Believe Jesus: Mature
This is one of the most contested pieces of scripture, and therefore a perfect subject for the THINK blog. However, I’m going to leave the in-depth analysis to one side and simply attempt to suck a big lump of faith-enriching marrow from the bones of these verses, because the overall message is clear: Grow Up!
The Letter to the Hebrews repeatedly warns believers against the dangers of giving up their faith. In particular view in these verses is the danger of giving up through growing weary. There is a weakness in the recipients of this letter that is manifesting itself in sluggishness and sloth. This is reflected in the fact that they appear to be slow learners, who are easily distracted and can be spiritually resistant (5:11-14). This is a significant problem – not a matter of indifference.
The writer wants to paint a picture for his readers of the full glory of Christ but they are still at the finger painting stage. This is serious, because they are meant to be out of the spiritual baby stage and doing some teaching. It is a sign of mature belief to be able to teach others by word and example. Mature belief means knowing the basics but not having to keep learning the basics. We are not meant to stay as spiritual babies, but aspire to mature faith which is able to distinguish between milk and solid food. Being mature – being adult – means not giving up when the going gets tough. It means being faithful. It means not succumbing to our infantalised culture’s pathological addiction to entertainment. It means taking responsibility for our actions and not forever dredging over the past (“When I think about how she treated me…”). It means learning the benefits of delayed gratification.
The writer is essentially saying, “You’re acting immaturely but I’m going to take you into adult territory now.” He does this by listing six ‘basics’ – these are the essentials, without which believers are not going to get anywhere. They are like a ‘Joining the Church’ course for the Hebrews, and come in three pairs:
1. Repentance/Faith (soteriology): Turning from dead works towards the living God.
2. ‘Washings’/Laying on of hands (pneumatology): ‘Washings’ possibly means baptism, but this pairing certainly speaks of purity and power. It is by the laying on of hands that we receive the Spirit, healing, and so on.
3. Resurrection/Judgement (eschatology): The hope we have in Christ and the corresponding warning for those who reject him.
These are the basics of the faith, and as such are uncontroversial (even though such things as the mode of baptism have subsequently become a source of debate in the church). What comes next, however, is highly controversial. Hebrews 6:4-8 seems to fly directly in the face of such passages as Romans 8:29-30. What are we to do with it? As stated above, I’m not going to attempt an in-depth analysis, but what we can see is that the example of Israel in the wilderness, which is such a central motif in Hebrews, is still in view here. As such, this passage mirrors the Deuteronomic blessings and cursings. There are great blessings in God, blessings which Israel experienced, and which Christians know in an even deeper way. The Israelites were enlightened, literally, by the pillar of fire; but Christians are children of light! (Eph 5:8-9). Israel tasted the heavenly gift of manna; Christians experience the gift of God by the assurance of the Holy Spirit. Israel knew the empowering presence of God with them through Moses; Christians experience this directly by the Spirit. Israel saw signs and wonders and heard the word of God declared to them; Christians experience these things through the mediating work of Christ.
The tragedy of Israel in the wilderness was that despite tasting all these things, they repeatedly rejected God. They placed themselves in a position where it became impossible for God to restore them, so he declared, “They shall not enter my rest” (Hbs 4:3). To act towards Christ as Israel acted towards YHWH is to show complete contempt for him, thereby crucifying him again. Such actions make Christ contemptible to others so that they do not come to faith. Such a thing is unforgiveable.
So, whatever the difficulties of exegesis with these verses, the meaning is clear: Don’t be like the rebellious Israelites!
But how do we handle it pastorally? All of us know (and love) those who once appeared to be walking as Christians but are now in rebellion against God. What do we say of such people? Basically, there are only three possible categories such a person could fall into:
1. The were never true Christians: e.g., Judas; or those in the wilderness who tasted all the benefits but didn’t enter the land; or in the parable of the soils in which there were three soils that did not produce a crop.
2. They are backslidden but will be restored – Hallelujah!
3. They are under God’s discipline and will never be restored in this life, but are saved; as was perhaps the case with Ananias and Sapphira.
The thing is, we don’t know which category specific individuals are in. Therefore God has given us Hebrews 6, whose message is clear: Don’t let this happen to you! Grow up! Be mature and live as a Christian!
Of course, the real pastoral punch in Hebrews 6 is that the writer is sure – convinced – that his hearers will not put themselves in the position where their salvation could be questioned (see vv9-12). Their work and love is the evidence of their faith; and God is just – he will reward them.
So the point of all this for us, just as it was for the first readers of the letter, is that we are not to be lazy but persevere, and believe Jesus! True believers hold firmly to the end the confidence they had at first. They demonstrate faith and patience, and to do this means being mature. Adults don’t give up when they get weary. They don’t give in to sluggishness and sloth. They keep doing the things that need to be done, and in so doing become teachers to those who are less mature. That’s what it means to be a true believer.
Let’s be grown up about this ourselves.