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1.Therefore, leaving, etc. To his reproof he joins this exhortation, — that leaving first principles they were to proceed forward to the goal. For by the word of beginning he understands the first rudiments, taught to the ignorant when received into the Church. Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows, the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it, would be ridiculous. For as the foundation is laid for the sake of what is built on it, he who is occupied in laying it and proceeds not to the superstruction, wearies himself with foolish and useless labor. In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements, for they propose to themselves no end, as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house. So then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterwards to rise upwards, until by daily progress it be at length completed. (95)
Of repentance from dead works, etc. He here refers to a catechism commonly used. It is hence a probable conjecture that this Epistle was written, not immediately after the promulgation of the Gospel, but when they had some kind of polity established in the Churches; such as this, that the catechumen made a confession of his faith before he was admitted to baptism. And there were certain primary points on which the pastor questioned the catechumen, as it appears from the various testimonies of the fathers; there was an examination had especially on the creed called the Apostles’ Creed. This was the first entrance, as it were, into the church to those who were adults and enlisted under Christ, as they were before alienated from faith in him. This custom the Apostle mentions, because there was a short time fixed for catechumens, during which they were taught the doctrine of religion, as a master instructs his children in the alphabet, in order that he may afterwards advance them to higher things.
But let us examine what he says. He mentions repentance and faith, which include the fullness of the Gospel; for what else does Christ command his Apostles to preach, but repentance and faith? When, therefore, Paul wished to show that he had faithfully performed his duty, he alleged his care and assiduity in teaching these two things. It seems then (as it may be said) unreasonable that the Apostle should bid repentance and faith to be omitted, when we ought to make progress in both through the whole course of our life. But when he adds, from dead works, he intimates that he speaks of first repentance; for though every sin is a dead work, either as it leads to death, or as it proceeds from the spiritual death of the soul; yet the faithful, already born again of the Spirit of God, cannot be said properly to repent from dead works. Regeneration is not indeed made perfect in them; but because of the seed of new life which is in them, however small it may be, this at least may be said of them that they cannot be deemed dead before God. The Apostle then does not include in general the whole of repentance, the practice of which ought to continue to the end; but he refers only to the beginning of repentance, when they who were lately and for the first time consecrated to the faith, commenced a new life. So also the word, faith, means that brief summary of godly doctrine, commonly called the Articles of Faith.
To these are added, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. These are some of the highest mysteries of celestial wisdom; nay, the very end of all religion, which we ought to bear in mind through the whole course of our life. But as the very same truth is taught in one way to the ignorant, and in another way to those who have made some proficiency, the Apostle seems here to refer to the common mode of questioning, “Dost thou believe the resurrection of the dead? Dost thou believe eternal life?” These things were suitable to children, and that only once; therefore to turn back to them again was nothing else but to retrograde.
(95) See Appendix S.
2.Of the doctrine of baptisms, etc. Some read them separately, “of baptisms and of doctrine;” but I prefer to connect them, though I explain them differently from others; for I regard the words as being in apposition, as grammarians say, according to this form, “Not laying again the foundation of repentance, of faith in God, of the resurrection of the dead, which is the doctrine of baptisms and of the laying on of hands.” If therefore these two clauses, the doctrine of baptisms and of the laying on of hands, be included in a parenthesis, the passage would run better; for except you read them as in apposition, there would be the absurdity of a repetition. For what is the doctrine of baptism but what he mentions here, faith in God, repentance, judgment, and the like?
Chrysostom thinks that he uses “baptisms” in the plural number, because they who returned to first principles, in a measure abrogated their first baptism: but I cannot agree with him, for the doctrine had no reference to many baptisms, but by baptisms are meant the solemn rites, or the stated days of baptizing.
With baptism he connects the laying on of hands; for as there were two sorts of catechumens, so there were two rites. There were heathens who came not to baptism until they made a profession of their faith. Then as to these, these, the catechizing was wont to precede baptism. (96) But the children of the faithful, as they were adopted from the womb, and belonged to the body of the Church by right of the promise, were baptized in infancy; but after the time of infancy, they having been instructed in the faith, presented themselves as catechumens, which as to them took place after baptism; but another symbol was then added, the laying on of hands.
This one passage abundantly testifies that this rite had its beginning from the Apostles, which afterwards, however, was turned into superstition, as the world almost always degenerates into corruptions, even with regard to the best institutions. They have indeed contrived the fiction, that it is a sacrament by which the spirit of regeneration is conferred, a dogma by which they have mutilated baptism for what was peculiar to it, they transferred to the imposition of hands. Let us then know, that it was instituted by its first founders that it might be an appointed rite for prayer, as Augustine calls it. The profession of faith which youth made, after having passed the time of childhood, they indeed intended to confirm by this symbol, but they thought of nothing less than to destroy the efficacy of baptism. Wherefore the pure institution at this day ought to be retained, but the superstition ought to be removed. And this passage tends to confirm pedobaptism; for why should the same doctrine be called as to some baptism, but as to others the imposition of hands, except that the latter after having received baptism were taught in the faith, so that nothing remained for them but the laying on of hands?
(96) Calvin has followed some of the fathers in his exposition of these two clauses, who refer to a state of things which did not exist in the Church for a considerable time after the Apostolic age.
What is here said comports with the time of the Apostles, and with that only more particularly. “Baptisms,” being in the plural number, have been a knotty point to many; but there is an especial reason for this in an Epistle to the Hebrews; some of them had no doubt been baptized by John, such were afterwards baptized only in the name of Christ, Acts 19:5, but those who not so baptized, were doubtless baptized in the name of Trinity. “The laying on of hands” on the baptized was an Apostolic practice, by which the miraculous gift of tongues was bestowed. Acts 8:15.
To understand the different things mentioned in the first two verses, we must consider the particulars stated in the 4th and the 5th verses; they are explanatory of each other. The penitent were “the enlightened;” “faith towards God” was “the heavenly gift;” the baptized, who had hands laid on them, were those who were “made partakers of the Holy Ghost;” the prospect and promise of a “resurrection,” was “the good word of God;” and “eternal judgment,” when believed made them to feel “the powers (or the powerful influences) of the word to come.” Thus the two passages illustrate one another. Such is the meaning which Schleusner gives
3.This will we do, etc. A dreadful denunciation follows; but the Apostle thus fulminated, lest the Jews should indulge their own supineness, and trifle with the favor of God; as though he had said, “There ought not in this case it to be any delay; for there will not always be the opportunity for making progress; it is not in man’s power to bound at once, whenever he pleases, from the starting point to the goal; but progress in our course is the special gift of God.”
4.For it is impossible, etc. This passage has given occasion to many to repudiate this Epistle, especially as the Novatians armed themselves with it to deny pardon to the fallen. Hence those of the Western Church, in particular, refused the authority of this Epistle, because the sect of Novatus annoyed them; and they were not sufficiently conversant in the truth so as to be equal to refute it by argument. But when the design of the Apostle is understood, it then appears evident that there is nothing here which countenances so delirious an error. Some who hold sacred the authority of the Epistle, while they attempt to dissipate this absurdity, yet do nothing but evade it. For some take “impossible” in the sense of rare or difficult, which is wholly different from its meaning. Many confine it to that repentance by which the catechumens in the ancient Church were wont to be prepared for baptism, as though indeed the Apostles prescribed fasting, or such things to the baptized. And then what great thing would the Apostle have said, by denying that repentance, the appendage of baptism, could be repeated? He threatens with the severest vengeance of God all those who would cast away the grace which had been once received; what weight would the sentence have had to shake the secure and the wavering with terror, if he only reminded them that there was no longer room for their first repentance? For this would extend to every kind of offense. What then is to be said? Since the Lord gives the hope of mercy to all without exception, it is wholly unreasonable that any one for any cause whatever should be precluded.
The knot of the question is in the word, fall away. Whosoever then understands its meaning, can easily extricate himself from every difficulty. But it must be noticed, that there is a twofold falling away, one particular, and the other general. He who has in anything, or in any ways offended, has fallen away from his state as a Christian; therefore all sins are so many fallings. But the Apostle speaks not here of theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery; but he refers to a total defection or falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace.
And that this may be better understood, let us suppose a contrast between the gifts of God, which he has mentioned, and this falling away. For he falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavens or gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit. Now this is wholly to renounce God. We now see whom he excluded from the hope of pardon, even the apostates who alienated themselves from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God; and this happens to no one but to him who sins against the Holy Spirit. For he who violates the second table of the Law, or transgresses the first through ignorance, is not guilty of this defection; nor does God surely deprive any of his grace in such a way as to leave them none remaining except the reprobate.
If any one asks why the Apostle makes mention here of such apostasy while he is addressing believers, who were far off from a perfidy so heinous; to this I answer, that the danger was pointed out by him in time, that they might be on their guard. And this ought to be observed; for when we turn aside from the right way, we not only excuse to others our vices, but we also impose on ourselves. Satan stealthily creeps on us, and by degrees allures us by clandestine arts, so that when we go astray we know not that we are going astray. Thus gradually we slide, until at length we rush headlong into ruin. We may observe this daily in many. Therefore the Apostle does not without reason forewarn all the disciples of Christ to beware in time; for a continued torpor commonly ends in lethargy, which is followed by alienation of mind.
But we must notice in passing the names by which he signalizes the knowledge of the Gospel. He calls it illumination; it hence follows that men are blind, until Christ, the light of the world, enlightens them. He calls it a tasting of the heavenly gift; intimating that the things which Christ confers on us are above nature and the world, and that they are yet tasted by faith. He calls it the participation of the Spirit; for he it is who distributes to every one, as he wills, all the light and knowledge which he can have; for without him no one can say that Jesus is the Lord, (1 Corinthians 12:3;) he opens for us the eyes of our minds, and reveals to us the secret things of God. He calls it a tasting of the good word of God; by which he means, that the will of God is therein revealed, not in any sort of way, but in such a way as sweetly to delight us; in short, by this title is pointed out the difference between the Law and the Gospel; for that has nothing but severity and condemnation, but this is a sweet testimony of God’s love and fatherly kindness towards us. And lastly, he calls it a tasting of the powers of the world to come; by which he intimates, that we are admitted by faith as it were into the kingdom of heaven, so that we see in spirit that blessed immortality which is hid from our senses. (97)
Let us then know, that the Gospel cannot be otherwise rightly known than by the illumination of the Spirit, and that being thus drawn away from the world, we are raised up to heaven, and that knowing the goodness of God we rely on his word.
But here arises a new question, how can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit, (Romans 8:14;) and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. To all this I answer, That God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate; for they are renewed after his image and receive the earnest of the Spirit in hope of the future inheritance, and by the same Spirit the Gospel is sealed in their hearts. But I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts. Otherwise, where would be the temporal faith mentioned by Mark 4:17 ? There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up. (98)
And by this bridle the Lord keeps us in fear and humility; and we certainly see how prone human nature is otherwise to security and foolish confidence. At the same time our solicitude ought to be such as not to disturb the peace of conscience. For the Lord strengthens faith in us, while he subdues our flesh: and hence he would have faith to remain and rest tranquilly as in a safe haven; but he exercises the flesh with various conflicts, that it may not grow wanton through idleness.
(97) See Appendix T.
(98) See Appendix U.
6.To renew them again into repentance, etc. Though this seems hard, yet there is no reason to charge God with cruelty when any one suffers only the punishment of his own defection; nor is this inconsistent with other parts of Scripture, where God’s mercy is offered to sinners as soon as they sigh for it, (Ezekiel 18:27;) for repentance is required, which he never truly feels who has once wholly fallen away from the Gospel; for such are deprived, as they deserve, of God’s Spirit and given up to a reprobate mind, so that being the slaves of the devil they rush headlong into destruction. Thus it happens that they cease not to add sin to sin, until being wholly hardened they despise God, or like men in despair, express madly their hatred to him. The end of all apostates is, that they are either smitten with stupor, and fear nothing, or curse God their judge, because they cannot escape from him. (99)
In short, the Apostle warns us, that repentance is not at the will of man, but that it is given by God to those only who have not wholly fallen away from the faith. It is a warning very necessary to us, lest by often delaying until tomorrow, we should alienate ourselves more and more from God. The ungodly indeed deceive themselves by such sayings as this, — that it will be sufficient for them to repent of their wicked life at their last breath. But when they come to die, the dire torments of conscience which they suffer, prove to them that the conversion of man is not an ordinary work. As then the Lord promises pardon to none but to those who repent of their iniquity, it is no wonder that they perish who either through despair or contempt, rush on in their obstinacy into destruction. But when any one rises up again after falling, we may hence conclude that he had not been guilty of defection, however grievously he may have sinned.
Crucifying again, etc. He also adds this to defend God’s severity against the calumnies of men; for it would be wholly unbecoming, that God by pardoning apostates should expose his own Son to contempt. They are then wholly unworthy to obtain mercy. But the reason why he says, that Christ would thus be crucified again, is, because we die with him for the very purpose of living afterwards a new life; when therefore any return as it were unto death, they have need of another sacrifice, as we shall find in the tenth chapter. Crucifying for themselves means as far as in them lies. For this would be the case, and Christ would be slandered as it were triumphantly, were it allowed men to return to him after having fallen away and forsaken him.
(99) Some render the verb “renew” actively, in this way, — “For it is impossible as to those who have been once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have been made partakers of holy spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come, and have fallen away, to renew them again unto repentance, since they crucify again as to themselves to Son of God, and expose him to open shame.”
This is more consistent with the foregoing, for the Apostle speaks of teaching. It is as though he had said “It is impossible for us as teachers;” as they had no commission. To “renew” may be rendered to “restore.” It is only found here, but is used by the Sept. for a verb which means renewing in the sense of restoring. See Psalms 103:5; Lamentations 5:21. Josephus applies it to the renovation or restoration of the temple. The “crucifying” was what they did by falling away; for they thereby professed that he deserved to be crucified as an imposter, and thus counted his blood, as it is said in Hebrews 10:29, “unholy,” as the blood of a malefactor; and they thus also exhibited him as an object of public contempt. — Ed.
7.For the earth, etc. This is a similitude most appropriate to excite a desire to make progress in due time, for as the earth cannot bring forth a good crop in harvest except it causes the seed as soon as it is sown to germinate, so if we desire to bring forth good fruit, as soon as the Lord sows his word, it ought to strike roots in us without delay; for it cannot be expected to fructify, if it be either choked or perish. But as the similitude is very suitable, so it must be wisely applied to the design of the Apostle.
The earth, he says, which by sucking in the rain immediately produces a blade suitable to the seed sown, at length by God’s blessing produces a ripe crop; so they who receive the seed of the Gospel into their hearts and bring forth genuine shoots, will always make progress until they produce ripe fruit. On the contrary, the earth, which after culture and irrigation brings, forth nothing but thorns, affords no hope of a harvest; nay, the more that grows which is its natural produce, the more hopeless is the case. Hence the only remedy the husbandman has is to burn up the noxious and useless weeds. So they who destroy the seed of the Gospel either by their indifference or by corrupt affections, so as to manifest no sign of good progress in their life, clearly show themselves to be reprobates, from whom no harvest can be expected.
The Apostle then not only speaks here of the fruit of the Gospel, but also exhorts us promptly and gladly to embrace it, and he further tells us, that the blade appears presently after the seed is sown, and that growing follows the daily irrigations. Some render
(100) The word
9.But we are persuaded, etc. As the preceding sentences were like thunderbolts, by which readers might have been struck dead, it was needful to mitigate this severity. He therefore says now, that he did not speak in this strain, as though he entertained such an opinion of them. And doubtless whosoever wishes to do good by teaching, ought so to treat his disciples as ever to add encouragement to them rather than to diminish it, for there is nothing that can alienate us more from attending to the truth than to see that we are deemed to be past hope. The Apostle then testifies that he thus warned the Jews, because he had a good hope of them, and was anxious to lead them to salvation. We hence conclude, that not only the reprobate ought to be reproved severely and with sharp earnestness, but also the elect themselves, even those whom we deem to be the children of God.
10.For God is not unrighteous, etc. These words signify as much as though he had said, that from good beginnings he hoped for a good end.
But here a difficulty arises, because he seems to say that God is bound by the services of men: “I am persuaded,” he says, “as to your salvation, because God cannot forget your works.” He seems thus to build salvation on works, and to make God a debtor to them. And the sophists, who oppose the merits of works to the grace of God, make much of this sentence, “God is not unrighteous.” For they hence conclude that it would be unjust for him not to render for works the reward of eternal salvation. To this I briefly reply that the Apostle does not here speak avowedly of the cause of our salvation, and that therefore no opinion can be formed from this passage as to the merits of works, nor can it be hence determined what is due to works. The Scripture shows everywhere that there is no other fountain of salvation but the gratuitous mercy of God: and that God everywhere promises reward to works, this depends on that gratuitous promise, by which he adopts us as his children, and reconciles us to himself by not imputing our sins. Reward then is reserved for works, not through merit, but the free bounty of God alone; and yet even this free reward of works does not take place, except we be first received into favor through the kind mediation of Christ.
We hence conclude, that God does not pay us a debt, but performs what he has of himself freely promised, and thus performs it, inasmuch as he pardons us and our works; nay, he looks not so much on our works as on his own grace in our works. It is on this account that he forgets not our works, because he recognizes himself and the work of his Spirit in them. And this is to be righteous, as the Apostle says, for he cannot deny himself. This passage, then, corresponds with that saying of Paul, “He who has begun in you a good work will perfect it.” (Philippians 1:6.) For what can God find in us to induce him to love us, except what he has first conferred on us? In short, the sophists are mistaken in imagining a mutual relation between God’s righteousness and the merits of our works, since God on the contrary so regards himself and his own gifts, that he carries on to the end what of his own goodwill he has begun in us, without any inducement from anything we do; nay, God is righteous in recompensing works, because he is true and faithful: and he has made himself a debtor to us, not by receiving anything from us; but as Augustine says, by freely promising all things. (101)
And labor of love, etc. By this he intimates that we are not to spare labor, if we desire to perform duty towards our neighbors; for they are not only to be helped by money, but also by counsel, by labor, and in various other ways. Great sedulity, then, must be exercised, many troubles must be undergone, and sometimes many dangers must be encountered. Thus let him who would engage in the duties of love, prepare himself for a life of labor. (102)
He mentions in proof of their love, that they had ministered and were still ministering to the saints. We are hence reminded, that we are not to neglect to serve our brethren. By mentioning the saints, he means not that we are debtors to them alone; for our love ought to expand and be manifested towards all mankind; but as the household of faith are especially recommended to us, peculiar attention is to be paid to them; for as love, when moved to do good, has partly a regard to God, and partly to our common nature, the nearer any one is to God, the more worthy he is of being assisted by us. In short, when we acknowledge any one as a child of God, we ought to embrace him with brotherly love.
By saying that they had ministered and were still ministering, he commended their perseverance; which in this particular was very necessary; for there is nothing to which we are more prone than to weariness in welldoing. Hence it is, that though many are found ready enough to help their brethren, yet the virtue of constancy is so rare, that a large portion soon relax as though their warmth had cooled. But what ought constantly to stimulate us is even this one expression used by the apostle, that the love shown to the saints is shown towards the name of the Lord; for he intimates that God holds himself indebted to us for whatever good we do to our neighbors, according to that saying,
“What ye have done to one of the least of these,
ye have done to me,” (Matthew 25:40;)
and there is also another,
“He that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord.”
(101) Nothing can exceed the clearness and the truth of the preceding remarks.
(102) See Appendix X.
11.And we desire, etc. As he blended with exhortation, lest he should altogether grieve their minds; so he now freely reminds them of what was still wanting in them, lest his courtesy should appear to have in it any flattery. “You have made,” he says, “your love evident by many acts of kindness; it remains, however, that your faith should correspond with it; you have sedulously labored not to be wanting in your duties to men; but with no less earnestness it behooves you to make progress in faith, so as to manifest before God its unwavering and full certainty.”
Now, by these words the Apostle shows that there are two parts in Christianity which correspond with the two tables of the Law. Therefore, he who separates the one from the other, has nothing but what is mutilated and mangled. And hence it appears what sort of teachers they are who make no mention of faith, and enjoin only the duty of honesty and uprightness towards men; nay, it is a profane philosophy, that dwells only on the outward mask of righteousness, if indeed it deserves to be called philosophy; for it so unreasonably performs its own duties, that it robs God, to whom the preeminence belongs, of his own rights. Let us then remember, that the life of a Christian is not complete in all its parts, unless we attend to faith as well as to love.
To the full assurance of hope, or, to the certainty of hope, etc. As they who professed the Christian faith were distracted by various opinions, or were as yet entangled in many superstitions, he bids them to be so fixed in firm faith, as no longer to vacillate nor be driven here and there, suspended between alternate winds of doubts. This injunction is, however, applicable to all; for, as the truth of God is unchangeably fixed, so faith, which relies on him, when it is true, ought to be certain, surmounting every doubt. It is a full assurance
The word hope, is here to be taken for faith, because of its affinity to it. The Apostle, however, seems to have designedly used it, because he was speaking of perseverance. And we may hence conclude how far short of faith is that general knowledge which the ungodly and the devils have in common; for they also believe that God is just and true, yet they derive hence no good hope, for they do not lay hold on his paternal favor in Christ. Let us then know that true faith is ever connected with hope.
He said to the end, or perfection; and he said this, that they might know that they had not yet reached the goal, and were therefore to think of further progress. He mentioned diligence, that they might know that they were not to sit down idly, but to strive in earnest. For it is not a small thing to ascend above the heavens, especially for these who hardly creep on the ground, and when innumerable obstacles are in the way. There is indeed, nothing more difficult than to keep our thoughts fixed on things in heaven, when the whole power of our nature inclines downwards, and when Satan or numberless devices draw us back to the earth. hence it is, that he bids us to beware of sloth or effeminacy.
(103) This noun and the verb from which it comes, are peculiar to the new testament, but the latter is once used in the Sept., Ecclesiastes 8:11. The metaphor is taken from a ship in full sail, or from a tree fully laden with fruit. Fullness or perfection is the general idea. It is applied to knowledge in Colossians 2:2, and to faith in Hebrews 10:22. It is also found once more in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, and is applied to the assurance with which the gospel was preached. It may be rendered certainly, or assurance, or full assurance. As a passive participle it means to be fully persuaded in Romans 4:21, and in Romans 14:5. See Appendix Y. — Ed.
12.But followers, or imitators, etc. To sloth he opposes imitation; it is then the same thing as though he said, that there was need of constant alacrity of mind; but it had far more weight, when he reminded them, that the fathers were not made partakers of the promises except through the unconquerable firmness of faith; for examples convey to us a more impressive idea of things. When a naked truth is set before us, it does not so much affect us, as when we see what is required of us fulfilled in the person of Abraham. But Abraham’s example is referred to, not because it is the only one, but because it is more illustrious than that of any other. For though Abraham had this faith in common with all the godly; yet it is not without reason that he is called the father of the faithful. It is, then, no wonder that the Apostle selected him from all the rest, and turned towards him the eyes of his readers as to the clearest mirror of faith.
Faith and patience, etc. What is meant is, a firm faith, which has patience as its companion. For faith is what is, chiefly required; but as many who make at first a marvelous display of faith, soon fail, he shows, that the true evidence of that faith which is not fleeting and evanescent, is endurance. By saying that the promises were obtained by faith, he takes away the notion of merits; and still more clearly by saying, that they came by “inheritance”; for we are in no other way made heirs but by the right of adoption. (104)
(104) The word for “patience” is properly long-suffering, or forbearance, Romans 2:4; but it is used here in the same sense of patient expectation, as the participle clearly means in verse 15.
As to “inherit,” the present, as Grotius says, is used for the past tense — “who inherited,” or rather, “became heirs to the promises.” They did not really possess them, as we find in Hebrews 11:13, but heired them, as we may say; they died in faith and became entitled to them. The word “promises” is used here as well as in chapter 11; for many things were included in what God had promised to the fathers, but chiefly the Messiah and the heavenly inheritance. — Ed.
13.For when God made a promise to Abraham, etc. His object was to prove, that the grace of God is offered to us in vain, except we receive the promise by faith, and constantly cherish it in the bosom of our heart. And he proves it by this argument, that when God promised a countless offspring to Abraham, it seemed a thing incredible; Sarah had been through life barren; both had reached a sterile old age, when they were nearer the grave than to a conjugal bed; there was no vigor to beget children, when Sarah’s womb, which had been barren through the prime of life, was now become dead. Who could believe that a nation would proceed from them, equaling the stars in number, and like the sand of the sea? It was, indeed, contrary to all reason. Yet Abraham looked for this and feared no disappointment, because he relied on the Word of God. (105) We must, then, notice the circumstance as to time, that the Apostle’s reasoning may appear evident; and what he subjoins refers to this — that he was made partaker of this blessing, but that it was after he had waited for what no one could have thought would ever come to pass. In this way ought glory to be given to God; we must quietly hope for what he does not as yet show to our senses, but hides from us and for a long time defers, in order that our patience may be exercised.
Why God did swear by himself we shall presently see. The manner of swearing, Except blessing I will bless thee, we have explained what it means in the third chapter: God’s name is not here expressed, but must be understood, for except he performs what he promises, he testifies that he is not to he counted true and faithful.
(105) It is said, that having “patiently endured” or rather waited, “he obtained the promise,” that is, of a numerous posterity, the particular thing previously referred to. After having waited for twenty-five years, (see Genesis 12:1, and Genesis 17:1,) a son was given him; and this beginning of the fulfilled promise was a pledge of its full accomplishment. This case is brought forward as an example of waiting faith. — Ed.
16.For men, etc. It is an argument from the less to the greater; if credit is given to man, who is by nature false, when he swears, and for this reason, because he confirms what he says by God’s name, how much more credit is due to God, who is eternal truth, when he swears by himself?
Now he mentions several things to commend this declaration; and first he says that men swear by the greater; by which he means that they who are wanting in due authority borrow it from another. He adds that there is so much reverence in an oath that it suffices for confirmation, and puts an end to all disputes where the testimonies of men and other proofs are wanting. Then is not he a sufficient witness for himself whom all appeal to as a witness? Is he not to obtain credit for what he says, who, by his authority, removes all doubts among others? If God’s name, pronounced by man’s tongue, possesses so much superiority, how much more weight ought it to have, when God himself swears by his own name? Thus much as to the main point.
But here in passing, two things are to be noticed, — that we are to swear by God’s name when necessity requires, and that Christians are allowed to make an oath, because it is a lawful remedy for removing contentions. God in express words bids us to swear by his name; if other names are blended with it, the oath is profaned. For this there are especially three reasons: when there is no way of bringing the truth to light, it is not right, for the sake of verifying it, to have recourse to any but to God, who is himself eternal truth; and then, since he alone knows the heart, his own office is taken from him, when in things hidden, of which men can form no opinion, we appeal to any other judge; and thirdly, because in swearing we not only appeal to him as a witness, but also call upon him as an avenger of perjury in case we speak falsely. It is no wonder, then, that he is so greatly displeased with those who swear by another name, for his own honor is thus disparaged. And that there are different forms often used in Scripture, makes nothing against this truth; for they did not swear by heaven or earth, as though they ascribed any divine power to them, or attributed to them the least portion of divinity, but by this indirect protestation, so to speak, they had a regard to the one true God. There are indeed various kinds of protestations; but the chief one is, when we refer to God as a judge and directly appeal to his judgmentseat; another is, when we name things especially dear to us as our life, or our head, or anything of this kind; and the third is, when we call creatures as witnesses before God. But in all these ways we swear properly by no other than by God. hence they betray their impiety no less than their ignorance, who contend that it is lawful to connect dead saints with God so as to attribute to them the right of punishing.
Further, this passage teaches us, as it has been said, that an oath may be lawfully used by Christians; and this ought to be particularly observed, on account of fanatical men who are disposed to abrogate the practice of solemn swearing which God has prescribed in his Law. For certainly the Apostle speaks here of the custom of swearing as of a holy practice, and approved by God. Moreover, he does not say of it as having been formerly in use, but as of a thing still practiced. Let it then be employed as a help to find out the truth when other proofs are wanting.
17.God, willing, etc. See how kindly God as a gracious Father accommodates himself to our slowness to believe; as he sees that we rest not on his simple word, that he might more fully impress it on our hearts he adds an oath. Hence also it appears how much it concerns us to know that there is such a certainty respecting his goodwill towards us, that there is no longer any occasion for wavering or for trembling. For when God forbids his name to be taken in vain or on a slight occasion, and denounces the severest vengeance on all who rashly abuse it, when he commands reverence to be rendered to his majesty, he thus teaches us that he holds his name in the highest esteem and honor. The certainty of salvation is then a necessary thing; for he who forbids to swear without reason has been pleased to swear for the sake of rendering it certain. And we may hence also conclude what great account he makes of our salvation; for in order to secure it, he not only pardons our unbelief, but giving up as it were his own right, and yielding to us far more than what we could claim, he kindly provides a remedy for it.
Unto the heirs of promise, etc. He seems especially to point out the Jews; for though the heirship came at length to the Gentiles, yet the former were the first lawful heirs, and the latter, being aliens, were made the second heirs, and that beyond the right of nature. So Peter, addressing the Jews in his first sermon, says,
“To you and to your children is the promise made, and to those who are afar of, whom the Lord shall call.” (Acts 2:39.)
He left indeed a place for adventitious heirs, but he sets the Jews in the first rank, according to what he also says in the third chapter, “Ye are the children of the fathers and of the covenant,” etc. (Acts 3:25.) So also in this place the Apostle, in order to make the Jews more ready to receive the covenant, shows that it was for their sakes chiefly it was confirmed by an oath. At the same time this declaration belongs at this day to us also, for we have entered into the place quitted by them through unbelief
Observe that what is testified to us in the Gospel is called the counsel of God, that no one may doubt but that this truth proceeds from the very inmost thoughts of God. Believers ought therefore to be fully persuaded that whenever they hear the voice of the Gospel, the secret counsel of God, which lay hid in him, is proclaimed to them, and that hence is made known to them what he has decreed respecting our salvation before the creation of the world.
18.That by two immutable things, etc. What God says as well as what he swears is immutable. (Psalms 12:6; Numbers 23:19.) It may be with men far otherwise; for their vanity is such that there cannot be much firmness in their word. But the word of God is in various ways extolled; it is pure and without any dross, like gold seven times purified. Even Balaam, though an enemy, was yet constrained to bring this testimony,
“God is not like the sons of men that he should lie, neither like men that he should repent: has he then said, and shall he not do it? Has he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19.)
The word of God, then, is a sure truth, and in itself authoritative, (
Who have fled for refuge, etc. By these words he intimates that we do not truly trust in God except when we forsake every other protection and flee for refuge to his sure promise, and feel assured that it is our only safe asylum. Hence by the word flee is set forth our poverty and our need; for we flee not to God except when constrained. But when he adds the hope set before us, he intimates that we have not far to go to seek the aid we want, for God himself of his own free will meets us and puts as it were in our hand what we are to hope for; it is set before us. But as by this truth he designed to encourage the Jews to embrace the Gospel in which salvation was offered to them; so also he thus deprived the unbelieving, who rejected the favor presented to them, of every excuse. And doubtless this might have been more truly said after the promulgation of the Gospel than under the Law: “There is now no reason for you to say, ‘Who shall ascent into heaven? Or, Who shall descend into the deep? Or, Who shall pass over the sea? For nigh is the word, it is in thy mouth and in thy heart.’” (107) (Deuteronomy 30:12; Romans 10:6.)
But there is a metonymy in the word hope, for the effect is put for the cause; and I understand by it the promise on which our hope leans or relies, for I cannot agree with those who take hope here for the thing hoped for — by no means: and this also must be added, that the Apostle speaks not of a naked promise, suspended as it were in the air, but of that which is received by faith; or, if you prefer a short expression, the hope here means the promise apprehended by faith. By the word laying hold, as well as by hope, he denotes firmness.
(106) The “two immutable things,” says most, are the promise and the oath. But some of late, such as Stuart, have disputed this interpretation; and they hold that they are two oaths, — the first was made to Abraham respecting a Son (the Messiah) in whom all nations should be blessed; and the second refers to Christ’s priesthood, recorded in Psalms 110:4. This is the clearly to go out of the passage for its interpretation. The case of the fathers, and especially Abraham, in verses 12, 13, 14 and 15, was introduced for the sake of illustration. And having mentioned God’s oath with regard to Abraham, he proceeds in verse 16 to state the use of an oath among men, and evidently reverting to the promise of eternal life implied in “the hope” mentioned in verse 11, he says that God confirmed that promise, called here God’s “counsel,” by an oath; and the oath specially referred to seems to have been that respecting the priesthood of his Son, more than once mentioned before and at the end of this chapter; for upon his priesthood in an especial manner depended the promise of eternal life. The “counsel” of God means his revealed counsel or gracious purpose, his promise of eternal life to those who believe. In establishing a priesthood by an oath, he confirmed this promise, for its accomplishment depended on that priesthood. To call two oaths two immutable things is nothing so apposite as to call so the promise and the oath by which the priesthood was established. — Ed.
(107) The “strong consolation” is rendered by Theophylact “strong encouragement;” nor is it unsuitable here. The influence of the “two immutable things” was no other than to give strong encouragement to those who believed: the tendency was to confirm them in the faith. Stuart gives it the meaning of “persuasion,” and renders the passage thus, “So that by two immutable things, concerning which is impossible for God to lie, we, who have sought for refuge, might be strongly persuaded to hold fast the hope that is set before us.” The great objection to this is the separation of “fleeing” from the latter part of the sentence, which I find is done by none; and to seek for refuge, or to flee for refuge, is not the meaning of
19.As an anchor, etc. It is a striking likeness when he compares faith leaning on God’s word to an anchor; for doubtless, as long as we sojourn in this world, we stand not on firm ground, but are tossed here and there as it were in the midst of the sea, and that indeed very turbulent; for Satan is incessantly stirring up innumerable storms, which would immediately upset and sink our vessel, were we not to cast our anchor fast in the deep. For nowhere a haven appears to our eyes, but wherever we look water alone is in view; yea, waves also arise and threaten us; but as the anchor is cast through the waters into a dark and unseen place, and while it lies hid there, keeps the vessel beaten by the waves from being overwhelmed; so must our hope be fixed on the invisible God. There is this difference, — the anchor is cast downwards into the sea, for it has the earth as its bottom; but our hope rises upwards and soars aloft, for in the world it finds nothing on which it can stand, nor ought it to cleave to created things, but to rest on God alone. As the cable also by which the anchor is suspended joins the vessel with the earth through a long and dark intermediate space, so the truth of God is a bond to connect us with himself, so that no distance of place and no darkness can prevent us from cleaving to him. Thus when united to God, though we must struggle with continual storms, we are yet beyond the peril of shipwreck. Hence he says, that this anchor is sure and steadfast, or safe and firm. (108) It may indeed be that by the violence of the waves the anchor may be plucked off, or the cable be broken, or the beaten ship be torn to pieces. This happens on the sea; but the power of God to sustain us is wholly different, and so also is the strength of hope and the firmness of his word.
Which entereth into that, or those things, etc. As we have said, until faith reaches to God, it finds nothing but what is unstable and evanescent; it is hence necessary for it to penetrate even into heaven. But as the Apostle is speaking to the Jews, he alludes to the ancient Tabernacle, and says, that they ought not to abide in those things which are seen, but to penetrate into the inmost recesses, which lie hid within the veil, as though he had said, that all the external and ancient figures and shadows were to be passed over, in order that faith might be fixed on Christ alone.
And carefully ought this reasoning to be observed, — that as Christ has entered into heaven, so faith ought to be directed there also: for we are hence taught that faith should look nowhere else. And doubtless it is in vain for man to seek God in his own majesty, for it is too far removed from them; but Christ stretches forth his hand to us, that he may lead us to heaven. And this was shadowed forth formerly under the Law; for the high priest entered the holy of holies, not in his own name only, but also in that of the people, inasmuch as he bare in a manner the twelve tribes on his breast and on his shoulders; for as a memorial for them twelve stones were wrought on the breastplate, and on the two onyx stones on his shoulders were engraved their names, so that in the person of one man all entered into the sanctuary together. Rightly then does the Apostle speak, when he reminds them that our high priest has entered into heaven; for he has not entered only for himself, but also for us. There is therefore no reason to fear that access to heaven will be closed up against our faith, as it is never disjoined from Christ. And as it becomes us to follow Christ who is gone before, he is therefore called our Forerunner, or precursor. (109)
(108) “Safe,” that is safely fixed; and “firm,” that is strong, so as not to be bent nor broken, as Parens says. Stuart seems to have inverted the proper meaning of the words, as he applies
(109) Calvin’s version is “Where our precursor Jesus has entered.” The
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Hebrews 6". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20