What is the meaning of Hebrews 6:3-6?

'If God Permit…’ (Hebrews 6:3-6)

We are getting close to Hebrews 6:4-6 - three verses of Scripture that have caused a lot of perplexity in the Christian church. Some guidelines are needed, (i) It is important that we constantly remember what the writer has already said in Hebrews chapter 1 to 5. For Hebrews 6:4-8 repeats and follows up Hebrews 2:1-4 and Hebrews 3:7 - 4:13. (ii) We must pay special attention to verse 3, before we look at verses 4-6. (iii) We must follow carefully the ‘flow of thought1, for our writer is logically and carefully working out what he wants to say. (iv) We must keep in mind the teaching about the oath of God, which is certainly a major key to the understanding of Hebrews 6. (v) We must resist the temptation to play down certain words and phrases in the text. ‘Impossible’ must not be reduced to mean Very difficult’. ‘Tasted’ must not be taken to mean ‘take a little sip’. The clause ‘since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God’ must not be stripped of its weight by translating ‘while on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God’, as if to say ‘They cannot be rescued from sin while they sin’ (a point hardly worth making). And the clauses of 6:4-5 must not be interpreted to refer to people other than Christians. All of these approaches are surely evasive. All attempts to minimize the various phrases of the text must be resisted.

Actually verse 3 is not difficult; it should be carefully followed. The text says: And this is -what we shall do if God permits (6:3). The Greek word eanper - a word we had in 3:6, 14 - is used here. It is an emphatic marker of condition. I could translate ‘if- and only if- God permits’.

1. There is a possibility of its becoming impossible for us to press on to perfection. Whatever the details of 6:4-6 might mean it is obvious that it explains verse 3. It is quite clear in verse 3 that there is some kind of failure which makes it impossible for the Christian to make further progress and press on to perfection. ‘And this is what we shall do, if God permits’. Verses 4-6 is going to be dealing with this same subject since it begins with the word ‘For’. For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those who were once-for-ever enlightened, and so have experienced the heavenly gift, who were made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and who experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (6:5), and yet they then fell by the wayside. They are in themselves crucifying again the Son of God and exposing him to public shame (6:6). The main point is made clear by verse 3. There are some people with whom it is impossible to press on to perfection.

2. If such a fall takes place it will be impossible for the writer to help them. I shall be able to help you, says the writer. We shall press on to make spiritual progress - but only if God is giving us grace. If He decides not to permit this progress I shall not be able to help you in the way that I wish. There will be nothing I can do if God decides to withhold the possibility of your further progress towards ‘perfection’.

3. This is why there is need for every Christian to stay soft and tender in hearing God’s voice. ‘This is what we shall do, if God permits’. If God gets angry with our hardness of heart, we shall not progress at all and will be left like the Israelites in the wilderness, neither getting un-redeemed and taken back to pre-redemption bondage, nor pressing on to inherit the promises but staying where we are in a wilderness until our life is ended, having forfeited the joys and experiences of the kingdom of God.

It is a frightening thought and yet we must not be terrified more than we need to be. I can say straightaway that anyone who is hearing God’s voice has not committed the sin that the author describes. The writer does not in fact think that his readers have ‘fallen’ in this way. We have not ‘fallen’ in this way if we hear God’s voice and act upon what we hear. The easiest way to prove we are not spiritual deaf is to demonstrate that we have heard God speak to us.

But we do need to know of the danger. How shall we Christians escape God’s anger if we neglect such a great salvation? The best way never to become spiritually deaf is never even to begin to become hard of hearing. Physically this is perhaps impossible but spiritually it can be done. Watch out, brothers and sisters, lest there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God (3:12).

Verses 4 to 6 develop the thought in verse 3. The main point is: there is need for every Christian to stay soft and tender in hearing God’s voice. The key to Hebrews 6:4-6 is surely to take it in the light of what has already been said in 2:1-3 and 3:7-4:13. The gist of the matter is this:

If a Christian reaches a certain point of rebellion, God may not give him permission to progress to spiritual maturity. God may swear in his wrath that such a Christian - although he remains a child of God - will not reach the goal of the Christian life. Such a Christian cannot be renewed unto repentance. He remains hard of heart. No one can help him. He is saved ‘as though through fire’. He or she will reach heaven but eternally lose reward. The key to not ‘falling’ in this way is to stay open to God’s voice.


The Privileges of Conversion (Hebrews 6:4-6)


For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those who were once-for-ever enlightened, and so have experienced the heavenly gift, who were made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and who experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (6:5), and yet they then fell by the -wayside (6:6a). How shall we interpret these verses?

(i) They certainly have nothing to do with losing our status as ‘saved’ people. New birth and justification are not reversible. There is no reference here to 'falling away’ in that sense. Verse 10 explains ‘For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work…’. Surely no Bible-believing Christian thinks we are saved by how good we are, and that God in his justice will save us because of our good works! Works are connected not with justification or new birth but with reward or inheritance, one of the main themes of Hebrews.

(ii) It is the possible loss of maturity that is the theme of the passage. The passage is dealing with reaching perfection or maturity. It involves inheriting the promises and enjoying the rewards of God. It is along this line of approach that we must follow the thought in Hebrews 6:4-6. God rewards works of persistent faith (as Hebrews 10:35 says - ‘Your confidence … has a great reward’). Hebrews 6:4-6 does not speak of losing ‘salvation’ but of losing reward. God rewards works of persistent faith (as Hebrews 10:35 says - ‘Your confidence … has a great reward’). It is this that might possibly be lost as the result of rebellion and spiritual hardness.

(iii) One other view of this passage I must reject decisively and that is the idea that being ‘enlightened’ (6:4) is less than being ‘saved’? The writer is not saying that if an enlightened-but-unsaved person falls by the wayside he cannot be restored. Our author gives no hint that he does not regard these people as true Christians. He knows they are holy brothers and sisters, partakers of a heavenly calling, people who have been persecuted for their faith in Christ. Read the description of the people in 10:32-39, a description of what they were like after they had been enlightened. Their faith is mentioned in the description of those who ‘fell’. For ‘confidence’ (10:35) is the writer’s term for assured faith. They had faith; the writer asks them to not cast it aside but hold to it such that they are richly rewarded (10:35). These people were certainly Christian people.

There is another objection to this third approach. No one has ever found a way of living with it! The great Asahel Nettleton said ‘The most I have ventured to say respecting myself is, that I think it possible I may get to heaven’. He took the view of Hebrews 6 that I am criticizing. Maybe (he thought) he was only enlightened! But surely we are meant to have more assurance of salvation that that!

It is the second approach we must explore. The writer’s point is this. There is a danger for Christians to avoid. It is possible to be so resistant to spiritual growth that God decides to leave us static and we cease to make further progress? God is slow to anger, but he does not ignore hardness of heart and unbelief for ever. The important thing is to be able to hear God’s voice. If you can respond when God rebukes you then you have not reached spiritual deafness. As long as God can speak to you, then you are able to respond to what He says and be renewed to repentance and you can make spiritual progress.

He describes Christian conversion. The people he has in mind are certainly Christian people. ‘Once enlightened’ must refer to Christian conversion (it is similar to Ephesians 1:18, Hebrews 10:26, 32). Outside of Hebrews the best parallel is 2 Corinthians 4:4-6. Christian conversion happens when the light of the gospel shines in our heart to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 6:4, the word ‘once’ - meaning ‘once for ever’, ‘once for all time’ - points to their one-and-only time of conversion to Christ.

We may note that the writer is speaking here of Christians, but they are Christians different from the readers. ‘It is impossible for those…’ - those people distinct from the ones reading his letter, those who have ‘forsaken the assembling of themselves together’ (10:25). The writer is not writing to them; he is writing about them, and warning his friends not to follow the way they have gone. Those people were saved but became rebellious. Unlike them, we need to press on to maturity and inheritance.

‘Tasting the heavenly gift’ refers to the blessings of forgiveness, new birth, sanctification and cleansing by the Holy Spirit.

These people also ‘were made partakers of the Holy Spirit’ (6:4). Once again the word he uses (metochous) is a strong word and refers to full Christian experience. The Christian is ‘born again’ by the Holy Spirit. He or she may be ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit. We are given gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our writer has all of this in mind.

These people also ‘experienced the goodness of the word of God’. God’s gospel message is good. God promises to work all things together for good in the life of the person who loves God. The Christian gets to experience this ‘goodness’ of the gospel-message of God. It is God’s goodness to us that ought to encourage us to move on to full maturity. It is because we have experienced God’s goodness that rebellion and spiritual deafness are so serious.

These people also ‘experienced … the powers of the age to come (6:5). There is a logical order in these phrases describing the Christian. First we see Jesus with the eye of faith; we have the enlightenment of the gospel. Then we actually experience Jesus as God’s gift to us. Thirdly, salvation is sealed to us by the Holy Spirit. Then we discover God’s goodness to us, perhaps over many years. Then the gifts and blessings of the Spirit are ‘powers of the age to come’. They are flashes of glory from the heavenly world to which we are travelling. The Holy Spirit gives us a foretaste of glory. We get to experience even now something of the praise of God, something of the direct presence of God, a foretaste of God’s rewards, a foretaste of the music and joys of heaven, the fellowship and love of heaven. In all of this we have ‘powers’, anointing, lubrication, abilities that come from heaven, and we are able to serve God.

Christian conversion is wonderful! But then the privilege of experiencing all of these things puts us in a position of great responsibility. We must press on to maturity - by hearing God’s voice and getting to inherit his promises.


Falling Away? (Hebrews 6:6b-8)

For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those who were once-for-ever enlightened and so have experienced the heavenly gift, who were made partakers of the Holy Spirit (6:4), and who experienced the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (6:5), and yet they then fell by the wayside (6:6a). They are in themselves crucifying again the Son of God and exposing him to public shame.

The people mentioned here are certainly Christians. It is sometimes said that these people have not repented or believed. But this is a mistake, because our writer will go on to say that cannot be ‘renewed’ to repentance. In other words they have known repentance before! They have repented at least once. Also the writer refers elsewhere (in connection with the same warning) to their first confidence and confidence is his word for faith!

Yet there is the danger that after having experienced so much these people might become rebellious. It had happened not to the readers themselves but to those who had abandoned the fellowship. God gave them many opportunities for recovery, but they refused them all. Finally God took an oath in his anger and so they Tell by the wayside’. It was not loss of eternal salvation. But they lost a lot! They lost their fellowship with God. They lost their usefulness in God’s kingdom. They lost the ministry God wanted them to have. They became spiritually deaf. No one could reach them. They lived in a spiritual wilderness. I have no doubt they got to heaven. They were not un-redeemed, or un-regenerated, or un-justified. They were not disowned as God’s children. God is more faithful than that! They did not lose what God had already given them, but they lost what God wanted to give them. Don’t be like them, says our writer. Don’t even get anywhere near to having a rebellious heart. Hold on to your first confidence. It will be richly rewarded.


We have considered the people he has in mind. Next we must consider the disaster that overtook them (they ‘fell by the wayside’). What is it? We must note it says ‘and fell….’, not ‘if they fall…’. Our writer is considering something that might actually happen (and elsewhere he gives examples of its happening - the wilderness generation, Esau). We must not emphasize the ‘if’ so as to imply it is entirely hypothetical.

The word is parapipto. It means ‘to fall aside’ or to ‘fall by the wayside’. It may mean ‘to stumble on something’, or ‘to be mistaken’. In the New Testament it is found only in Hebrews 6:6, where it means ‘to fall aside’. Despite most modern translations it is not a strong word. It does not mean ‘fall away’ from salvation (for which ek-pipto might be the word to use). When the noun paraptoma (a falling aside) is used in Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark11:25, the sin referred to is not apostasy. The word does not have the idea of totally and finally renouncing one’s faith. Rather in Hebrews it means fail to persist in diligent faith and so come under the anger of God and experience a falling aside’. It is not dealing with rejection of the gospel so much as failure to apply the gospel. This was the danger facing the Hebrew Christians. We must interpret parapipto in the light of Hebrews’ message generally. Elsewhere in 2:3 he speaks of not ‘neglecting salvation’ and says something serious that will happen if we do. In 3:6, 14 he speaks of a failure of faith. Closer to Hebrews 6:6 is Hebrews 3:12 where he speaks of turning away from the living God by a refusal to persist in faith. In 3:11, God’s oath is so serious that an obvious ‘fall’ must follow such that those believers will not enter rest. Hebrews 4:1 Sand 4:11 also have the idea of a ‘fall’.

Hebrews 6:6 refers to a neglect of salvation (see Hebrews 2:3), a refusal to hear God (see Hebrews 3) that is so ingrained and long-lasting that God finally swears in his wrath and the Christian ‘falls’ into a state of being beyond restoration and progress to maturity. Verses 4-6 explain verse 3! These verses are not referring to loss of initial-salvation. It is loss of inheritance, loss of reward. It is not lost sonship, or lost new birth, or lost justification. Every Christian is sanctified for ever by the blood of Christ. He has not long-lasting redemption but eternal redemption. But those who have eternal redemption ‘may (or may not!) receive the promised eternal inheritance’. ‘Hold on to your faith’, says our writer. ‘It will be richly rewarded’. It is reward that is gained by persistent faith. It is reward and current usefulness to God that might be lost for ever by persistent spiritual deafness. The easiest way to understand all of this is to consider the biblical examples and parallels (Esau, the Israelites in the wilderness, Saul, Judah in its last days before the Babylonian exile). What are the characteristics of this ‘falling by the wayside’? (i) It is a Tall’ from which they never recover in this life, (ii) It is becoming spiritually deaf, unable to hear God’s voice, (iii) it is not wanting to repent and not being able to get back to where you were before, (iv) It is being beyond the help of any Christian friend. No one can renew such a person to repentance.

Next in Hebrews 6:6 we have some phrases that speak of how serious was the sin they committed. They are in themselves crucifying again the Son of God and exposing him to public shame (6:6b). The Greek word for ‘in themselves’ is often taken to mean ‘to their own disadvantage’, but more likely it mean ‘in themselves’ and makes the point that the rebellious Christian is doing in his own experience what the enemies of Jesus did when they crucified him. They are subjecting the Lord Jesus Christ to extreme pain. It ‘crucifies’ him when we rebel against him.

The Christian’s lapse into unbelief also is like the crucifixion in that it is ‘exposing him to public shame’. Just as the cross brought shame and disgrace upon Jesus so does the unbelief and life-style of the rebellious Christian.

Next we have in Hebrews (6:6 the writer’s illustration of what he has said (6:7-8). For land that has drunk in the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God (6:7). But land that brings forth thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed. Its end is to be burned (6:8). These words are a small parable. The land represents the heart of the Christian. The often falling rain represents the Word of God and the many times God has spoken to us. The question is: what sort of land is the rain falling upon and what fruit will it produce? What kind of heart is found within us. There are two possibilities. The land upon which the rain fall [the heart to which the Word of God comes] is either useful or useless. It either produces fruit or it produces the thorns and thistles of disobedience and rebellion. Inevitably a decision will be made about thre land sooner or later. That is to say, an oath is to be taken about its usefulness or uselessness. Receiving the blessing of God is God’s oath of mercy (about which we shall read shortly in 6:12-20). Being ‘near’ to a curse is God’s oath of anger in which he swears that we shall never enter his rest during this life, that progress to maturity will never be possible. It is notable that our writer does not say ‘receives the blessing of God … receives the curse of God’. He says it is ‘near to being cursed’. Why is there this slight restraint in what is said? It is surely because the Christian can never be totally and eternally cursed. Our writer is referring only to this life and whether in this life our destiny is reached. The ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ for the Christian is a matter of receiving God’s oath of blessing in this life. The Christian who gets rebellious is like land ‘near to being cursed’ but he can never be absolutely and eternally under God’s curse. He has been given eternal redemption. He is sanctified for ever by the blood of Christ. But the land’ of his heart can be shown to be useless. What is produced - the thorns and thistles of rebellion - will be burned up. Nothing done in rebellion will have any everlasting significance. Our passage is parallel at this point to John 15:6, 1 Corinthians 3:15 and Hebrews 10:27. None of them refer to everlasting punishment. Each of them refers to the fire of God’s judgement in which God angrily burns up the useless behaviour of the rebellious Christian who failed to apply his faith to the calling of God upon his life.

Must the Christian really take the idea of the reward seriously?

Is it commercial and self-centred?

[These notes are extracted and modified from M.A.Eaton, 1 Corinthians 1-9, published by Sovereign World.]

The subject of 'reward' is a vast one - because the entire Bible portrays the godly life as one which will be rewarded. It would be easy to write whole books on the theme of reward, but I cannot do that here. Instead let me take one book of the Bible and let us see what it says about reward in this life and beyond.

1 Corinthians is a fairly clearly set out letter with about nine sections in it. It has an introduction (1:1-9). Then comes a section dealing with worldly wisdom (1:10-4:21), followed by a section dealing with moral problems at Corinth (5:1-6:20) and then he answers some questions they had asked about marriage (7:1-40). Then come sections about 'idol-meats' (8:1-11:1), about various disorders in public worship (11:2-14:40), about his teaching concerning the resurrection (15:1-58). He gives them instructions concerning a collection of money (16:1-4) and some final words of conclusion (16:5-24).

Worldly wisdom (1:10-4:21)

Consider the first section. It deals with the dissensions and rivalries at Corinth which were caused by worldly wisdom. The problem is introduced (1:10-13). But Paul says he is not interested in gathering a party around himself; his interest is in preaching the gospel (1:14-17). Corinthian divisiveness is caused by their love of worldly wisdom, but worldly wisdom actually fails to bring us spiritual blessing (1:18-2:5). True wisdom comes by supernatural revelation (2:6-16). The Corinthians are carnal in their jealousies abd quarelsomeness (3:1-4). In 1 Corinthians In 3:5-4:5 Paul goes on to speak of the true idea of the church, and he uses two illustrations. The church is God's field or garden (3:6-9a), he says. And the church is God's building (3:9b-11). It is in this connection that Paul speaks of reward. By cooperating with God and being used by God, each Christian gets his 'own' reward. The rewards vary according to faithfulness, both in this life and at the day of judgement. The reward is not determined by giftedness; it is determined by God, who knows the secrets of the hearts and judges faithfulness. Care needs to be taken in the matter of the foundation of the church. No person can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. The church is like a building, but every building if it is to be large and permanent needs a foundation. No other foundation can be laid that the one which God has already given. When Paul first started the church in Corinth, his work had been to preach about Jesus Christ. He has already said 'I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ...' (2:2). The apostles' task involved laying a foundation under God and by the grace of God. In the further building that had to be done it was important not to alter the foundation. The work of 'building the church' has to go forward, but it has to be done with care. It is a matter of building on Jesus Christ. We learn more about what it means to live on him. We experience more. We achieve more. We get things done for God.

In 1 Corinthians 3:12-17 Paul deals with reward and loss in detail. Now if any person builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw... (3:12). The first stage in the building of God's people is laying down the foundation, but then further work needs to be done. Christians have to 'build themselves up' (Jude 20). They have to 'work out' their salvation (Phil.2:12). The 'superstructure' of the church consists of the life of godliness, the life of ministry and achievement for God, the life of progressing towards all-round maturity. The bible tells us that we first receive Christ and then we walk in him (Col.2:6). The church's superstructure may be of varied quality. Just as the superstructure of any building may have materials in it of different value so it is with the church. A worldly temple might have gold and silver and precious stones in it. It might also have parts made of wood, and its might have rooms in it with straw and hay for the animals. In the same way Christian work may be of varied quality. One person's ministry might produce mature Christians and might achieve a great deal for God. Another persons ministry might be less pure.

We need to notice precisely what is 'superstructure'. It is what is built upon Christ. It is what is achieved in the lives of those who are built upon Jesus Christ. This work is built up by those who continue the work of the church-planter. Paul says he does the first building (3:10); others carry on his work and help to produce the next stage of the church of Jesus Christ. Superstructure is the further work of the Christian life. It includes character and ministry. Christian ministers are to build us up in godliness and they are to be trainers for ministry. It is his work that may be done well or it may be done badly.

But it is also possible that the superstructure of the church should contain in it poor and shabby materials: wood, hay, straw. Judgement day will be a day when the superstructure of the Christian life and ministry will be examined and evaluated. Now if any person builds upon the foundation ... each person's work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each person's work.

Paul is still using picture language. He is still comparing the church to a building. At the time when Jesus comes again there will be a judgement, and that judgement will begin with the house of God (see 1 Peter 4:17). It will be a day of judgement by fire. Paul is picturing the church as a house. The fire is the fire of God's holiness, the fire of God's extermination of rubbish. Judgement day will be like a house catching fire.

God's holy fire will not be judging our saving faith; it will be judging our works of faith. God's judgement will not touch the foundation of the church; it comes upon the superstructure of the church.

All Christian ministry, all Christian living, everything we have ever done for Jesus, everything we have ever done for ourselves - it will all be exposed in that judgement day. I do not think sins which have been confessed and forsaken will be exposed, but everything else will become known.

Some Christians will receive a reward on that day. Paul says, If any person's work which he has built upon the foundation remains, that person will receive a reward. One might want to ask: what is the reward? It is certainly honour from Jesus. It may include the further privilege of serving him. It will be the truth of what we have done for Jesus being known for ever and ever.

The 'Well done!' that Jesus will say to us, will resound throughout the universe. Everyone will know about it. Our critics will know about it. Our friends will know about it. The angels will know about it. We shall get a 'name' for faithfulness, just as Jesus got a 'name that is above every name' for his obedience to the Father. Some Christians will suffer loss in the judgement day. Paul says: If any person's work is burned up, he or she will suffer loss, but the person himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. He is still using picture language. The picture is of a fire taking hold of a building. The person rushes out of the building. He saves his life but everything he possesses is lost. It will be like that for some Christians in the day of judgement. They will not lose their salvation, but they will lose their reward.

The theme of reward is a biblical theme. Jesus was the one who spoke about it the most. 'I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to give to every person according to what he has done' (Rev.22:12).

Loss of reward will involve at least temporary shame. Some people will shrink in shame at Jesus' coming (1 John 2:28). There is such a thing as loss of reward for the person who is truly saved (see 2 John 8).

All of this should make us treat the church with great respect. Paul says, Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? /17/ If any person destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are. It is a serious matter to damage the church of Jesus Christ. That is what the Corinthians were doing. By their failing to live the life of love they were damaging the church of Jesus and threatening not their salvation but their eternal reward.

Paul goes on to appeal to the Corinthians to abandon worldly techniques altogether (3:18-23). He appeals to them to be willing to look foolish (3:18), warns them that God opposes worldly pride (3:19-20) and asks them to abandon their glorying in human techniques (3:21a). In Jesus they will find everything working to their advantage (3:21-23). They should treat preachers as servants of God and nothing more (4:1). Let any person consider us in this way: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (2:1). Paul is so free from living under what other people think of him; he does not even allow himself to intimidated by his own judgement of himself (v.4). He says: I do not even judge myself! But I know nothing against myself (2:4). It is not other people who have the right to convince him of his sinfulness. That is God's task. I may not be totally in the clear, he says. But the one who judges me is the Lord (2:4). Paul refuses to live in an introspective, hesitant, fearful manner. He trusts God to show him what he needs to know about himself.

We leave judgement until judgement day. Paul concludes this little unit: So then do not judge anything before the time, until the Lord comes, who also will bring to light the secrets of the darkness and will reveal the plans of the heart. And then praise from God will come to each person (4:5). Here again is the theme of reward. We get praised - or we lose praise - in judgement day, In 1 Corinthians 4:6-21 Paul applies all that he has said to the Corinthians.


Moral Problems at Corinth (5:1-6:20) and Questions about Marriage (7:1-40)

Reward does not come much into the next three chapters of 1 Corinthians, although it is worth noting a few verses that touch upon the subject.

There was a serious moral crisis in the Corinthians church. Someone had a sexual relationship with his father's wife (5:1). This presumably means that the father had taken a second wife. Yet you have become arrogant! says Paul. And he goes on to insist that there are times when church discipline is necessary. He knows the facts. He has made up his mind what to do (5:3). He says, I have already passed judgement in the name of the Lord Jesus.... The church must gather together and agree that the one who has sinned so badly yet shows no sign of repentance is no longer to be recognized as one of their 'members'. His sin is not given any support by the church. The church disowns and repudiates such behaviour (5:4-5). The church has a whole is to implement the apostle's instruction. Paul speaks of handing the person over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be brought to ruin and in order that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. To 'hand a person over to Satan' (compare 1 Tim.5:20) seems to mean to abandon any further attempts to bring about restoration, and to expel the person from the congregation's care and fellowship meetings. Such a person is 'sent to the devil', and viewed in the same way that one would view an unconverted person (see Matt.18:17). To be removed from the fellowship in such a way will, Paul hopes, 'destroy the flesh' - that is, his fleshly appetites will be restrained and he will come to his senses. Satan will be God's agent in chastising (as he was for Job, although in that case no scandalous sin was involved). Paul's ultimate hope is that the man will be restored and so 'saved'. It is at this point that 'reward' is again Paul's theme, because 'saved' in the context of 'the last day' often means 'brought through to one's full reward' (note 'Who can be saved...?' in Mark 10:26, followed by a list of possible rewards, in Mark 10:28-30).

There is another reference to reward in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Paul reminds them that sin will have serious consequences. Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived. Neither the immoral person, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate men, nor homosexual offenders (6:9), nor thieves, nor greedy people, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (6:10). What is the nature of his warning here. Is he referring to loss of justification? Loss of new birth? The New Testament never suggests that salvation can be lost in this manner. Some things can be lost but the Christian does not lose new birth or justification! Is Paul imagining then that their salvation will turn out to be false and unreal, that they never were true Christians after all? The New Testament does speak of such 'imitation Christians' but that is not the point here, for Paul actually speaks about their having been 'washed ... sanctified ... justified'. 'Inheritance' always speaks of reward, both now and hereafter. If these Christians persist in these sins they will block their experience of the kingdom in the here-and-now; they will fail to achieve God's purpose for their lives and thus they will lose their heavenly reward. Paul has already spoken of those who might be 'saved through fire' (3:15) and who will 'suffer loss'. This is the second time he has mentioned the 'kingdom'. In 4:20 he had already referred to their present experience of God's power (as opposed to mere talk). The present aspect of the kingdom is the main point here also - although loss of the kingdom now will have repercussions in judgement day (as 3:15 shows).

We need not pursue the material in 1 Corinthians 7.


Eating and Drinking in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1)


In 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 Paul comes to a new topic: the 'idol-meats'. When a Christian woman in Corinth wanted to buy some meat she went to buy it at the local market-place. But there was one thing about it that she would not like. The meat that she bought had previously been offered to an idol in a pagan temple. Obviously Christian women would have preferred not to buy meat that had been used in this way. It raised questions in their minds about whether a Christian should eat meat that had been used in this way. And there were other problems associated with eating and drinking in Corinth. The city was a place of feasting and partying. Many social gatherings took place at the local pagan temples. If a Christian wanted any kind of 'social life' with his neighbours, the pagan temples were the place to go. But at the same time those places were full of idolatry and immorality. The entire matter of eating and drinking and socializing gave the Corinthians Christians many questions. How can I mix with worldly people? Corinth is a wild place - the Christians said to themselves - so can I go to the temple with my neighbours when I know there is likely to be much sin and wickedness there? Would it be alright for me to eat this meat which has been used in idolatry? Is there maybe a curse on it? Could it be that there is some kind of demon hanging around this meat because the meat has been offered to an idol?

Modern Christians, especially young people, ask similar questions. Can I go to a meal with my friends? What will I do if they invite me to a place of non-Christian 'worship'? So there are many matters that Paul must say somthing about. Some of the Corinthians seem to be falling into sin while claiming that their 'knowledge' released them from the danger of idolatry. Others were challenging Paul's authority as an apostle. Yet other Christians were feeling far from being liberated. they were almost afraid to eat meat at all. Paul begins with a word to those who felt they were 'liberated'. He puts love above knowledge. He warns them against pride of knowledge. He promises them reward now if they will put their love of God uppermost in their lives. And if anyone loves God, that person is loved by God (8:3). This is the test of real knowledge. Real knowledge leads us to immense gratitude for God and his great salvation. And then when we really do love God in loving, humble, grateful obedience, he rewards us by revealing yet more of his love towards us. When we love him and how our love in obedience He manifests himself to us. It is the greatest treasure in the world when God reveals to us how much He loves us.

In 1 Corinthians 8:4 Paul gets into his topic in detail. He reaffirms the unique existence of God and the unreality of idols (8:4-6). Then he adds a 'but' But this knowledge is not in all people, says Paul. The sentence makes best sense if the word 'in' is emphasized. All Christians know that idols do not really exist, yet this knowledge grips some Christians more than others. Some Christians do not seem to have this knowledge in their innermost being. Some people, being so accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were really being sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, because it is weak, becomes defiled (8:7). Food laws are unimportant. However food will not present us to God. We are no worse if we do not eat, not better if we do (8:8). But Paul has not finished. Eating in a idol's temple brings in other matters besides freedom from food laws. Freedom must be balanced by love for nervous Christians. Paul says, Be careful, however, that this 'authority' of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak (8:9).

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul is still dealing with the matter of eating at feasts in the pagan temple. He has argued for the protection of the weak (8:1-13). Now he defends and explains his behaviour as an apostle (9:1-27). He is an apostle (9:1-2). He has authority to claim their support (9:4-6). Now he is arguing for his rights (9:7-10a). He is like a soldier, a farmer, a herdsman (9:7-8). He has a right to material support (9:11-12a). Paul's next point is a turn-around. He has these rights but he also has a right not to use them! Nevertheless, we did not use this authority! (9:12b). The fact that he did not use them does not mean that he does not have them! He uses further arguments from temple-workers (9:13a), and altar workers (9:13b). Do you not know that those who are employed with the sacred things of the temple get their food, and those who serve at the altar get a share of the sacrificial offering (9:13). It is the same principle again. Those who labour ought to get some profit from that at which they labour. So he draws his conclusion again. So also the Lord ordained that the ones announcing the gospel should get a living out of the gospel (9:14). But he immediately adds: But I have not made use of even one of these things. And I have not just written what I wrote in order that in that way I might get something for myself (9:15a).

In 1 Corinthians 9:15b-18) Paul comes back again to the theme of reward. 1 Corinthians 9:16-27 is the second of the three central passages in Paul's writings that deal with reward. The other two are 1 Corinthians 3:5-15 and Philippians 3:12-16. Paul knew he would be rewarded by God because he had sacrificed something for the sake of God's kingdom. He says, 'We did not use this authority! ... I have not made use of even one of these things....'. For it would be better for me to die than to have anyone deprive me of what I speak of with much joy (9:15b). The thing that Paul lived for more than anything else was to be rewarded by God. He only was interested in staying alive if there was a possibility of rejoicing before God in expecting God to be pleased with him. It is difficult to know how to handle this word 'speak with much joy'; it is generally translated 'boast', But obviously it does not mean 'boast' in the way that we normally use the term. Love is not boastful. Obviously it means 'glory' in something, 'make something my supreme delight', 'rejoice within myself', 'rejoice in greatly', 'take great pleasure in'. I shall translate it 'speak with joy'.

God's reward comes for going beyond the call of duty. Paul says, For if I preach the gospel, there is no ground for me to congratulate myself. For necessity is laid upon me. For it is woe to me if I do not preach the gospel (9:16). Paul makes a distinction between that which is laid upon him as a duty and that which is done over-and-above the call of duty out of sheer love for God. Paul did not feel that he had any choice in the matter of preaching the gospel. Obviously he preached willingly and cheerfully, and regarded preaching as a great privilege. Yet there was a sense in which he had no choice in the matter.

Reward does not come for doing one's duty! Reward comes from God when out of love for him we sacrifice ourselves to him and go beyond the call of duty. For if I do something voluntarily I have a reward. If I do something but it is not voluntarily I am simply discharging the trust committed to me (9:17). In the ancient world you did not reward a slave for simply being a slave. He was expected to do the work of a slave without any reward. The reward came if he showed how great his love was for his master.

What then is my reward? It is this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of any of my rights in preaching it (9:18). The extent to which he made use of his 'rights' and privileges was a matter in which he was allowed to choose freely. His going without payment for his preaching from the Corinthians was optional. He did what he knew was best for God's work. He could have accepted financial support from the Corinthians but for the sake of God's kingdom he chose to find support elsewhere.

It is this 'going beyond the call of duty' that God delights to honour. Paul knows that he is making a sacrifice for the sake of God's kingdom. And he knows that God will honour him for it..

People have questions about the idea of 'reward' thinking that perhaps it clashes with 'salvation by faith without works'. But the question can be easily answer, and there is such a thing as living for reward!

Are the rewards the result of effort. Yes, the effort of faith, the works of faith. Are they material, tangible? They are primarily spiritual, but they could be more tangible. Sometimes God does something which makes up for what we have lost, and what He gives us as a 'reward' might be quite solid! The rewards include Christ's blessing in the present (his presence, the assurance of pleasing him, 'reaping' eternal life) and honour from him in the future (his 'well done', visible glory in the resurrection body, the privilege of serving him further). Are they present or future? Both. Are they 'earned'? You could say so as long as you realise that no one 'deserves' his reward. Even God rewards are a matter of grace. And the works that are honoured are works of faith. Is the reward heaven? No. Heaven is secure as soon as we trust Christ. Salvation (in this sense of the word - justification, 'getting to heaven') is wholly without works. We do not lay up heaven as treasure. We lay up treasure in heaven. Reward can be lost and yet salvation gained. What sort of works get rewarded? Doing God's will. Those works of faith that fulfill God's purpose for our lives. Enduring temptation, seeking God, dying for Christ (literally or metaphorically), faithful work towards God's people. Do we get rewards for being in a special calling like preaching? No. No one get rewarded for their calling just in itself; only for the manner in which we fulfill it. Is not the idea of reward self-centred? It must be remembered that serving others is what gets rewarded! But there is a note of self-interest in it. We get the most blessing ourselves when we are serving others. This kind of 'self-interest' is encouraged in the bible, We out do one another in showing love! Does this idea of reward lead to pride? Paul does use the word 'boast' but the kind of boasting involved is not boastful in the ordinary sense of the word. Self-centred pride will be humbled. Yet there is a kind of inner 'delight' that God has blessed us. It is a kind of 'humble pride'. It is not a joy that puts down others, since serving others is the very thing that gets rewarded.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 Paul summarises his behaviour. Though I am free from all.... We have already seen that 'freedom' in this context means being free to make up his own mind about eating 'idols-meat' according to what is suitable for the occasion. He submits to the need of the people he is seeking to serve. In 9:12b and 9:15 he has spoken of willingly limiting the exercise of his freedom. It is this theme he picks up here. Though I am free from everyone, I have made myself the slave of everyone, so that I might win the more (9:19). Paul is 'free' yet he is not so free that he is in bondage to his freedom! He chooses how he lives and behaves (in the matter of cultural traditions and minor legalisms), and is careful not to offend people's consciences. He will defy convention in order to make the gospel clear, but he does not want to put needless obstacles in the way of the unsaved, immature or ignorant people he is seeking to help. Paul adopts different styles of life (in cultural matters and minor legalisms) with different people. And I became to the Jews like a Jew, in order that I might gain Jews. To those under the law I became like someone under the law (although I am not myself under the law) in order that I might gain the people under the law (9:20). Paul's law is Christ. He says, To those who are without the law I became like someone without the law - although I am not a lawless person in relation to God but rather have a law within me from Christ - in order that I might gain people who are without the law (9:21). The words 'a law within me from Christ' (ennomos Christou) are difficult to translate. It is normally assumed that the phrase consists of two words (although actually it could be three words, en nomos Christou, meaning 'I am 'in' a law from Christ'). A-nomos ('without law') and en-nomos ('in law') are contrasting words. Paul is clearly saying he is without the full 13th BC law of God given on Mount Sinai. Yet he is not without any kind of rule over his life whatsoever. The rule over his life is the person of Christ himself. And he is clearly saying that this 'rule' is within him. En-vomos is his word for expressing all of this: we could translate 'having a law within me - from Christ'. The thought is parallel to Hebrews 8:8-12 and goes back to Jeremiah 31:2). Paul's law is Christ himself. 'I say unto you' - said Jesus (Matt.5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). He spoke of 'Teaching them ... all that I commanded you' (Matt.28:20). The 'law of Christ' includes things never mentioned in the Old Testament 'Torah' (first five books of the bible). We do not find anything there comparable to what Paul is saying here. To the weak I became like a weak person, in order that I might gain the weak people. I became all these things to all kinds of people, in order that by all these things I might save some (9:22). By 'weak' he means those with over-sensitive consciences. He restrains and adapts himself (as 8:12-13 explains) for the sake of those who have not yet seen their freedom in Christ.

Paul looked for reward to compensate for his tough and flexible lifestyle. He still has in mind what he said in 1 Corinthians 9:17-18. He is looking for reward. And I do all these things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a partaker of its rewards (9:23). Paul lives in the way be does to become a 'fellow-sharer' of the gospel. The thought continues the ideas of 9:12-14. He does not 'share' the financial blessings of the Corinthians. But he expects to get a 'share' in the rewards of the gospel eventually. He might (for special reasons) turn down rewards from particular congregations, but he expects that God will compensate to him what he has lost. To become 'a partaker of the gospel' means to receive its ultimate reward: to gain 'the prize' that Jesus gives. It is this point that Paul will now proceed to explain further. Paul's willingness to sacrifice his comforts, his culture and his self-will is explained here. He views himself as being like a runner in a race. He will not get involved in idolatry or any of the kind of things that take place in pagan meetings at the temple. He does not want to damage his hopes of reaching heavenly reward.

Our secure salvation is the starting point of running for a prize. Paul says, Do you not know that in a race all of the runners take part in the race, but one person receives the prize. Our coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is like becoming a runner. Salvation qualifies us to run in a race. The point of entering the race is to win a prize.

What exactly is the prize? In the case of the athlete it is honour, fame, the privilege of being well-known and being invited to run in further races. The Christian's reward is similar. It is honour and glory. It is Jesus saying 'Well done'. The 'prize-giving' is the day of Jesus' coming. Yet there can be 'prize-giving days' even before the last day when Jesus comes. Even in this life God can reward us and give us further opportunities of serving him. Paul will soon speak of the Israelites in the wilderness (10:1-13) and they lost an opportunity of entering Canaan - but they did not immediately die. They lost a prize in this life. Both now and eternally God offers us 'prizes' for serving him.

Salvation is obtained but the prize is yet to be obtained. Paul's 'justification' is past, but 'the prize' is future. Paul can say 'Having been justified by faith...'. His 'justification' is firmly fixed and settled, but the reward is still open. His justification cannot be lost. 'Those whom he justified he glorified'. But 'the prize' might possibly be lost. Paul's illustration is not perfect; few illustrations ever are. Only 'one' person might win a prize in an athletic competition, but many Christians might 'win the prize' of honour from Jesus. Yet his illustration makes the point that not everyone in the race gets the prize. There is a contrast between the one and the many. Few there be that find it.

Winning the prize requires sacrifice. So Paul goes on to say: So you - the word is plural - are to run the race in such a way that you may lay hold of the prize (9:24). Then he explains what is necessary. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things (9:25a). Paul is still thinking of the idolatry and immorality at the temples in Corinth. He is continuing what he has said in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. Athletes have to go into tough training for a lengthy period before they are able to win prizes. Certain bad habits will have to be abandoned. There must be tough training every day. The Christians at Corinth must be similar. Maybe they would like to go the festivals and parties at the temple. They think there is no harm if they join in the promiscuity of the crowds that worship the pagan gods. 'After all', they said, 'Paul himself teaches that all things are lawful and that we cannot be condemned by the Mosaic law. The body is a miserable thing altogether. What we do with it cannot really affect us...'. So they say! But Paul feels quite differently. There has to be tough self-discipline if the prize is to be won. The Christian is 'free' in many ways, but not so 'free' that he can join in the ways of the pagan festivals and not suffer anything as result. No, the Christian at Corinth will have to abandon worship at the temple, will have to abandon the immorality of the pagan, and must bring themselves under strong discipline - in order to achieve something for God and get God's 'Well done!'.

Winning the prize will affect us eternally. Whether we gain or lose the 'Well done!' of Jesus is no small matter. They do it in order that they may obtain a perishable crown, but we do it to for a crown that will not perish (9:25). Unlike the crown of the Greek athletes, our victor's crown will affect us for ever and ever. Judgement day will not go on for ever, but the results of it will be everlasting. Our level of glory eternally will be affected by how we have lived for the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus' 'Well done' will last for ever. Or it will be lost for ever.

Loss of the prize is a possibility. Paul says, Therefore I run in such a way as not without aim; I box in such a way as not beating the air (9:26); but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (9:27). Self-discipline is needed to gain the prize. Paul's words here have nothing whatsoever to do with eternal security or the possibility of 'falling away'. He is not dealing with 'justification' or new birth; he is dealing with reward. And he has already made it very plain that one can lose reward but not lose salvation. 1 Corinthians 3:15 makes it quite plain that 'salvation' (that is, justification, 'getting to heaven') and reward are different subjects. Paul does not say that he works hard at self-disciple in order to get to salvation. Salvation is not by 'works' at all (Eph.2:8,9). Paul is dealing with reward; he is not deal with salvation at all! He is not thinking he must work hard to make sure he gets to heaven. Rather he is speaking of his own self-discipline. He must not let the attractiveness of the pagan temples lure him - or whatever else it might be that would weaken his appetites for the service of God. He will leave certain things aside. He will deal with himself severely, not for the sake of earning salvation, but for the sake of keeping himself in good condition in his service of God. He does not want, after having spent a lifetime preaching to others, to be disqualified from receiving God's prize (9:27).

We leave 1 Corinthians there for the moment, and take a pause in our meditations. But we take a break at a useful point. The Christian has to face the future with the determination of an athlete or a boxer. We are not running around aimlessly. We are not beating the air and watching ourself in a mirror! No, we have an enemy to bring under control - ourselves. We deliberately bring ourselves under tough discipline. Some things will have to be given up. We bash away violently against anything that will hinder our future service of God. We have served him so far. Paul has been a preacher. But even those who have served God well so far have to continue to train themselves. The race is not won yet. We don't want to lose the race after having ran so well thus far. Less us accept every piece of tough training God puts upon us. Let us leave aside anything that is likely to prevent us finishing the course. And let us keep running, keep praying, keep serving God, until we hear Jesus say 'Well done!