Our writer has been speaking pastorally–that is, he has in mind a congregation (or congregations) of people at different places in their ‘walk’ with Christ. Some are immature, and these the writer urges on to further development. Indeed, he anticipates lending his own efforts to that end (6:3).
Then the tone shifts. There is, for instance, a change from second person plural (you in 5:11, 12) to the third person plural in 6:4. Does this suggest the author intends to start in on a wholly new topic? Some commentators seem to think so, wanting to pull 6:4-6 out as a separate chunk that deals with the permanence of salvation. But the Christian ‘walk’ is still of interest, although now it’s not immaturity as much as indifference or rebellion that’s under review: he’s concerned about those who are turning their backs on the Lord. By using the third person (they), however, as well as a series of participles that have room for the possibility of falling away (6:6), he leaves a warning hanging in the air.
This warning is further sharpened by the metaphor (using imagery Jesus and other Biblical writers have deployed) that features land, rain, and fruit. A vibrant relationship with God will lead to a useful crop, we understand. Thorns and thistles are also possible, but this yield is worthless and in danger of being cursed.
Strong words–and yet this author wants his dear friends to understand that even though we speak like this, his sense is that they can do well when it comes to walking with the Lord. We are confident of better things in your case, he says–which leads us to ask, why? If he’s so confident, why doesn’t he commend them; why does he spend so much energy on critique and then warning?
He sounds like a prophet–one of those rather imperious Old Testament figures who strides into a community with a dire message from God. It’s all fire and brimstone and striking fear into hearts, which in turn makes later readers question the motives and character of a God who would send such people as emissaries.
Except that when people listen to prophets–when they turn, change–the result of that repentance is cancellation of the ‘judgment’ predicted. Are we to see in this a manipulative God who coerces obedience by way of threats? No; rather, God is describing, via the prophets, what will happen if nothing changes.
Reading Hebrews 6:4-8 from this angle gives us the description of a very real result (those who turn away will not be brought back to repentance; they are in danger of being cursed)–but one that depends on a particular course of action (i.e. turning away). If the turning doesn’t take place, neither will the judgment.
This writer is not, though, simply a prophet predicting disaster for those who refuse to heed God. He is also a pastor who looks at a particular congregation and sees among them people who, while they may be young, are still leaning in the right direction. Toward these he has real tenderness; he believes them capable of better things. In this, he’s like a coach, standing on the sidelines, yelling at the team: go, run, pass, score–you can do this! When someone like this is cheering for you, what happens in your heart? mind? And this: what the coach is calling for from you–have you done this yet? have you done this ever? But this time, or next time, given the encouragement streaming in your direction: could you?