About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Lynn Wallmark at Simpson University during my senior year in a class on the General Epistles.
Donald Guthrie wrote a commentary on the book of Hebrews (Hebrews, The Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, edited by Leon Morris, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983) that serves to help give some rudimentary explanations of the biblical text without giving any relation or direct application for today’s generation. Although the material covered in his book was very good, I found myself frustrated with the lack of Guthrie’s ability to make the commentary pertinent for today. Despite this vexation, Guthrie does give some foundational material, such as, but not limited to, the difficulties of the authorship of the book of Hebrews, the date and provenance of the book, the superiority of Christ in several areas of Jewish religion, the many examples of faith, and the effects of Christ’s eternal sacrifice. I am going to focus on, however, Guthrie’s exploration of four sections of Hebrews that are universally pertinent to every Christian: drifting (2:1, 3); confidence in Christ (3:14); partaking and falling away (6:4-6); and deliberate sin (10:26). By looking at these four foci we may be able to draw up our own applications for today.
THE FOUR FOCI
THE FIRST FOCUS: DRIFTING (2:1, 3)
Guthrie identifies Hebrews 2:1, 3 as an exhortation against drifting (80). The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to pay close attention to what they have heard, in order that they might not drift away. Guthrie ties in “Lest we drift away” with the mental picture of driftwood in a river (81). He understands that the author is not referring to an active, deliberate and purposeful refusal to adhere to the words they have heard, but of a passive and helpless sliding away (81). In comparison the Greek word for “drift away,” παραρρέω, means “to be washed away, drift away,” with a mental imagery of flowing water (BDAG). Guthrie mentions not what would wash them away, nor does he give the cause. His description is good, but seemingly incomplete, for a reader should understand what is trying to wash them away and carry them off, because one must know who or what they are fighting in order to be victorious. But Guthrie does not stop here, for he goes on to talk about neglecting salvation, which is tied into drifting away.
Guthrie pays attention to the author’s purpose in verse three. The author of Hebrews is noting the existing danger of neglect with his readers, and it is possible that the readers were in jeopardy of diverging from the Christian gospel entirely (81). Guthrie notes the use of a rhetorical question (How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?), a question that implies that there is no such escape from neglecting salvation (81). Guthrie identifies that in the New Testament when the idea of escape is linked with salvation it invariably denotes deliverance from the power or grip of the devil (81). And so, Guthrie does in fact implicitly identify the force against his readers. To drift away, then, is not one’s own doing but the devil’s who is actively trying to sweep us away to the point that we neglect our salvation and turn our backs to it—a complete overturning—causing us to be placed under the bondage of the devil from which there is no escape. It is not addressed here by Guthrie as to whether or not the author is saying that salvation can be lost, if this is a hypothetical situation, or if this is referring to non-Christians who were on the cusp of believing but were kept from actually entering into the grip of grace. This leaves Guthrie’s readers somewhat dissatisfied with an incomplete treatment of drifting and neglect in Hebrews 2:1, 3. But what of his treatment? What can we learn from it?
Every Christian in every culture throughout time ought to be aware that salvation is valuable, so valuable that it ought to be fought for. Christians have a constant battle to hold on to their faith against the devil. It is not enough to merely possess faith. One must actively hold on to it so as to never let it go. This is done by heeding the words of the Lord and paying attention to what He tells us through His servants and especially through His Word, which demands a mental perseverance and a conscious effort to grasp and cling to faith. In doing so Christians will bear confidence in their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
THE SECOND FOCUS: CONFIDENCE IN CHRIST (3:14)
Guthrie notes the author’s contrast to the hardening of the heart to the position of those who are established in Christ, that is those who actively cling to their faith (107). He notes that those who “share in Christ” are those who have a firm and steady foundation (107). Guthrie identifies “partakers with Christ,” as the best suited translation for the context and links it to sharing in the participation of the heavenly kingdom (107). The problem here is that we do not know the manner by which we share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, but this is due to the fact that the author of Hebrews is not so much concerned with the manner of sharing as he is the terms (107). Here we find a conditional statement that expresses these terms.
The author of Hebrews uses a third-class conditional statement that might be true in the future or could be generally true at all times. But which is it? It is unfortunate that Guthrie makes no mention of the conditional statement and its value in this way or of the possible implications that it has for us today much less for the original audience. Guthrie notes that as ones who share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, Christians are assumed to take special concern to continue in fellowship with Christ (108). However, this treatment of the third class condition is not satisfactory because it does not identify whether or not this statement is generally true at all times for the Christian or if it is probably true for the future, assuming that the condition is fulfilled. Guthrie is not concerned with this issue, rather he is focused on the author’s idea of confidence in Christ.
Guthrie notes that confidence is here relating to a legally guaranteed security, thus identifying the need for the believer to hold securely to his or her “share” in Christ (108). This ties into the third class conditional meaning, for it assumes that the sharing of the participation of the heavenly kingdom will be true in the future if the Christian presently securely fastens himself to his fellowship with Christ (108). So, although Guthrie does not bluntly state how the conditional statement is to be understood, it can be inferred through his treatment of confidence in Christ. Furthermore, the confidence that Guthrie refers to is understood as an active and productive faith that yields assurance to the believer that his or her “share” cannot be taken away (108). And what shall we make of this?
Every Christian in every generation ought to know that they are expected to demonstrate a living faith that identifies them as securely fashioned in Christ. Such a demonstration of faith also guarantees their position in Christ because they have actively clung to their faith, and therefore they can have confidence that they will in fact share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom. Present demonstration of faith yields present security in partaking of the heavenly future. It is imperative for Christians to hold onto their faith and allow themselves to be swept away from it or to purposefully fall away from it.
THE THIRD FOCUS: PARTAKING AND FALLING AWAY (6:4-6)
The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to take action and be responsible in keeping their faith and to hold onto their faith in confidence unto the end. But here in 6:4-6 he addresses falling away from faith, only this time it is not passive but active. Guthrie painstakingly treats this passage with care, trying to present the material in depth though still concise. He explores four verbs individually: φωτίζω; γεύομαι; γίνομαι with μέτοχος; and γεύομαι with καλός. His treatment should be taken as a whole to best understand the impossibility of restoring someone to repentance if they fall away.
The first treatment deals with being enlightened. Guthrie notes that this is characteristic in the New Testament, relating to God’s message to man (141). Therefore, this is referring to someone who has been enlightened to God’s Word—His gospel. The Greek word for such enlightenment that is used here means “to make known in reference to the inner life or transcendent matters and thus enlighten,” bearing the idea of shedding light on or giving light to, with the imagery of the heavenly light that is granted to the enlightened one (BDAG). Guthrie takes this enlightenment to be some sort of an initial revelation of Jesus Christ, which he believes is strengthened in his treatment of the other three verbs. But within this treatment it should have been noted by Guthrie that this is an inward and spiritual enlightenment and is not merely head knowledge.
The second treatment deals with tasting. Guthrie notes that tasting the heavenly gift is the experience of the knowledge of the truth (141). The Greek word for tasting here means, “to experience something cognitively or emotionally, come to know something,” bearing the idea of obtaining the heavenly gift (BDAG). This word is fairly treated by Guthrie who notes that the heavenly gift is experienced and known (141). Although not said directly by Guthrie this treatment understands that the heavenly gift has been obtained. But the question arises, “What is the heavenly gift referring to?”
Guthrie identifies the heavenly gift with the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, he also notes that in the present context, the origin of this gift is uncertain, and we cannot be sure that it is referring to the Holy Spirit. At the least Guthrie does state that the gift is not one of human origin but of heaven. Guthrie satisfactorily treated this verb and its use, especially in combination with the question that comes forth from the text regarding the heavenly gift.
The third treatment deals with partaking or becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit. Guthrie suggests that this links to the gift the Spirit, which is the heavenly gift. This has the idea of sharing the Holy Spirit. Thus, as Guthrie notes, it distinguishes the person who only has head knowledge of Christianity from the person who has a share in Christ (142). At this point there is no question that the person who has fallen away is in fact referring to one who was a Christian, for this person would have been one who was at one point partners with the Holy Spirit (cf. BDAG for trans. of μέτοχος as “partners”), which is only possible if they had shared in the participation of the heavenly kingdom, thus being given the Holy Spirit, the gift of God.
The fourth treatment deals with tasting goodness. As the third verb tied in with the first, so also does the fourth tie in with the second. Tasting is now linking with goodness. What goodness? The goodness of the Word of God, which is the knowledge of the truth. Guthrie particularly notes that the person is not tasting God’s Word, rather its goodness (142). Guthrie states that it is possible to come to the Word of God with a sincere heart, yet without appreciation (143). Furthermore, Guthrie says that only those who are well immersed in experiencing Christianity could taste of the goodness of the Word of God (143). The cusp of Guthrie’s treatment of the kind of tasting is most satisfactory. He identifies the tasting is of an experience that will not reach its climax until the parousia (143). Therefore, those who forsake their faith will not see the fruition of their tasting experience when the Lord comes again.
In the text we now come to the idea that one who has completely fallen away from their enlightenment and tasting, which is to fall away from the Christian standard or path of faith, cannot come back to repentance (143). In doing so they are taking part in crucifying the Son of God once again (143). Guthrie relates this act as an attitude of unrelenting hostility towards Christ (144). The attitude of apostasy, then, does not allow for repentance as it hardens the heart from becoming repentant.
At this point Guthrie reviews four possible understandings of this controversial passage. First, he identifies Calvin’s understanding was that the tasting mentioned was only a partial experience that had no affect on the person, yet the enlightenment mentioned by the author is a complete one at that, so this understanding is not satisfactory (144). The second understanding is that the unpardonable sin of grieving the Holy Spirit is at hand (145). Third, Guthrie identifies that this passage has been understood to be hypothetical because there is no indication that any of the author’s readers had committed the aforementioned apostasy, but that this situation was a real possibility for his readers (145). Last, Guthrie makes note of another understanding regarding this Scripture as referring to the impossibility of restoring the apostates back to a condition of repentance (145). However, it is noted that there is uncertainty as to whether or not this is dealing with the initial act of repentance and if it could be performed a second time (145). Guthrie notes that in this case it is realized that there is a point of no return and restoration becomes impossible (145). And so, Guthrie deals with this troublesome passage very well, despite the ambiguity of the author’s intentions for the text. But what can we do with such a difficult portion of Scripture?
All Christians world wide at any time ought to know the severity of turning their back on their faith. To do so would be to hold Christ in contempt, crucifying him all over again and also being completely responsible for it. Christians are responsible for keeping their faith. They are to fight to keep it so as not to be swept away, but they are also to actively pursue not giving up their faith on their own accord. They are to actively demonstrate their faith and share in the participation of the heavenly kingdom lest they fall away. Firmly hold on to your faith; do not let it slip from your fingers and do not throw it away, rather protect it and invest in it. It does not matter what the intention was of the author, Christians regardless bear the responsibility of pursuing faith wholeheartedly. Indeed, those who intentionally give up their pursuit also deliberately sin, and this is not the calling of the Christian, the one who is securely fashioned in Christ.
THE FOURTH FOCUS: DELIBERATE SIN (10:26)
Guthrie addresses the severe warning in Hebrews 10:26, which deals with responsible or deliberate sin. Guthrie identifies deliberate sin as the sort of sin that people enter into with their eyes wide open (217). He also notes that the Levitical sacrifice does not allow for atonement of such deliberate sin (217). Again, the knowledge of the truth is mentioned, and it clearly identifies the fact that the truth is definitely known among all Christians (217). It is the entirety of the Christian revelation (217). Thus, it denotes sin that is done after a comprehension of the truth had been acquired, which is essentially a rejection of that truth (217). Such rejection goes against Christ’s eternal sacrifice for sins (217). However, this is the extent of Guthrie’s treatment regarding this verse. It leaves the reader hanging and in question of the scope of deliberate sin. Would not all sin done after receiving the truth be deliberate? Does that not mean that there would therefore be no atonement for sin after receiving the revelation of Jesus Christ? Guthrie’s treatment is very unsatisfactory. It does not help in identifying what it means to deliberately sin. Deliberate sin is understood to be sin done without compulsion (BDAG). This denotes that deliberate sin is a kind that is done consciously against one’s own conscience. It is the living without constraint, which is the same as living with a license to sin without restriction. Those who think they have a license to sin and use such license without restraint, these are the ones who deliberately sin. Guthrie left this treatment unfinished and should have given some clarification for understanding what the author had in mind when he was talking about sinning willfully. And what are we to do with this understanding of deliberate sin?
All Christians throughout all time should know that the grace given them does not give them a license to sin. They are to live lives of restraint, trying to tame themselves from wild living and rid themselves from sin, thus becoming holy—separated unto God. Christians bear the responsibility, then, to fervently hold onto their faith—not allowing themselves to be carried off and away from their faith or throwing in the towel and giving up their faith willfully—and to respect the eternal sacrifice that Christ made by living holy lives, lives of restraint and not of sinful license.
Guthrie’s treatment of Hebrews provides some invaluable information. However, it did not make any effort to apply to us today or universally—throughout all space and time—for that matter. The material within his commentary is satisfactory in the sense that it helps to explain the text and to shed light on things that might be missed in the English language. Most satisfactory was his treatment on the controversial passage in chapter six, since he not only presented helpful material but also did good word studies and wrestled with different popular conclusions regarding the text. Still, it was unsatisfactory in the sense that Guthrie did not explain some of the Greek conditional nuances that help to further explain the text, like the aforementioned third-class condition in chapter three. It was also unsatisfactory because it did not relate or directly apply the Scripture or commentary to us today. As I was reading it I could not help myself but ask, “Now what? What am I supposed to do with this?”
Yet, despite my irritation, I found the material helpful, and in many respects the four foci as well. I chose these foci because they are absolutely essential to all believers to grasp and understand. I found it amazing that Guthrie would not relate these foundational understandings to his readers. So, I decided to take it upon myself to review them as best as I could so that others might be able to make the connection from the Scripture into their own lives. It is absolutely important that Christians be aware of the possibilities of drifting, falling away, or deliberately sinning, as well as their effects, so that they might be encouraged to persevere and place their confidence in Christ and partake in the participation of the heavenly kingdom. These are four important issues to me that I thought were not treated as well as they should have, which is in fact why I chose to focus on them in this paper. Now that I have, I believe that myself and those who read it can better apply the material within Guthrie’s commentary to our lives and current settings today.