But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,
“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
38 but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”
39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. Hebrews 10:32-39 (ESV)
There have been times in my life that I received a gift, a rather subtle blessing, that I didn’t fully appreciate until some time afterwards. Usually this isn’t in the form of a present or something physical, rather it takes the form of an opportunity, or a chance acquaintance, or some unexpected and even inconvenient event impinging on my very well laid out plans that represents a turning point. Sometimes, even after a few years, and only when I look back do I recognize the significance of the gift in my life.
I think that’s the point the writer of Hebrews was trying to make to his readers. One thing that almost always happens when I sit down to read a Bible passage is a particular word will seem to jump off the page. Usually that’s because the word seems out of place, an odd expression of an idea the authorsis trying to get across. In this passage, the word was “enlightened.” The writer is trying to encourage his readers to persevere during a time of renewed persecution. They are having doubts that becoming Christians was ever a good idea. They’d gone through persecution at the start of their Christian walk, stood strong, seemed to have overcome, when, low and behold, it was starting all over again. They weren’t sure they could take it anymore, they‘d had enough. This passage was meant to remind them that they had already experienced the worst, been helped by each other, and survived.
But there’s an unusual expression here, the writer asks them to remember “when you were enlightened . . .” He didn’t say, as we would today, when you accepted Jesus, or when you came to faith, he said “when you were enlightened.” I wondered why, and what meanings that word might have that might be important to understand. So I turned to my Logos 4 software.
First, I found the dictionary meaning of the word:
enlightened adjectiveThis already is helpful, because when the dictionary says “freed from ignorance” I get the connotation of something not done by oneself but with the help of, perhaps, a wise teacher. Still, I wondered what other sources might say, so I looked at a couple of commentaries.
1 : freed from ignorance and misinformation 〈an enlightened people〉〈an enlightened time〉
2 : based on full comprehension of the problems involved 〈issued an enlightened ruling〉1)
illuminated—“enlightened”: come to “the knowledge of the truth” (Heb 10:26) in connection with baptism (see on Heb 6:4). In spiritual baptism, Christ, who is “the Light,” is put on. “On the one hand, we are not to sever the sign and the grace signified where the sacrifice truly answers its designs; on the other, the glass is not to be mistaken for the liquor, nor the sheath for the sword” [Bengel]. 2)I’m not sure I understand the meaning of the last part of this quote, but, again, baptism is a sacrament that we receive when we become Christians. This isn’t something we do by ourselves, but in the community of believers.
Finally, I looked at the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which also mentions baptism.
when you had been enlightened: A reference to baptism (cf. 6:4). 3)The lesson I gained from just this little research is that the writer of Hebrews was reminding his readers that, when they became Christians, it wasn’t something they chose to do and could just choose to undo, like joining some social club. He was implying that this enlightenment was something they were given as a gift from God. It was, in reality, a grace and not something they could easily turn their backs on, for to do so would be to reject God’s gift.
The study of this one word has been on my mind for most of the last month or two, because so often I forget how great a gift it has been in my life when, through almost a fluke experience, something I attached no importance to whatever when it occurred, I came back to faith after more than 20 years. It was a gift, one I don’t care to throw away.
1) Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
2) Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Heb 10:32). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
3) Brown, R. E., Fitzmyer, J. A., & Murphy, R. E. (1996). The Jerome Biblical commentary (V 2, p 400). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.