Hebrews 5:11 – 6:12
You may have noticed a name that occurred three times in the passage that we looked at last week – Melchizedek. He is obviously getting ready to say something very important about this connection between Jesus, our great high priest, and this very mysterious character from old – a priest without credentials. But then in chapter 5:11, he suddenly stops and says, “You’re not ready for this. In your spiritual state, seeing your spiritual immaturity, you couldn’t grasp the complexities of what I’m about to say.”
And at this point, he decides he needs to address this immaturity: We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:11-14)
You expect a baby to act like a baby. We understand that there are certain developmental processes that a child goes through in becoming an adult. And most of the time, we don’t expect a child to think or to act like an adult – we let them be kids, we allow for immaturity.
There are some of those same dynamics in the spiritual life. A new Christian has to grow up in the faith. We can’t expect a baby in Christ (even if he is 40 years old) to understand and act with the spiritual maturity of a Christian who has years of faith under his belt.
But the writer sees a problem that is much deeper than simple spiritual immaturity. Their growth is stunted. Normal developmental processes have ground to a halt. If we had a spiritual growth developmental chart – they’d be off the bottom of the chart. If our child were experiencing this kind of arrested growth physically, we would be frantic, we’d insist our pediatrician get to the bottom of it.
Paul uses the same kind of language and imagery: I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. (1 Cor. 3:2) Babies need that milk to start with. It’s essential to their healthy growth and development. But it’s time to grow up and begin maturing.
Here’s how our writer says it: By this time – you ought to be teachers, you should be eating solid food, you should be trained in righteousness. But instead – you still need to be taught, you’re still drinking mother’s milk, you’re an immature infant who has never gotten past the ABC’s of faith. The writer says, “someone offered you a steak and you started crying, ‘give me back my bottle!’”
But rather than being simply a developmental problem over which we have no control, the writer says it’s a choice you have made, and it’s also a choice to move on and leave the elementary teachings: Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.
The ABC’s of faith
He calls them the abc’s of our faith. That’s literally what his word means, “the elementary teachings” is “the beginnings” of faith. When you start a child out in school, you don’t hand him a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare and say “There will be a test at the end of the semester, good luck.” You start off with the alphabet, you learn words like “cat” and “dog.”
Somewhere off in the future, the time will come when he will take up the works of Shakespeare and he will hopefully develop a love for literature.
But the writer says, “you’re 52 years old and still stuck on the ABC’s, and it’s time to move on.” ABC’s are the place to start, not the place to end. Nobody becomes an expert on the abc’s, there isn’t a doctoral degree in alphabet. If that is the sum of your learning, you’re stuck.
What are these “elementary teachings,” the “ABC’s” of faith? Our writer gives us a list (not exhaustive, but illustrative).
Repentance and faith (essentials – first principles)
Baptisms and laying on of hands (entrance into covenant)
Resurrection and judgment (future hope and final things)
You might be a little surprised at some of the things he considers elementary teachings. But these are basic Christian doctrines – things that comprise a foundation for understanding and integrating our faith into our lives.
The thing about foundations is that you don’t quit once you’ve poured the slab. You don’t walk around on the concrete floor and say, “I have everything I need right here.”
It’s a great foundation, but it’s time to begin building on it, not sit around admiring our work.
And so, he writes, “Let us leave…” Not forsake, not abandon, but having secured our foundation, being confident in what we know, let’s get to building on the foundation. Having set aside the bottle, let’s begin eating a balanced diet that provides the nourishment and the nutrients our spiritual lives need to mature.
If they fall away…
There is a startling warning introduced in chapter 6:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. (Heb 6:4-8)
Who is he warning? Who is he concerned about?
- Those who have been enlightened
- Who have tasted the heavenly gift
- Who have shared in the Holy Spirit
- Who have tasted the goodness of the word of God … and the powers of the coming age
This is not the atheist who rejects God, not the immoral man of the world whose lifestyle can’t allow for God, not the person who consciously turns his back on God. It is the man who, having experienced the Christian life in its fullness, begins to neglect and forget and forsake – it is less a matter of turning as of sliding away.
Worse than that, in the context of this passage – the man who “falls away” is the one who settles for an immature faith, who refuses to grow beyond the elementary doctrines of Christ.
The impossibility for repentance is not with God’s willingness to pardon (God is always ready to forgive and accept back); the impossibility is with the turning back. The most difficult person to bring to repentance is the man who has sat in the same pew for thirty years, and would bristle at the suggestion that he needs to grow beyond his infant faith.
Let me tell you why that is so – he has become so accustomed to hearing words of faith he has become inoculated – like a flu shot. Because he assumes he knows what Christianity really is he becomes unteachable. His heart hardens, his opinions crystallize, he becomes insensitive to hearing the voice of God. Repentance?! He has no need of repentance – he’s never done anything bad enough to be sorry for. Besides, that would be like admitting he was wrong about something, and he prides himself on always being right. That’s the man who cannot return to repentance – he doesn’t know he’s lost.
Our faith must always be growing. It’s like maintaining the status quo with a house. It’s brand new when you move in, but it’s not long before it needs some repair, painting, and maintenance. If you don’t keep on top of it, the house will become run down and start falling apart. It doesn’t happen all at once, but little by little.
It’s the same with our faith. You can never “arrive” at faith, tie down the corners and say, “This is it. I’m satisfied with where I’m at.” If you aren’t growing, you are dying.
And he uses two powerful images to describe the seriousness of spiritual immaturity:
You are crucifying the Son of God all over again. He takes this seriously. Neglecting your faith and turning away from God are like spitting in Jesus’ face and saying, “I don’t care if you died on the cross. It doesn’t mean anything to me. Save it for someone who needs it.”
Land that drinks in the rain…and produces thorns and thistles. How sad and frustrating it must be for God to see his children – fed and blessed and given opportunity after opportunity for growth, but nothing happens. Even worse than nothing! It’s like planting a garden – you till it, plant it, fertilize it, water it, but there are no green sprouts, no fresh produce, nothing but weeds.
And his warning makes us uncomfortable: But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
The important thing is he doesn’t leave them where they are: Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation.
I hope you hear the tone of voice that the writer is using. When he talks to these people whose faith is immature, who are wandering away, whose faith is in danger, it is never with a condemning, arrogant superiority. He speaks with a broken heart and a longing for them to come back to their faith and set their feet back on the path of growth and maturity. Their situation is serious, but it is not unrecoverable. He doesn’t write them off as lost, but communicates the urgency of their response.
And he also communicates the justice and mercy of God. God does not want them to be lost, nor does he dismiss their faith. God does not expect perfection, but he does insist that we continue to grow and mature. Listen to how the writer describes it:
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.
And then the writer admonishes them and encourages them to put forth the effort, to commit themselves to the kind of life that will bring them to a mature and fruitful faith:
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Heb 6:9-12)
How does this spiritual growth and maturity happen? What do you need in your life to keep your faith healthy and growing? The writer gave several indications along the way:
1. Heb 6:14 – “by constant use…” (RSV – “trained by practice”) Our faith isn’t static and inert – it is dynamic and alive. You have to use it – take what you learn and put it into practice. There is nothing so worthless as a theoretical theology. If the only time you bring out your faith and dust it off is on Sunday morning, you are wasting it. Faith is meant to be an integral part of your daily life, helping you deal with the world around you and transforming the relationships in your life.
2. Heb 6:11 – “show the same diligence to the very end.” Don’t let anyone tell you faith is effortless and easy. If it’s easy you’re not doing it right. Spiritual growth and biblical maturity don’t happen by osmosis – they are hard work – they take commitment and diligence. And that’s what the writer says, “I don’t want you to become lazy.”
The antidote for laziness? Imitate faithful people…do what they do! Find someone whose faith is growing and ask them to help you grow in your faith.
3. Heb 5:12 – “by this time you ought to be teachers.” The surest way to grow in your faith is by sharing it with others. The Christian who stays a sponge, always receiving, always soaking it in, forever being fed, but never giving, never sharing, never teaching someone else has a counterfeit faith. The evidence of a person whose faith is growing is one that cannot keep his faith to himself, one whose excitement cannot be contained. Do you want to grow in your faith? Start taking what you learn and sharing it with others.