Warning: Mature in Christ or Perish as Enemies
Topic: Perseverance of the Saints Passage: Hebrews 5:11–6:12
11 About this we have much to say, and it’s hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. 9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Moving Out of Sluggishness
Let’s say you were a coach. Your team needs a few players. Among the qualities you’d want, I doubt sluggish would be one of them. To be sluggish is to lose the game. Or, let’s say you own a business. Sluggishness means losing profits. Or, let’s say you go to work as usual. Lots to accomplish before Friday. One of the last things you’d want to be is sluggish. You’d lose your job. If you’re a runner, you know that sluggishness will mean 5K-to-couch and not the other way around.
We encounter the word sluggish in our passage. But it doesn’t mean losing the game, losing your job, losing a race. Far more seriously, it means losing your soul. God has spoken a word in his Son. To become sluggish in hearing that word puts your soul at risk of eternal judgment. We’ve reached another warning passage. We’re covering 5:11 all the way to 6:12. The concern in verse 11 is that the church has become dull, or sluggish, in hearing. Then by the time we reach 6:12 we see the purpose: “so that you may not be sluggish…” The word “sluggish” brackets this section. The whole point is to move us out of it and into earnest faithfulness.
Remember, we’re dealing here with a group of Jewish Christians wavering in their commitment to Jesus. Part of that is due to persecution. But the other part is due to their own passivity. We’re getting some of that here. In fact, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the passivity was connected to the persecution—especially if Jews were persecuting them. You could imagine them wrestling, “Why keep suffering? Wouldn’t our old ways in Judaism be easier? Didn’t God speak in the old covenant as well? Let’s go back to Judaism. It’s got some things in common with Christianity anyway.”
So instead of maturing in the gospel of Jesus, they become passive to it. They grow sluggish in their hearing of it. They slowly drift away. This warning is a wakeup call—that to grow sluggish in hearing the gospel is to risk destroying your soul. To keep that from happening, he makes four moves in his pastoral care.
1. He confronts the problem of sluggish immaturity.
First, he confronts the problem of sluggish immaturity. He just introduced Jesus being a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. We’re prepared to hear what that means. But that’s not where he goes. Instead, he shocks them with an alarming problem:
About this we have much to say, and it’s hard to explain, since you have become dull/sluggish of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
The problem is a kind of immaturity that results from becoming sluggish in hearing. In particular, they’ve become sluggish in hearing “the word of righteousness”—verse 13. Now, “the word of righteousness” could be understood a number of ways. Some have equated it with “the oracles of God” in verse 12. Others as the moral teachings of Christianity. Others as the word about Christ’s righteousness for us.
Maybe so. But I take “the word of righteousness” to be the gospel of the new covenant in Christ. Let me explain it this way. We already know that these Christians are on the brink of reverting to their old ways in Judaism. We also know that the major thrust of Hebrews is to keep them from doing that by revealing the glories of Christ in the new covenant. So constantly Hebrews stresses the inferiority of the old covenant and how it’s brought to its perfection/maturity in the new.
In other words, to revert to the old covenant is like moving backwards in maturity. Not that it’s no longer important, but that it had a goal in Christ; and they’re ignoring the message about Christ and the righteousness that came in him. So there’s a contrast. The child still needs milk; and that milk consists of the basic principles of the oracles of God. Galatians 4:3 uses the same word to describe the law in its various limitations and inferiority to what has now come in Christ.
By contrast there’s the mature, the adult, who feeds on solid food. And that solid food is the word of righteousness or the gospel that has come in Christ. It’s the fulfillment of the oracles of God under the old covenant. So don’t think in terms of shallow verses deep theology. Think in terms of shadows versus the substance in Christ. The substance has come, but they’re growing more and more content with mere shadows. The epic has been completed; they’re still playing with their ABCs.
Even worse, they’ve become really happy with the ABCs and turned a dull ear to the gospel. They know the gospel—2:4 even said God even confirmed the gospel by signs and wonders and various miracles. But over time, they’ve slipped away from treasuring the importance of that gospel. Several years have passed. By this time, he says, they should’ve been teachers of the gospel. But now they need someone to rehash the beginning elements that preceded the gospel.
He’s not shaming them merely for not knowing. He’s shaming them because of what they did know already and how much time has passed with no growth, no maturity, no skills to discern good from evil. Melchizedek isn’t hard to explain because God’s word is too complicated. It’s hard to explain because they’ve lost interest in Jesus.
The problem is moral, not intellectual. They haven’t wanted to learn more. To learn more about Jesus would require more of them. To learn more would mean serious changes in their choices. To learn more would mean more persecution. Have you ever been reluctant to learn more about Jesus because you’ve wanted to keep living another way instead? The result is immaturity. That’s happening here. They ought to be adults feasting on the new covenant. But they’re still children toying with the old.
2. He exhorts them to earnest maturity in Christ.
At the end, we’ll circle back to a very practical lesson. But for now, let’s observe another move in his pastoral care. Next, he exhorts them to earnest maturity. Notice how the “we” versus “you” now becomes “let us go on to maturity.” In other words, he meets them where they’re at, even if by way of sharp rebuke. Then he takes them by the arm and says, “Alright, come with me. Let us…” Verse 1,
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.
What does he mean, here, about leaving the elementary doctrine of Christ and then giving us a smattering of examples? Many take this as describing basic Christianity, the entry-level stuff. That he’s not saying to leave them altogether but to build on them and go deeper in Christian doctrine. That has some merit.
The difficulty is that it doesn’t adequately explain the instruction about washings and the laying on of hands. That becomes even more apparent when “washings” also appears in 9:10. And there he’s talking about “food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” He’s talking about the various cleansing rites under the old covenant imposed until Christ.
So here’s what I think is happening, and you can test this yourself. These Christians have begun to reduce their Christianity to the things it could broadly hold in common with Judaism. There’s nothing distinctly Christian about the list. All of these things—repentance from dead works, faith in God, washings, laying on of hands, resurrection, judgment—they were all taught under the old covenant.
This has become an easy way for them to escape persecution—“I’ll just reduce my Christianity to what it holds in common with my Jewish persecutors. After all, didn’t God reveal them in the first place? You teach repentance and faith in God? So do we? You have various kinds of washings? We have baptism. You lay hands on priests and kings? We lay hands on missionaries and sick people. We teach resurrection and judgment too.” By doing this, though, they ignore the greatness of the new covenant and shy away from explicitly proclaiming Christ in the face of opposition.
You may ask, “Well, then, what’s the point of him calling these things the doctrine of Christ?” I think he means it in the sense of all these basic, elementary things under the old covenant were pointers to the Christ, that is, the Messiah. They were about him all along; and now that he’s come “what are you doing reducing your message to exclude him?!” In other words, they’re compromising the gospel by reducing it. They’re staying immature by feeding on shadows when the substance has come.
Therefore, let us leave these elementary things. They had their place. Now let’s be taken forward to maturity under the new and better covenant… “The foundation has been laid. Let’s get on with the masterpiece, by golly.” So he’s ready to take them there. He’s ready to get them feasting on the new covenant in Christ.
3. He warns that eternal judgment awaits those who fall away from Christ.
At the same time, he knows that if there’s to be any change at all, it will be God’s doing. Verse 3, “and this we will do, if God permits.” You mean God might not permit them to go on to maturity? Yes. There are some people who will grow so sluggish in hearing the gospel that God will refuse to mature them. Instead, he will judge them as enemies. That’s the next move in his pastoral care: he warns that eternal judgment awaits those who fall away from Christ. Verse 4…
For it’s impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who 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, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
Whoa! What does that mean? Some have argued that he’s describing a loss of rewards. But this warning comes alongside others that form a coherent whole. The falling away means: “falling away from the living God” (Heb 3:12); “failing to enter God’s rest” (Heb 4:1); a “fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:27). This is no loss of rewards. It’s eternal judgment.
Others have argued that he’s describing genuine Christians, and verses 4-8 imply they can lose their salvation. However, several observations keep me from going there as well. Some come from Romans 8 and John 6 and Philippians 1 and Revelation 13; but the main ones come from Hebrews itself.
3:6 and 14 taught us how to think about this. Remember how he puts it there? “We are [God’s] house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence.” Then he reiterates the same point in 3:14. “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” It seems best to read verse 6 and verse 14 as evidence-to-inference conditions. Not cause-to-effect conditions but evidence-to-inference conditions. If she has a ring on her left hand, then she’s married.[i] Having the ring doesn’t cause her to be married. It’s the evidence that she’s married.
So also here: holding fast is the evidence that we belong to God’s house. Holding fast is the evidence that we’ve come to share in Christ. Point being, true Christians will persevere. A faith that doesn’t endure isn’t a true faith. The proof that we are genuine is seen in perseverance.
That’s the point of the land illustration in verses 7-8. You have two different kinds of land. Both receive the same rains. But the evidence of their true state comes in what they produce. One produces a useful crop. The other bears thorns and thistles. Point being: only one land represents true believers, the land that bears good fruit. The other represents those who receive the same rain, the same experiences, but remain cursed.
So the way I’m reading the warning is like this. There are people who experience many of the same things a genuine Christian may experience, and eventually decide to reject Jesus. Many can be enlightened—and according to 10:32 it seems to mean coming to know the gospel. Many can taste the heavenly gift—in Hebrews that means they grasp the heavenly realities coming to fruition in the new age. Many can even share in the Holy Spirit—in some sense they know his power and presence. Many can taste the goodness of God’s word and the powers of the age to come—these folks witnessed the signs and wonders and various miracles.
And yet that doesn’t mean they truly belong to God. These people are like the first three soils in Jesus’ parable. In fact, they sound a whole lot like the second soil: they receive the word with joy, “yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” They are the ones in 1 John 2:19, who went out from us but were not truly of us. They are like Judas—he was numbered among the apostles; he performed miracles by the Spirit for crying out loud. And yet he walked away an enemy.
Likewise, some may experience many of the same realities of the new age in Christ, and yet prove to be enemies in the end. That’s what he means by “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” When Josh Harris and Derek Webb and others like them walk away from Jesus, what they’re actually saying is that Jesus deserved what he got. The falling away here isn’t merely stumbling into sin only to then feel broken and seek God’s forgiveness. Nor is straying for a time only to repent later and return to his mercy. Falling away is more so, “I don’t find Jesus all that compelling anymore.” Falling away is truly knowing who he is, truly grasping what his cross accomplished, and then saying, “You’re not worth my time anymore.”
That’s the attitude here. In other words, there comes a point for that person when it’s impossible to restore them again to repentance. Meaning, God won’t do it. The point isn’t that he can’t do it—all things are possible with God. The point is that he won’t do it. That’s the warning. And it ought to strike fear in all of us.
There’s not a professing Christian in this room who can’t identify with every one of these experiences. The question is have you become sluggish in hearing the gospel of Jesus? Have you been a Christian for a long time and not matured in Christ, not grown up into adulthood, not gotten to a place where you can teach others the glories of Christ? If that’s you, then wake up! You’re putting yourself at risk. You’re at risk of destroying your soul with those who despise Christ and belittle his sacrifice.
Don’t blow this off. Don’t treat it lightly. The Bible gives no assurance to people who cease chasing hard after Jesus. Heed the warning. Evaluate your pursuit of Christ. Evaluate whether you’ve grown sluggish in hearing.
4. He reassures them of better things.
One more move in his pastoral care: he reassures them of better things. Verse 9, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.” Notice the shift in pronouns. In 6:4 it was, “it’s impossible in the case of those…” Now verse 9: “yet in your case, beloved.” He’s quite hopeful they don’t belong to the other group.
“In your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do…” Wow! What encouragement after such a stark warning! He’s certain of better things. He sees the fruit of their life. They’re not like the field bearing thorns and thistles. They’re producing a good crop. They work and love to spread God’s name. They serve the saints faithfully.
And God sees it all. One of the hardest parts in Christian service is that many times it goes overlooked. You love and sacrifice and spend yourself for others with no thank you, no immediate pay-off, no visible results...sometimes for years. And we’re tempted in those moments to just quit—“Why bother if it doesn’t seem to matter?”
But the Holy Spirit says it does matter. It matters in the most significant way. God notices. God is just. God will reward. God will not only be just to judge his enemies. He will also be just to reward those who live for his name. Do you know why? Because God loves his name. He’s committed to his name. If you’re committed to his name, he’s committed to you. There’s no greater name to live for. So he’s committed to rewarding whoever works and loves and serves to make his name great.
Which means…don’t stray away from serving him fully, wholeheartedly, zealously! Keep serving and working and loving for his name’s sake. In that light, he then closes this way: “And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness…” Each one of you. Not just the elders. Not just the deacons and their wives. Not just the care group leaders. Each one of you show the same earnestness “…to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
What’s the goal of his pastoral care? To compel them out of sluggishness, out of immaturity, out of childish ways, and into earnest, faithful, patient obedience. Why? Because sweet and awesome promises await those who persevere. For those who endure, an unbelievable inheritance awaits them. More on that next week.
If you’re considering leaving Jesus, heed the warning.
For now, I’d like to close with a few ways this passage should impact us. One, if you are contemplating leaving Jesus—if you’re not very impressed with Jesus anymore, please hear this warning: “It is impossible, in the case of those who know and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance.” Don’t think, “I’m not so sure about this Jesus stuff anymore. I think I’ll try something else for a while, and then I’ll come back later if those other things prove to be rotten; and he’ll forgive me.”
Don’t be so confident in that. Many others have said the same things, never to return to him again. Esau will become an example later in Hebrews 10—he found no place for repentance after walking away. Moreover, God will not tolerate you spitting in his Son’s face and belittling his sacrifice.
Jesus was crucified not because he deserved it. He hung with shame on the cross not because he deserved to be held in contempt. He bled and died, because that’s what you deserve for your sins. That’s what we deserve for defaming God’s name. Don’t hold Jesus Christ, the righteous one, up to contempt by walking away. He’s crowned with glory and might. He’s coming again to judge. He’s worthy of all your worship.
Some of you may worry that you may have already taken that step. That you’ve gone too far. If there’s any since of conviction right now, you’re not too far. Today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your heart. Return to the Lord.
Plead for maturity in the gospel and pursue it with vigor.
For those of you who’ve grown sluggish in hearing the gospel—let’s move on to maturity. A number of you have been Christians for a long while now. By this time you ought to be teachers. But there’s been little growth. Little interest. Excuses about busyness. Excuses about study just “not being your thing.”
Listen, the expectation isn’t that you all serve in a leadership position. But the expectation is that you’re at least able to instruct one another in the gospel. That’s actually a sign of a healthy church, you know? In Romans 15:14 Paul says, “I myself am satisfied about you…that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” Is that you? If not, why?
Have you grown sluggish in hearing the gospel? Are there things you know you should learn about Jesus but haven’t wanted to learn about Jesus, because it would mean changing your life? Changing your friends? Changing your job? Changing your patterns at home? Maturing in ways that may bring persecution and discomfort?
Or perhaps you’ve found some way to reduce your Christianity to what it holds in common with the world. Have you settled into childish ways and become so used to them that they’re the new normal? Or maybe worse, have you started making fun of all the “serious Christians” to give yourself a way out?
Watch out, beloved. You’re in danger of falling away with the others. It’s not enough just to benefit from hearing; we must also press on to such a maturity that we’re able to teach others. Feast on the solid food of the gospel of Christ. Feast on the glories of the new covenant. We’re talking about the Lord of the universe—getting to know him, beholding his worth, understanding his power, his salvation, his plans, your identity in him. And then plead with the Lord to mature you. Ultimately, it’s his work. Pray that none of us grows sluggish in hearing, but all reach maturity in the Savior.
Imitate the Spirit’s counsel and care in Hebrews.
Next, imitate the Spirit’s counsel and care in Hebrews. This is a good pattern for encouraging saints out of their laziness. He helps them see the problem. He doesn’t fear the confrontation. Then he exhorts them to join him in maturing. He doesn’t come with an attitude of, “Well, you need to do…” It’s “Let us…” “Come on! I’m with you in this! The food is better at Jesus’ table. Let’s go together!”
Then he also warns them. Too often we’re afraid of warning people. It does take discernment on when to warn. But it needs to be present in our counseling—and especially when people are wondering away from Jesus. To shy away from the warnings in Scripture is to say we know how to keep the church persevering better than God does. Not true. Embrace the warnings as God’s means to keep us.
At the same time, don’t neglect assurance where that’s appropriate. He gives no assurance of salvation to the people falling away. But for those who are persevering in good works and love and serving the saints, he has words of assurance. “We feel sure of better things, beloved, things belonging to salvation.” Encourage one another when you see good fruit. Isn’t it encouraging when someone says, “Bro, the Lord really used you to strengthen me the other day. Sister, you said you were struggling with this a while back, but I’ve seen the Lord mature you in your love for his people.”
Take heart, God sees your works and love for his name.
Finally, a word to those who’ve been laboring in love for a long while now, but seen little results in your ministry, in your relationship, in your evangelism, in your service of the church, in your parenting. Some of you labor hard to see your care group members maturing in the gospel, but some days you wonder if anybody really cares. Some of you ladies pray together regularly for the church. Others of you serve behind the scenes. Rarely do you hear a “Thank You!”
I hope you’re strengthened by verse 10 today: “For God is not unjust to overlook your work and the love you have shown for his name in serving the saints.” God sees you. God is just. He will reward you accordingly and not forget your service. To the one who endures, he will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. To the one who endures, he will give the crown of life; he will make you a pillar in God’s temple; he will grant you to sit with him on his throne, just as he conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne. Stay faithful. Keep serving. The inheritance is ours.
[i] Wilson, “Revisited,” 259.
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