Heb 5:11-6:20

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Home > The New Testament > Hebrews > Chapter 5-7 > Chapter 5b-6 / Verses 5:11-6:20
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  • Heb 5:11-14: Milk and meat. This passage, along with the beginning of chapter 6 (See Heb 6:1 et seq) is tricky to interpret. The author seems to be saying that his audience requires remedial Gospel instruction, that they are not ready for "meat" because they still have need of "milk." Yet as we shall see in chapter 6, the author does not content himself with mere "milk."
  • Heb 5:11-14: Differing levels. From a Latter-day Saint perspective, the fact that the author talks about differing levels of gospel knowledge in the context of the temple is striking. Aside from the secret of how one vocalized the tetragramaton, which was only spoken in the Holy of Holies, it is not clear that the tabernacle or the other temples of Israel were associated with esoteric knowledge, with "meat." The temples of the Restoration, however, most emphatically are, with their teachings hedged about with oaths of secrecy. It is also interesting that the author associates the "meat" unfit for those still requiring "milk" with priesthood, in particular learning about the symbolism of the higher priesthood of Melchezidek.
  • Heb 5:13: Unskilful in the word. This passage gives us the characteristics of those who are ready for "meat," namely they are "those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." We also have the description of those that use milk as "unskilful in the word of righteousness." The Greek term translated here as "word" is logos. It is a term with a very rich meaning, including "discussion" and "reasoning." Hence, "unskilful in the word of righteousness" could also mean something like "unskilful in the reasoning of righteosness." Hence, with both meat and milk we have reference to what might be called critical faculties. This interpretation is undermined slightly by v. 12's reference to the audience as those who "ought to be teachers." Hence, the logos of v. 13 might be teaching.
  • Heb 5:14: Discernment. An interesting question arises of why those who get meat require discernment between both good and evil. Is this something that is necessary because of the teachings? Does meat consist of an admixture of the two that must be critically evaluated? Or is this simply an indication of a greater spiritual maturity? Why exactly is maturity necessary for the teachings that follow?
  • Heb 5:13: Word. The Greek term translated here as "word" is logos. It is a term with a very rich meaning, including "discussion" and "reasoning."
  • 'Heb 5:14: Strong meat: In modern English, the Greek phrase stereos trophe, translated here as "strong meat," is usually translated as "solid food." The word trophe can refer to any type of food that gives nourishment, not just animal flesh.
  • Heb 6:1-2: Principles of the doctrine of Christ. Some have speculated that the list of "principles of the doctrine of Christ" contained here was an early catechism or statement of belief, analogous perhaps to the "first principles and ordinances of the Gospel" refered to in the Articles of Faith. The list seems to be:
The Laying on of Hands
Eternal Judgment
The grammar of verse 2 also allows for an interpretation where the last four items modify the first two (see Bruce reference below). On this view, the last four items form a foundation of doctrine and ordinances upon which the principles of repentance and faith are built.
  • Heb 6:1: JST. The JST inserts the word "not" in front of "leaving." This insertion suggests a connotation of "leaving" that implies abandoning or jettisoning. However, one could also read "leaving" in the unaltered KJV as simply turning to something else, without jettisoning the first. Notice that the author suggests that the "foundation" he references is not sufficient for "perfection," which requires the greater teachings that he is about to impart.
  • Heb 6:1: Not laying again the foundation. This phrase parallels "leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ". The writer has already indicated a desire to talk about meatier doctrines (cf. Heb 5:12-14), he may be reiterating the desire to talk about such doctrines rather than addressing the topics of repentance and faith again.
  • Heb 6:1: Dead works. This phrase (which recurs in Heb 9:14) could refer to sinful works, or it could refer to righteous works (either ordinances like baptism or the laying on of hands or, more generally, any righteous act). If referring to righteous acts, the deadness of such acts could mean either that they do not lead to eternal life without the intervention of Christ, the great high priest, or that works performed with "artificial or servile legalism" are "worthless and pernicious" as Paul and Christ describe them (see discussion in the Bruce reference below).
  • Heb 6:2: Laying on of hands. This likely refers to the gift of the Holy Ghost or the ordination of the priesthood. Some suggest it could refer to the sacrifice of animals (see John Gill reference below).
  • Heb 6:2: Why is baptisms plural? According to Bruce (see reference below), "Commentators generally concur . . . [that] the writer has in view not merely Christian baptism, but all the symbolic uses of water with which Jewish converts might be familiar."
  • Heb 6:3-6: Apostasy. In these verses, the author justifies leaving behind the discussion of the first principles—"This we will do" (v. 3)—by launching into an aside on the doctrine of apostacy. This discussion seems to be meant to justify why the audience of the letter cannot fall away from the truth. The move, however, is a rhetorical trick. The audience has in fact fallen away from the gospel, or at any rate is threatening to do so. Hence, the author uses his demonstration of the impossiblity of apostacy for his audience as an excuse to preach against apostacy precisely because it seems to be a real problem for his hearers.
  • Heb 6:4: Impossible. The Greek word adunatos is usually translated impossible as it is here in the KJV (and every other translation listed at Crosswalk). However, it can also mean "without strength, impotent, powerless, weakly, disabled", a slightly softer connotation. This verse may be referring to the unpardonable sin (see links below for cross references) or, esp. if the softer connotation is applied, it could be referring to how much more difficult it is for those who have once been righteous to repent, than it is for those who have never been righteous to repent (see 2 Pet 2:21, Alma 24:30, Hel 7:24, 3 Ne 6:18, and D&C 82:3.)
  • Heb 6:4: Tasted. The image of tasting the good word of God is striking. Joseph Smith employed the same image in the King Follett Discourse, where he refered to the truth as tasting good. There may be an oblique reference to the sacrament here, as the "word of God" could be a reference to Christ as the Word (see John 1:1) with our tasting being a reference to the Lord's Supper where he told his disciples that the bread has become his flesh and the wine his blood.
  • Heb 6:6: Softening the impossibility in v. 4? There are at least two different readings of verse 6 which can soften the impossibility of repentance being declared in verse 4. First, "crucify" and "put him to an open shame" may not be explaining what "fall away" means, but proposing a hypothetical case so that the meaning is "they cannot be renewed after falling away if they persist in crucifying" (there is a change of tense from the aorist to the present that suports this view). Another view is that "renew" is expressing a continuous action, so that the meaning is that it is impossible to keep repeating the process of falling and renewing—the repentance isn't genuine inasmuch as the repenter keeps falling away. (See Bruce reference below.)
  • Heb 6:7-8. These verses may be a reference to the parable of the sower, in which the word is likened to a seed thrown on various kinds of ground. If this is correct, then the "thorns and briers" are a reference to the cares of the world (cf. Mark 4:18-19). These verses help clarify the point being made in verses 4-6: those that hear the word of God but then foresake it are condemned. (See also those in Lehi's dream that partook of the fruit and then fell away, 1 Ne 8:25-28.)
Another possible reference is to the briers that the earth was cursed to bring forth in the face of Adam's labor after the fall. The reference to burning could be either to the post-mortal punishment of the particular apostate or to the final apoclyptic end of the earth, or perhaps both.
  • Heb 6:9-10. The author ends his aside started in verse 4 by—somewhat ironically perhaps—saying that none of his teachings about apostacy are meant to be applied to his audience. Given that his audience is in danger of turning from the gospel back to the law of Moses, this insistence is something of a rhetorical play.
Notice verse 10's emphasis on works. God does not forget the audience of the letter because of their labor of love and their ministering to the saints. If we accept a Pauline authorship for the letter, then this passage seems much less grace-centric than some of Paul's other writings, especially in Romans. If we reject Pauline authorship -- as virtually all modern scholars do -- then the tension with Romans is less provacative.
Interestingly, the current "Bible Dictionary" appended to LDS edition of the scriptures takes an intermediate position, acknowledging that Hebrews was probably not composed by Paul, but that its ideas are essentially Pauline. Almost without exception, official LDS discourse from Joseph Smith to the present has assumed Pauline authorship. However, this assumption seems to be based entirely on the traditional assignment of authorship, which has no direct basis in the text and arises out of an early Christian tradition many centuries removed from Paul himself.
  • Heb 6:11-12. These two verses are probably best thought of as a continuation of the thoughts expressed in the preceeding verses. What we are seeing is the delicate rhetorical game that the author is playing of exhorting his audience while only condemning them obliquely. The transition to the next section comes with the reference at the end of v. 12 to "inherit the promises."
The phrase is interesting as it invokes two separate sorts of relationships: inheritances and contracts. An inheritance is essentially a status-based relationship. One becomes entitled to benefits because one stands in a particular -- generally familial -- relationship with the benefactor. The classic example is the relationship between a father and an eldest son. A promise, in contrast, invokes the notion of contract. Generally speaking, a contract defines the purely voluntary obligations between two otherwise unrelated parties. No adoption or other change in familial status is necessary in order to become an obligee or an obligor under a contract. Rather, the touchstone becomes mutual assent to the transaction. The notion of promising also invokes oaths, a category closely related to contract. The idea of an oath is that one promises something and then invokes divine punishment upon oneself in the event of lapse.
By discussing salvation in terms of "inheritance of the promises" the author finesses a difficult aspect of Christian conversion. On one hand, conversion is thought of in voluntarist terms, a choice that reflects the deepest, most personal condition of one's soul. On the other hand, the relationship formed by conversion is much richer than those defined by contract. We do not simply make a kind of anti-Faustian bargain with God, but rather become adopted into his household and ultimately co-heirs with Christ.
  • Heb 6:13-15. In these verses Abraham is offered as the prototypical example of one who becomes an "inheritor of the promises." Notice that God makes an oath to Abraham, which we then inherit as a kind of chose in action. There are a couple of important things to think about in the choice of Abraham as the model. First, Abraham is the ur-founder of the Israelite nation, by identifying Christian salvation with the Abrahamic covenant we get continuity between Christ and the old testament prophets. Second, it is striking that Abraham's promise of infinite posterity is associated by Joseph Smith and the revelations of the Restoration with the promises of the temple. In Kirtland the "keys of the Gospel of Abraham" were restored to Joseph, and it is through the sealing ordinances that we receive the same promises of cosmic fecundity and posterity. Likewise, in Abraham we get the most elemental story of eternal increase as blessing, a notion that Joseph Smith expanded through the doctrine of exaltation into enternal progression and eternal families, worlds without number. It is perhaps not accidental that the author uses Abraham as a bridge back to his discussion of Christ, priesthood, and temple. Finally, Abraham shows up again in Heb 11's discussion of faith.
  • Heb 6:16. In verse 16 the writer places special emphasis on the word oath by transposing it from its expected position. In its expected position in Greek, the oath would fall in line with how it is translated in the KJV. Instead, the oath is transposed to the end of the sentence. To get the same affect in English we could translate this verse as: "For men indeed by the Greater swear, and for the end of the argument they have confirmation, the oath." See Ex 22:11.
  • Heb 6:16. In verse 16, the author suggests that oath taking is a way of certifying the reliability of a statement. Oaths were generally accompanied by penalty clauses. For example, a person might swear to do X and agree that if he did not do X, then the disappointed beneficiary of his oath could punish him. Thus, in the Ancient Near East covenants such as treaties were frequently accompanied by an oath after which the promisor would hack up some animal. The hacking up of the animal was meant to signify what the promisee could do the promisor if he broke his word. (An example of this procedure can be seen in Gen 15:10, and 15:17, where God solemnizes his covenant with Abram by passing between the cut-up animal pieces. cf. Jer 34:11) In addition to penalties, one could invoke theological judgments. By taking an oath to do something, a person could become liable to damnation for breaking it. In a sense then, oaths are related to priesthood. Both of them are a special power that inheres in mankind to influence the action of God through ritual.
  • Heb 6:17-20. Here the author suggests that the reliability of God's word comes from two sources. First, the oath that he as sworn, and second from his own inherent honesty. In v. 18-19 we have two images for the hope promised by God -- a refuge and an anchor. Even more striking, however, is the image of the veil. The temple, of course, had a veil that shielded the Holy of Holies, so with this reference the author once more links Christian salvation -- "the hope set before us" -- with the ritual of the temple.
In verse 20 we learn that Christ as a "high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" has gone before us into the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest of the temple was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, so suggesting that Christ's "Melchisedec" priesthood qualifies him for entry underscores its superiority to the old, Levital priesthood. The other interesting thing is that Christian believers are to follow Christ "within the veil." This, of course, is a priestly action, implying a kind of democratization of access to the sacred not available under the Levital order.

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  • Heb 5:14: Discernment and meat. Why do those who get "meat" require discernment between both good and evil? s this something that is necessary because of the teachings? Does meat consist of an admixture of the two that must be critically evaluated? Or is this simply an indication of a greater spiritual maturity? Why exactly is maturity necessary for the teachings that follow?
  • Heb 6:1-2.The author recapitulates the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. Why is the order of repentance and faith reversed from what we see in the Articles of Faith?
  • Heb 6:10: Dead works. What is the distinction between the "dead works" referenced in v. 1 and the "work and labour of love" referenced in v. 10? Why the differing attitudes toward works?


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  • Heb 6:2: Alexander Bruce. For more on Alexander Bruce's take on how the principles of repentance and faith are modified by the four subsequent ordinances and doctrines, see The Epistle to the Hebrews: The First Apology for Christianity (An Exegetical Study), 2nd edition (first published 1899; reprinted in 1980, ISBN 0-86524-028-0), pp. 202-204. For more on Burce's discussion of why "baptisms" is plural, see pp. 205-6. For more on the phrase "dead works" see p. 204 and p. 352.
  • Heb 6:2: Laying on of hands. John Gill suggests this might refer to animal sacrifice.
  • Heb 6:6: Bruce on softening the impossibility of repenting. See The Epistle to the Hebrews: The First Apology for Christianity (An Exegetical Study) by Alexander Bruce, 2nd edition (first published 1899; reprinted in 1980, ISBN 0-86524-028-0), pp. 211.


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