Chelmsford Cathedral 13 May 2018 (part of a series – see also Hebrews 1, Hebrews 2, Hebrews 5)
6.1-3: LET’S GROW UP
Not every old wine is a mature wine
Neither is every old person a mature person
According to John Ruskin, “He is only advancing in life, whose heart is getting softer, his blood warmer, his brain quicker, and his spirit entering into living peace”.
The ageing process by itself does not guarantee maturity.
The same thing applies to Christian maturity
Sadly, there are many Christians who have never grown up.
It has been said: “Much of the failure of the church is due not specifically to disobedience, or to sin we might name in some sort of catalogue of mistakes & blunders, but to a general stagnation & widespread immaturity” (Cragg).
“Let us go on towards perfection” (footnote: maturity), leaving behind the basic teaching of Christ. (6.1) Or in Eugene Peterson’s graphic paraphrase: “So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ”. Let’s get beyond Alpha!
What are the first lessons in the Christians faith?
What is the ABC of the Christian life? Unlike the alphabet which has 26 letters, the writer lists six ‘foundational’ items, which naturally fall into three pairs
- Repentance and faith
- Baptism and the laying on of hands
- Resurrection and judgment
i) Repentance and faith
“Repentance from dead works and faith towards God”
The Christian life begins with repentance – to repent is to change direction – it is to turn away from our way and to begin to go God’s way”
Normally, in the Bible the call is to people to repent from their “sin” – but in this context which is addressing people with a Jewish background, the call is to turn away from “dead works” – i.e. to turn away from futile attempts at self-salvation.
Repentance is the first step. But repentance by itself is not enough. Faith too is necessary
- we are called to believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
- Or in the language of the writer to the Hebrews, we are called to believe that Jesus, the Son of God, is our great High Priest, who has bridged that enormous gulf between heaven and earth.
ii) Baptism and the laying on of hands
Along with repentance & faith there is also “instructions about baptisms [and the], laying on of hands” (6.2a)
Repentance and faith naturally lead to baptism. Baptism is repentance & faith in action.
Along with baptism goes the laying on of hands. In the early church after people had been baptised, church leaders would lay hands on those who had been baptised, and pray that God would pour out his Holy Spirit upon them. To put it in Anglican terms, baptism and confirmation go together – and are both part of Christian beginnings.
But have you noticed that Hebrews doesn’t speak of “baptism” in the singular, but “baptisms” – plural. Why? The context is significant.
The writer was addressing Jewish Christians – from their Jewish background they would have been familiar with specifically Jewish water rites – there was proselyte baptism – also other Jewish cleansing rites too.
Basic Christian instruction would have made the difference clear between Christian baptism and any other kind of baptism.
iii) Resurrection and judgement
“The first lessons of the Christian message” also included “The resurrection of the dead and the eternal judgement” (Hebs 6.2b)
The resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith: “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believed that God raised him from death, you will be saved” (Rom 10.9).
But the resurrection in question here is not Christ’s, but ours. The word “dead” is in the plural and refers to the ‘general’ resurrection.
Hand in hand with the resurrection hope goes judgment to come.
In the words of the writer: “Everyone must die once, and after that be judged by God” (9.27). This is a moral universe, in which ultimately right will out – and wrong will be dealt with. The theme of judgment also belongs to the foundations of Christian believing.
6.4-8: DON’T FALL AWAY/DON’T GIVE UP
There are no second chances!
It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God, and the powers of the age to come
It is impossible to restore to repentance those who have seen the light, gotten a taste of heaven, been part of the work of the Holy Spirit, and personally experienced the sheer goodness of God’s word (The Message)
It has been said: “These warnings here and elsewhere in Hebrews have caused more unnecessary anxiety to believers than almost any other verses in the New Testament. Aware of moral failure or spiritual apathy, thoughtful people the world over have been haunted by these passages, some driven to despair at the thought that, having neglected or forsaken Christ, they have forfeited for ever the blessings of the gospel” (Ray Brown 111).
I confess that I too feel uncomfortable – I can think back to many young people, and not so young people, who at one stage were on fire for Christ, but now no longer darken the door of any church. Is there no hope for them if they wish to return to Christ? Are there really no second chances?
The context here is important. In the first place the issue is not spiritual apathy or disillusionment with the church – rather the author has apostasy in mind, a deliberate turning of one’s back on Jesus – a ‘repudiating of Christ in public’ (see Peterson)
6.6: “They have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to contempt”.
They have fallen away: the verb used here (parapipto) refers not to “accidentally or carelessly falling down”, but “deliberately falling into a black hole” (Witherington). Peterson: “they turn their backs on it, washing their hands of the whole thing”.
They are crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to contempt: notice the present tenses – an ongoing resolve to resist the love of God. “It is impossible to keep on repeatedly restoring them to repentance
Witherington: “We should take very seriously the word ‘impossible’ in this text, without suggesting that anything is totally impossible for a sovereign God. Our author seems to believe that once can go too far, pasty the point of no return and no restoration”.
Note too how the author uses these words: it is in the context of a warning – as distinct from a declaration of damnation on those who have fallen away. The author’s warning is intended to be a means by which Christians are preserved from apostasy.
6.9-12: KEEP GOING – PERSEVERE!
“Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation… We want each one of you to show the same diligence, so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises”. GNB: ‘Keep up your eagerness to the end’; Peterson: ‘Keep at it until the finish’
There is no room for complacency. Salvation is not a one-off experience in the past: it is an going process. We are engaged in marathon, in which we need to keep running and where perseverance is the name of the game.