but spiritual growth. Apart from moral progress there can be no revelation of new truths. Ever-recurring efforts to lay the foundation of individual piety will result only in an apprehension of what we may designate personal and subjective doctrines.
The Apostle particularises. Repentance towards God and faith in God are the initial graces. For without sorrow for sin and trust in God's mercy God's revelation of Himself in His Son will not be deemed worthy of all acceptation. If this is so, the doctrines suitable to the initial stage of the Christian life will be -- (1) the doctrine of baptisms and of laying on of hands, and (2) the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and of eternal judgment. Repentance and faith accept the gospel of forgiveness, which is symbolised in baptism, and of absolution, symbolised in the laying on of hands. Again, repentance and faith realise the future life and the final award; the beginning of piety reaching forth a hand, as runners do, as if to grasp the furthest goal before it touches the intermediate points. Yet every intermediate truth, when apprehended, throws new light on the soul's eschatology. In like manner civilization began with contemplation of the stars, long before it descended to chemical analysis, but at last it applies its chemistry to make discoveries in the stars.
This, then, is the initial stage in the Christian character, -- repentance and faith; and these are the initial doctrines, baptism, absolution, resurrection, and judgment. How may they be described? They all centre in the individual believer. They have all to do with the fact of his sin. One question, and one only, presses for an answer. It is, "What must I do to be saved?" One result, and one only, flows from the salvation obtained. It is the final acquittal of the sinner at the last day. God is known only as the merciful Saviour and the holy Judge. The whole of the believer's personal existence hovers in mid-air between two points: repentance at some moment in the past and judgment at the end of the world. Works are "dead," and the reason why is that they have no saving power. There is here no thought of life as a complete thing or as a series of possibilities that ever spring into actuality, no thought of the individual as being part of a greater whole. The Church exists for the sake of the believer, not the believer for the sake of the Church. Even Christ Himself is nothing more to him than his Saviour, Who by an atoning death paid his debt. The Apostle would rise to higher truths concerning Christ in the power of His heavenly life. This is the truth which the story of Melchizedek will teach to such as are sufficiently advanced in spirituality to understand its meaning.
But, before he faces the rolling wave, the Apostle tells his readers why it is that, in reference to Christian doctrine, character is the necessary condition of intelligence. It is so for two reasons.
First, the word spoken by God in His Son has for its primary object, not speculation, but "righteousness." Theology is essentially a practical, not a merely theoretical, science. Its purpose is to create righteous men; that is, to produce a certain character. When produced, this lofty character is sustained by the truths of the Gospel as by a spiritual "food," milk or strong meat. Christianity is the art of holy living, and the art is mastered only as every other art is learned: by practice or experience. But experience will suggest rules, and rules will lead to principles. The art itself creates a faculty to transform it into a science. Religion will produce a theology. The doctrine will be understood only by the possessor of that goodness to which it has itself given birth.
Second, the Apostle introduces the personal action of God into the question. Understanding of the higher truths is God's blessing on goodness, and destruction of the faculty of spiritual discernment is His way of punishing moral depravity. This is the general sense and purport of an extremely difficult passage. The threatened billow is still far away. But before it rolls over us, we seem to be already submerged under the waves. Our only hope lies in the Apostle's illustration of the earth that bears here thorns and there good grain.
Expositors go quite astray when they explain the simile as if it were intended to describe the effect on moral character of rightly or wrongly using our faculty of knowledge. The meaning is the reverse. The Apostle is showing the effect of character on our power to understand truth. Neither soil is barren. Both lands drink in the rain that often comes upon them. But the fatness of the one field brings forth thorns and thistles, and this can only mean that the man's vigour of soul is itself an occasion of moral evil. The richness of the other land produces plants fit for use by men, who are the sole reason for its tillage. This, again, must mean that, in the case of some men, God blesses that natural strength which itself is neither good nor evil, and it becomes a source of goodness. We come now to the result in each case. The soil that brings forth useful herbs has its share of the Creator's first blessing. What the blessing consists in we are not here told, and it is not necessary to pursue this side of the illustration further. But the other soil, which gives its natural strength to the production of noxious weeds, falls under the Creator's primal curse and is nigh unto burning. The point of the parable evidently is that God blesses the one, that God destroys the other. In both cases the Apostle recognises the Divine action, carrying into effect a Divine threat and a Divine promise.
Let us see how the simile is applied. The terrible word "impossible" might indeed have been pronounced, with some qualification, over a man who had fallen under the power of evil habits. For God sets His seal to the verdict of our moral nature. To such a man the only escape is through the strait gate of repentance. But here we have much more than the ordinary evil habits of men, such as covetousness, hypocrisy, carnal imaginations, cruelty. The Apostle is thinking throughout of God's revelation in His Son. He refers to the righteous anger of God against those who persistently despise the Son. In the second chapter he has asked how men who neglect the salvation spoken through the Lord can hope to shun God's anger. Here, he declares the same truth in a stronger form. How shall they escape His wrath who crucify afresh the Son and put Him to an open shame? Such men God will punish by hardening their hearts, so that they cannot even repent. The initial grace becomes impossible.
The four parts of the simile and of the application correspond.
First, drinking in the rain that often comes upon the land corresponds to being once enlightened, tasting of the heavenly gift, being made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and tasting the good word of God and the powers of the world to come. The rain descends on all the land and gives it its natural richness. The question whether the Apostle speaks of converted or unconverted men is entirely beside the purpose, and may safely be relegated to the limbo of misapplied interpretations. No doubt the controversy between Calvinists and Arminians concerning final perseverance and the possibility of a fall from a state of grace is itself vastly important. But the question whether the gifts mentioned are bestowed on an unconverted man is of no importance to the right apprehension of the Apostle's meaning. We must be forgiven for thinking he had it not in his mind. It is more to the purpose to remind ourselves that all these excellences are regarded by the Apostle as gifts of God, like the oft-descending rain, not as moral qualities in men. He mentions the one enlightenment produced by the one revelation of God in His Son. It may be compared to the opening of blind eyes or the startled waking of the soul by a great idea. To taste the heavenly gift is to make trial of the new truth. To be made partakers of the Holy Ghost is to be moved by a supernatural enlightening influence. To taste the good word of God is to discern the moral beauty of the revelation. To taste the powers of the world to come is to participate in the gifts of power which the Spirit divides to each one severally even as He will. All these things have an intellectual quality. Faith in Christ and love to God are purposely excluded. The Apostle brings together various phases of our spiritual intelligence, the gift of illumination, which we sometimes call genius, sometimes culture, sometimes insight, the faculty that ought to apprehend Christ and welcome the revelation in the Son. If these high gifts are used to scoff at the Son of God, and that with the persistence that can spring only from the pride and self-righteousness of unbelief, renewal is impossible.
Second, the negative result of not bringing forth any useful herbs corresponds to falling away. God has bestowed His gift of enlightenment, but there is no response of heart and will. The soul does not lay hold, but drifts away.
Third, the positive result of bearing thorns and thistles corresponds to crucifying to themselves the Son of God afresh and putting Him to an open shame. The gifts of God have been abused, and the contrary of what He, in His care for men, intended the earth to produce, is the result. The Divine gift of spiritual enlightenment has been itself turned into a very genius of cynical mockery. The Son of God has already been once crucified amid the awful scenes of Gethsemane and Calvary. The agony and bloody sweat, the cry of infinite loneliness on the Cross, the tender compassion of the dying Jesus, the power of His resurrection -- all this is past. One bitterness yet remains. Men use God's own gift of spiritual illumination to crucify the Son afresh. But they crucify Him only for themselves. When the sneer has died away on the scoffer's lips, nothing is left. No result has been achieved in the moral world. When Christ was crucified on Calvary, His death changed for ever the relations of God and men. When He is crucified in the reproach of His enemies, nothing has been accomplished outside the scoffer's little world of vanity and pride.
Fourth, to be nigh unto a curse and to be given in the end to be burned corresponds to the impossibility of renewal. The illustration requires us to distinguish between "falling away" and "crucifying the Son of God afresh and putting Him to an open shame." The land is doomed to be burned because it bears thorns and thistles. God renders men incapable of repentance, not because they have fallen away once or more than once, but because they scoff at the Son, through Whom God has spoken unto us. The terrible impossibility of renewal here threatened applies, not to apostasy (as the early Church maintained) nor to the lapsed (as the Novatianists held), but to apostasy combined with a cynical, scoffing temper that persists in treading the Son of God under foot. Apostasy resembles the sin against the Son of man; cynicism in reference to the Son of man comes very near the sin against the Holy Ghost. This sin is not forgiven, because it hardens the heart and makes repentance impossible. It hardens the heart, because God is jealous of His Son's honour, and punishes the scoffer with the utter destruction of the spiritual faculty and with absolute inability to recover it. This is not the mere force of habit. It is God's retribution, and the Apostle mentions it here because the text of the whole Epistle is that God has spoken unto us in His Son.
But the Hebrew Christians have not come to this. The Apostle is persuaded better things of them, and things that are nigh, not unto a curse, but unto ultimate salvation. Yet they are not free from the danger. If we may appropriate the language of an eminent historian, "the worship of wealth, grandeur, and dominion blinded the Jews to the form of spiritual godliness; the rejection of the Saviour and the deification of Herod were parallel manifestations of the same engrossing delusion." That the Christian Hebrews may not fall under the curse impending over their race, the Apostle urges them to press on unto full growth of character. And this he and they will do -- he ranks himself among them, and ventures to make reply in their name. But He must add an "if God permit." For there are men whom God will not permit to advance a jot higher. Because they have abused His great gift of illumination to scoff at the greater gift of the Son, they are doomed to forfeit possession of both. The only doomed man is the cynic.
 Chap. v.11.
 Chap. vi.1.
 Chap. v.12.
 Acts xv.
 =tina= (v.12).
 =aphentes= (vi.1).
 Chap. v.13.
 Chap. vi.7.
 Chap. vi.8.
 =di' hous=.
 Chap. ii.3.
 =parapesontas= (vi.6). Cf. =pararyomen= (ii.1).
 Apart from the exigencies of the illustration, the change from the aorist participle to the present participles tells in the same way. It is extremely harsh to consider =anastaurauntas= and =paradeigmatizontas= to be explanatory of =parapesontas=. The former must be rendered hypothetically: "They cannot be renewed after falling away if they persist in crucifying," etc.
 The apostates, or deserters, were not identical with the lapsed, who fell away from fear of martyrdom. Novatian refused to restore either to Church privileges. The Church restored the latter, but not the former. Cf. Cyprian, Ep. lv. ad fin.
 Chap. vi.9.
 Dean Merivale, Romans under the Empire, chap. lix.