4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
In this series I will exegete the passage to the best of my ability, explaining what I think it means and what it does not mean. And I'll do so without isolating it from the rest of Scripture as so many often do, while not simply saying it can't mean what my friend thinks it means because of such and such other passages. So with that introduction, let's begin with the first clause of the passage.
ONCE BEEN ENLIGHTENED
"For in the case of those who have once been enlightened..."
The word "enlightened" is φωτίζω (phōtizō) and its form here means to be given light, to be shined upon, or to be imbued with knowledge. In Luke 11:36 it's used to describe what happens when an oil lamp casts its rays on something. In 1 Corinthians 4:5 Paul uses it to say Christ will illuminate the things hidden in darkness. John uses it in Revelation 18:1 to say he saw the earth illuminated by the Lord's glory.
Many people have assumed that what the author of Hebrews means when he refers to this kind of person as having once been "enlightened" is that such a one has been saved, has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. One of Thayer's definitions is, for example, "to enlighten spiritually, imbue with saving knowledge." Thayer bases this definition on John 1:9 where Jesus, the true light, is said to "enlighten (phōtizō) every man." One might object on the grounds that obviously not every man has been saved. Of course, perhaps John means "all kinds of men," though it is worth pointing out that he just got done saying the Lord shone in the darkness but the darkness didn't comprehend it. One might ask, How could the darkness fail to comprehend a light they did not see? I'll leave that debate for another day.
However, what one discovers is that this salvific idea of being "enlightened" is not how the word is typically used. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, in verse 15 he said to them, "I too [have] heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints." Yet, having just spoken of their faith, he nevertheless goes on to pray this:
17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened (phōtizō), so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.
So although Paul's readers already have saving faith, Paul nevertheless prays that they would be enlightened, that is, to have knowledge of what is in store for them. Clearly we can't assume that to be "enlightened" (phōtizō) must mean "to be saved."
What's more, in Ephesians 3:9-10 Paul says his mission is to "bring to light (phōtizō) what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made konwn through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places." Paul is not talking about "enlightenment" in the sense of coming to saving faith; he's talking about revealing--bringing to light--something that was in times past hidden.
Consider also 2 Timothy 1:10, in which Paul says that the gospel "now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought to light (phōtizō) life and immortality through the gospel." Paul isn't saying that life and immortality equal being enlightened; he's saying life and immortality were revealed, having been planned "from all eternity" (v. 9).
So there really is no warrant for assuming that the author of Hebrews uses "enlightened" to mean imbued with saving faith. More consistent with how the word is used elsewhere would be that the people to whom he refers have been made aware of the gospel, have had it revealed to them. They have been taught it. Perhaps the rest of the passage will tell us that he means something more; time will tell as I continue in the next posts in this series. Before we look at the rest of the passage, however, let's see if there's anything more we can gleam from the author's use of the word "enlightened."
RECEIVING THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH
Perhaps the word's use again in Hebrews 10:32 can tell us something, where the author tells his readers, "remember the former days, when, after being enlightened (phōtizō), you endured a great conflict of sufferings." By itself, this doesn't really tell us whether or not their enlightenment is equal to their salvation. It does, however, seem to hearken back to verse 26 where he says, "if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins."
"See," one might say, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, so that means there once was a sacrifice for those who received the knowledge of truth, but they lost it." Au contraire. For one thing, I think this is a strained understanding of the text. It's not as if Jesus' sacrifice for sins no longer exists when one who receives the truth goes on sinning. It's just something which they can no longer claim for themselves. What's more, the author doesn't say there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins, he says "a sacrifice for sins"--period. So I don't really think it's even reasonable to read the passage this way.
What makes more sense is, because Jesus is the final sacrifice, and because no one will be forgiven apart from faith in Him, one who rejects Him has no alternate recourse, no other means by which he or she can be forgiven. If one rejects the only atonement for sin, there remains no other sacrifice for sins. There's nothing else, no one else, to turn to. So this really doesn't say anything about whether or not someone who "receives the truth" has been saved.
IF YOU RECEIVE A DIFFERENT GOSPEL
But what of the word "receive" with regards to this "knowledge of the truth?" Does it mean to "believe" it? Not necessarily. In 2 Corinthians 11:4 Paul says, "if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive...a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough" (NIV). Paul would have much harsher words (his words are, nevertheless, a criticism) were he saying his readers were believing a different gospel, but he's not. In saying they receive a different gospel, he means that they give ear to it. They listen to it preached. They put up with it. They hear it.
In Colossians 4:10 Paul speaks of Barnabas' cousin Mark, "about whom you received instructions." Here, their receiving instructions has nothing to do with accepting or believing. Rather, they literally received instructions. They were given instructions. Similarly, John says in 2 John 1:4, "I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth, just as we have received commandment to do from the Father." Again, receiving here says nothing of John's response to the commandment. It simply means that they were commanded. They were given a command.
So being "enlightened" seems to be equivalent to "receiving the knowledge of the truth," and receiving the truth appears to mean little more than being told about it, listening to it, being taught about it. Whether or not they believed it, whethere or not the truly trusted in Christ alone as the sacrifice for their sins, is another question. But the context might give us a clue as to how to answer that question.
BY THIS TIME YOU OUGHT TO BE TEACHERS
I've seen Hebrews 6:4-6 appealed to frequently, but rarely have I seen someone actually put these verses in their context. Of course, the context is Hebrews as a whole, but I think the immediate context is enough to demonstrate what "enlightened" here means, beginning with verse 11 of the previous chapter:
5:11 Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 5:13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. 6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 6:2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. 6:3 And this we will do, if God permits. 6:4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened...
We're going to look at verses 4 through 6 in greater depth later in this series, but for now, consider the author's opening point. He tells his readers that they have had long enough to develop a mature understanding of the gospel. So long, in fact, that they should be teachers by now. Yet, they "have need again" to be taught "the elementary principles." What is the author saying? He's saying they've once been taught the basics of the gospel, but need to be taught it again because they haven't matured.
So there's nothing in the context that suggests that what's being discussed is the sort of person who, once saved, then falls away. Rather, what's being discussed is the sort of person who has been taught the basics of the gospel, but has not matured. And this is consistent with how the words "enlightened" in verse 4, and "receive" in chapter 10, are used. They were taught the gospel. It was revealed to them. The context suggests nothing beyond that.
CONVINCED OF BETTER THINGS CONCERNING YOU
I'm about to wrap up, and in the next post in this series we'll look at what is meant by "tasted of the heavenly gift." For now, however, we have no reason to believe "enlightened" means anything more than simply having heard the truth. Indeed, the context suggests that's all it means. In fact--and I'll end on this--consider what the author says very shortly thereafter:
9 Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.
So, even though the author had just finished admonishing his readers for their lack of maturity, and had just gotten done talking about people like them but who go on to fall away ("even though we speak like this"), he is "convinced of better things in [their] case." That is, their lack of maturity would concern him, but he doesn't believe his warnings apply to them because he is convinced that "better things" apply to them.
Better things than being "enlightened," better things than "tasting of the heavenly gift." Better things than being made "partakers with the Holy Spirit." Better things than having experienced all of this but "yielding thorns and thistles" (v. 8). What sorts of things? "The things that have to do with salvation."
You see, all those things he had just said of his readers are true both of them and those who might later fall away, but the author is convinced that "better things," "things that have to do with salvation," are true of his readers. It follows, then, that all those things he just finished talking about, while true of those who are saved, nevertheless aren't enough to tell us someone is saved.