Hebrews - The Problem of Immaturity
Still infants (Hebrews 5:11-14)
The desire of the writer to the Hebrews is to take his people on into the deeper things of the faith. He has been trying to explain about Christ’s heavenly priesthood and how it relates to Melchizedek (4:14-5:10), but the people seem slow to understand (5:11)!
Already he has warned of the dangers of drifting (2:1) and of unbelief (3:12). Now we see why the Hebrews faced such problems: they were not fully committed to their Christian faith. They had become believers but not disciples. They were like the person who sits at the back of the chapel but never grasps the heart of the gospel.
Faith must affect the mind as well as the heart. ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ says Paul (Rom 12:2). But these believers are still infants. They need to be taught the basics of the faith again and can only cope with milk, not solid food. This situation may be fine for new believers, but these people had been believers for some time, and by now should have been teaching the faith. Other Christians had grown and other churches had matured, but they had not.
Their problem was one we face today - spiritual laziness (6:12)! Perhaps they thought the ‘simple gospel’ was enough. They were unwilling to stretch their understanding ‘to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’ (Eph 3:18). They were ‘dull of hearing’ (AV). Their constant cry, like many today, would be that doctrine is boring, church is dull and preaching tedious. Yet the fault is not with the message or the preacher; the problem is the immaturity of the hearer, who questions the need for doctrine.
Why do we need doctrine?
The answer is twofold: firstly, that we may teach others. When we know what we believe, our witness is empowered. Paul tells Timothy to ‘study to show yourself approved unto God’ (2 Tim 2:15). When we do we will ‘always be ready to give the reason for the hope that we have’ (1 Pet 3:15). Sharing what we know is the most effective method of spreading the Christian faith – just like the first Christians at Antioch who gossiped the gospel (Acts 13:19-21).
The second reason is that good doctrine saves us from deception (5:14). We live in a world where truth is out of fashion. All religions are seen as equally valid, but often also equally pointless in a secular environment. Believers must know what they believe and why, so that they can make a stand for spiritual truth and not be deceived by the prevailing secular climate.
There is great comfort in knowing that Jesus died for our sins and rose for our justification; but these are the ABC of faith. Once we wave learned the alphabet we move on into a new world of literature. We do not stay with the basics. Maturity is not automatic, but it is essential. We need to digest the solid food of a mature understanding of the Bible: only then will we be ‘trained to discern good from evil’ (v.14 NASB).
Staying with the basics is dangerous because we will always be easily unsettled, and never reach the full stature God intended us to have. We consign ourselves to a way that tends to drifting and disobedience. In the darkest times it is those who know their God who will come through with confidence. How often do we hear of people loosing their faith through some tragedy? They suffer illness or bereavement, but instead of turning to God they blame him. They fall because they have no adequate idea of the true nature of God. When their ‘fantasy God’ disappoints their expectations, they stop believing. We need a real God for the real world! God calls us to maturity: ‘therefore let us leave the elementary teachings’ (6:1).
Six basics of belief (6:1-3)
The writer now outlines what he considers to be the essential foundation doctrines - six elementary teachings that split into three interlocked pairs. We can use them as a test to check our own understanding of the basic principles of the faith:
Repentance and faith towards God
Repentance is the doorway into the faith; our first principle is that ‘God commands all people everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30). It was the first message of Jesus and the call of the Apostles (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38). Repentance is more than saying sorry; it is a change of heart, of mind and of lifestyle. It does contain an element of sorrow, though its process is cathartic, leaving us not in regret but with a clean heart and mind. True repentance, far from bringing misery, will always lead to joy and acceptance (2 Cor 7:10). However, repentance presupposes that we acknowledge our sin and see it as an offence against God.
Because sin will always be a part of our nature, repentance must never be far from our hearts. It becomes not only the means by which we enter into the faith but also the rule by which we live. If our words, actions or attitudes offend someone then our response should not be to justify ourselves, but actively to seek to be at peace with that person. Christ died for our sins, not for our excuses! It is a mark of maturity when Christians confess that they were wrong.
Yet repentance alone is not enough. We also need to reach out in faith towards God. If repentance is turning away from evil, faith is turning towards good. In repentance we look to ourselves in honest regret; in faith we look to God in hope. One empties the heart of evil, the other fills it with the grace of God. We ‘receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (Heb 4:16). Faith becomes the nourishment we draw from God, an attitude that enables us to walk in the light of God’s blessing. Only when we have both repentance and faith can we find a balance in our Christian life. Repentance alone becomes self-centred and destructive; faith without repentance borders on presumption.
The next two foundations lead us into the church:
Baptism and the laying on of hands
Baptism in the New Testament days was exclusively for believers. Infant Baptism was a later historical development. It was (1) a symbol of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16); (2) a pledge of the believer’s conscience to God (1Pet 3:21); (3) a burial of the old way of life (Rom 6:4); (4) a testimony that the believer was now a follower of Jesus (Acts 8:36-37). So Baptism became the sign that believers now belonged to Christ and to his people, the church, but of itself it did not confer the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ to his followers. Often the Spirit was given by the laying on of hands (Acts 8:18; 19:1-6). Note that our writer speaks of ‘Baptisms’ (plural). Since we know there is only one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Eph 4:4) he must be referring to the Baptism in the Holy Spirit that John promised and Jesus sent. All early Christians were taught to expect both Baptisms. They were to be baptised in water and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). One was an action they themselves could take; the other a seal that only God could give (Acts 2:33).
The laying on of hands is often seen as either suspect or purely symbolical. In the Early Church it carried power. Disciples laid their hands on sick people that they may recover (Mk 16:18). Timothy received a special gift through the laying on of hands (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6). This was not laying empty hands on empty heads, as can sometimes be the case in confirmation. It was a vital link to the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, a foundation teaching, which was part of Christ’s great commission.
The last couplet in our foundation teachings is:
Resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement.
A Christian riddle says ‘Born once, die twice; born twice, die once’. Christians do not believe that death is the end of existence; neither do they believe that heaven is a place of disembodied spirits. Even the Old Testament spoke of the resurrection of the dead (Dan 12:12). At death our body sleeps, awaiting the resurrection, but ‘our spirit returns to God who gave it’ (Eccl 12:7). This is not the final but the intermediate state. Paul says that ‘to be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor 5:8 AV). The resurrection will only occur at the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, when all who believe, living or dead, will be caught up with Christ in the air and changed, to be fit for eternity (1Thess 4:14-17; 1Cor 15:12-26). This is called the first resurrection. The Book of Revelation also teaches that there will be a second resurrection, followed by eternal judgement (Rev 21:11f). This will be the final judgement of all nations. The day is set and God alone knows its coming, ‘for he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:31). Both Christian and non-Christian alike will stand before the judgement seat of God (2 Cor 5:10), Christians to be judged for their obedience, non-Christians for their disobedience.
This judgement is eternal; it is final and permanent, and there will be no second chance. Irenaeus of Lyons (AD130-202) described it in these terms: ‘On those who stand aloof from him, [God] inflicts the separation which they have chosen for themselves. But separation from God is death; and separation from light is darkness. Separation from God is the loss of all good that there is with God. Besides the loss of all good they incur the infliction of all punishment. And as the good that is with God is eternal, so its loss is eternal, and without end’.
These, then, are the basic building blocks of Christian doctrine, from which rises our confidence and future hope. These are the elementary teachings about Christ. They should be a warning to us to stand and a motivation to know and share our faith. Then having laid these foundations we must move on to maturity - and ‘God permitting we will do so’ (Heb 6:3).
The Rev Kevin Jones is a minister in St Peter, Jersey.
Headline Spring 2004 pp12-14.