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We are at Risk! (Hebrews 5:11-6:20)

We Are At Risk!
Hebrews 5:11-6:20

Minister’s Summary
: The original recipients/hearers of this message were in a situation of challenge that put them at risk for their faithfulness to Jesus. The danger of falling away from him is made clear – against a background of confidence in the readers/hearers of this exhortation.

Teaching Material

Every parent must decide when to move his or her child from milk to solid food. Infants who have no teeth are not able to digest solid food, and therefore they draw their strength from milk alone. However, there comes a point in the life of newborns when they must be fed with solid food in order to remain healthy. An adult cannot live on milk alone, and the child who receives only milk will never become an adult.

The preacher takes up this imagery in Hebrews 5:11-14. New converts are infants in Christ, and they need milk since they are incapable of digesting meat. However, there comes a time when each child of God is expected to become an adult. As adults they are expected to digest the meat of the word. This does not mean that they no longer need the milk, but rather that they must build on the foundation of the milk with meat. Apparently, these believers had failed to grow as is expected, and this is what the preacher rebukes. They are Christians who had embraced the faith, but who had remained immature in their understanding of it. Consequently, they were on the verge of losing what faith they already had.

Exegetical Notes

I have divided this section into four parts. The preacher identifies the problem (5:11-14), and then exhorts his hearers to move beyond the milk of the Word as he calls them to maturity (6:1-3). He follows this exhortation with a warning and an encouraging word about how he expects that they will grow (6:4-12). Lastly, the preacher recalls the ground of this confidence and the foundation for growth—it is the faithfulness of God (6:13-20).

1. Hebrews 5:11-14.

The preacher’s audience was spiritually immature. They were still babes who needed milk rather than adults who consumed solid food (5:12). The roots of this problem are two-fold. First, he complains that these Christians had "become dull of hearing" (5:11). Instead of progressing in their faith, they had regressed. They had declined in health rather than growing into maturity. Their "dullness" reflects a mental or intellectual obtuseness that renders them slow, lazy or sluggish. They had become hard of hearing due to spiritual laziness. The preacher’s inability to explain the ground of their faith adequately was not due to the difficulty of the material or the ineptitude of the instructor. Rather, it is the result of their spiritual laziness that prefers milk to meat.

The second problem is the improper use of time. The preacher thinks that sufficient time has passed that they "ought" to have become teachers (5:12). This "oughtness" here implies normality, that is, this is what should have been expected of everyone who grows in Christ. Yet, because of their regression, not only are they not teachers, but they have a need to be re-taught themselves. They had regressed. They had so misused their time that they needed to be re-taught the elementary principles. The word "principle" is literally the "beginning," and the term "elementary" refers to the rudiments or basics of a thing. The rudiment of any language is the alphabet. These disciples needed to relearn their Christian ABCs.

It is important to note the contrast between teachers and those who are need teaching. This is the preacher’s “theory of education”: milk belongs to babes, but solid food belongs to the mature (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:2). Milk is the only food for an infant without teeth. The point is clear: those who still need milk have not grown into maturity. The result of this condition means that they are unskilled to or "not accustomed to" the word of righteousness (5:13). The Greek term can have the sense of "inexperienced in" or "unacquainted with." The "word of righteousness" is unknown to them. It is unfamiliar territory. This is the heartbeat of the reader's problem because, in the context of Hebrews (note the "concerning him" in verse 11), the content of this "word of righteousness" refers to Christ's priestly work. This word (or doctrine) belongs or pertains to righteousness, that is, the means of our being accounted righteous in the sight of God (justification; cf. 10:38; 11:7). This is the basis of our boldness before God. Without this boldness there is no capacity to endure since it is the understanding of this "word of righteousness" that provides steadfastness and assurance. It is this "word of righteousness" which the preacher cannot explain effectively because they are "dull of hearing" (5:11).

The apprehension of this “word” belongs to the mature, or those of full age (5:14). It is solid food. This is the goal of the Christian believer: maturation in the faith. The term for "mature" is a common Greek term, which refers to perfection, completion or maturity. It is not ethical perfectionism. Rather, the mature Christian is the disciplined and instructed believer. The mature are those "who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil." This is athletic terminology. But constant practice and training athletes are able to accomplish their goals. The believer, however, does not emphasize the training of the body, but of the "senses." This Greek noun is a technical philosophical term for the faculty of perception, that is, the ability or capacity to make moral decisions. A well-trained moral sense, then, is able "to discern good and evil" (5:14). We derive our English term diacritical from the verb “discern” (as in "diacritical markings). It means to judge through, discriminate, and differentiate or to divide between. The practice of moral discrimination is a sign of maturity.

The preacher's theory of Christian development is clear. Infants need to be taught the elementary principles of the gospel (milk), and the mature need to be taught the word of righteousness (the priestly work of Christ). The following chart illustrates this “theory”:

The text contains a series of contrasts. “First Principles” in contrast with “Word of Righteousness." Infants in contrast with Adults (mature). Milk in contrast with Solid Food. Those to Be Taught in contrast with those who Teach. These contrasts are important. The preacher will not rebuild the foundation they should already have (i.e., the first principles, 6:1-3). Rather, he is going to proceed with his topic (i.e., the word of righteousness, 7:1-10:18). This will push the disciples on to maturity or perfection (6:1).

2. Hebrews 6:1-3.

The preacher exhorts them to grow into the maturity of Christ (“let us press on to maturity…”). The term "maturity" in 6:1 is from the same root as the word "mature" in 5:14. These Christians are not yet mature, but the preacher encourages them to pursue that goal. Literally, the text reads, "let us be carried forward to maturity." The passivity of the verb indicates that it is God who will ultimately grant maturity if we will yield ourselves to his influence and teaching. Maturity is only reached as God carries us there. Of course this does not mean that we lack responsibility for failure. If we fail to grow it is our fault because God is willing to carry us. We are able, by the misuse of time and dullness of hearing, to thwart God's gracious aid and help.

While maturity is the goal, the "elementary teaching about Christ" is the foundation. The preacher encourages them to "leave it behind" only in the sense of placing it under themselves. He is not encouraging them to forsake it. On the contrary, the "elementary" or "beginning" (same word as in 5:12) teaching of Christ is the foundation for growth in Christ. This beginning word (the Greek noun is literally "word" in 6:1) is contrasted with the meaty word of righteousness in 5:13. The former is the mode of initial conversion (milk), and the other is the means of progressive sanctification and growth in Christ. This fundamental teaching is not a reference to the Mosaic system, as some would argue, but a reference to that beginning word which forms the basis or foundation of Christianity. They are teachings "about" or "of" Christ. Consequently, they are Christian teachings, not Jewish.

The "beginning word which belongs to Christ" consists in six particulars, which are listed in 6:1b-2. Before discussing each of these, it is significant that the preacher considers these six as the foundation of Christian experience. The preacher is not going to take the time to re-teach them about the first, beginning or basic principles of their conversion. On the contrary, he wants to build on that foundation instead of re-laying it. These six items, then, belong to the context of Christian initiation or the initial conversion experience. As support for this view, it is striking that the list of six items lacks any reference to sanctification and growth.

The structure of the six is indicated by the use of the conjunction "and.” Literally, the text reads: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, teachings about baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment. Repentance and faith are the broad, comprehensive descriptions of conversion, but the preacher particularizes the specific teachings (doctrines) that are important for understanding conversion: baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment.

We may structure the list in this fashion:

Comprehensively: repentance and faith.

Specific Comprehension these doctrines:

(1) Baptisms
(2) Laying on of hands.
(3) Resurrection.
(4) Judgment.

"Repentance from dead works" is not a reference to the dead works of the Old Testament (i.e. sacrifices), but to sin (cf. 9:14 where dead works stands in contrast to serving God). "Faith towards God" refers to that saving, obedient faith illustrated in Hebrews 11. "Baptisms" ("washings," NASV) is a specific reference to the act of immersion itself without any implication concerning its meaning. The reference is to the necessity of understanding the difference between Jewish (cf. Hebrew 9:10 for the use of “baptism” in the Jewish context), Pagan and Christian immersions. "Laying on of hands" is closely joined to "baptisms" in the Greek text by a small grammatical particle. This means that the two should be understood together (the same is true of resurrection and judgment). In the OT and Judaism the "laying on of hands" was a sign of blessing (cf. Gen. 48:14ff). Consequently, it used variously in the New Testament as a symbol of the blessing of miraculous healing (Matthew 9:18), the bestowal of a miraculous gift (Acts 8:18), the bestowal of the blessing of ministry (Acts 13:3; I Tim. 4:14). Blessing or the Holy Spirit is associated with the baptismal moment. Through baptism we became partakers of the heavenly calling and shared in the reality of the Spirit. "Resurrection" does not refer to Christ's resurrection, but to our future resurrection. "Eternal judgment" is again a future reference.

These six items, then, form the foundation of the Christian conversion experience. Faith and repentance involve an understanding of baptism, the blessing of salvation, resurrection from the dead and the eternal judgment. These points are the foundation for maturity. They are the starting-point of the Christian life. From this basis, Paul encourages his readers to growth (6:3): "and this we shall do, if God permits." The antecedent of the verb "do" is "go on to maturity" in 6:1. If God wills or permits (cf. I Corinthians 16:7), the preacher expects his readers to grow into mature disciples. There are, however, some who cannot progress because they have fallen away (6:4-8). But the preacher encourages his readers to progress in the faith rather than continue their regression and backsliding which leads to apostasy (6:9-12).

3. Hebrews 6:4-12.

Though the preacher is disappointed with their present state of spiritual immaturity, he has not given up on them. He retains the hope and expectation that they will press forward in their maturing process. Hebrews 6:4-8 suggests that if they do not reverse their downward spiral, they will fall into an apostate condition. It is possible, the preacher testifies, that as infants in Christ you could fall away from the one who redeemed you from your sins. It is possible that you could crucify the Son of God again. If your Christian life yields thorns and thistles rather than fruitful vegetation, it is a worthless and cursed life. However, though this is a possibility, the preacher does not expect it concerning these Christians. Tactfully, the preacher does not leave his readers with a negative exhortation. On the contrary, he reassures them of his positive attitude toward them and their possibilities of faith.

[For more on Hebrews 6:4-6, read the “excursus on Hebrews 6:4-6” below.]

First, he expresses his confidence in their future spiritual life. In contrast to what he has previously warned, he is convinced that the things which accompany salvation will manifest themselves in their lives (6:9). He uses a term of endearment in addressing his audience: "beloved" (the only place where it occurs in Hebrews). The preacher softens his criticism by reassuring his hearers of his genuine affection for them. He does not yet classify his readers among the apostates even though they have regressed to the point that they need to be re-taught the fundamentals of the faith.

The word the preacher uses to express his confidence is a common one. It has several meanings, including "to be persuaded, be sure, certain, convinced and confident." He uses the word again in 13:18 in reference to his certainty that he has a good conscience. The preacher is firmly persuaded that these Christians will pursue "better things" than the possible apostasy, which he presented in 6:4-8. He expects them to grow up in Christ rather than be disinherited by falling away, and as they grow up they will come to possess those things, which "accompany salvation." Literally, the text reads: "having the things of salvation." There are certain things that belong to or accompany salvation. The meaning is that the things that “belong to” salvation will also enrich one who progresses in Christ and possess salvation. As we grow in Christ and are able to receive instruction about the "word of righteousness," we will be persuaded and confident about our salvation. Assurance is not some fleeting goal that no one can obtain. On the contrary, it is one of those things which belong to salvation itself. A by-product of salvation is boldness, and a confident expectation of receiving the fulfillment of our hope (6:11).

Second, the preacher’s confidence is based upon his knowledge of their past and present service to God (6:10). There is joy in the knowledge that God does not forget our work and love. This does not, as some have argued, mean that God gives rewards for good works as if our good deeds place God under obligation to us. Our works are never meritorious. They do not make a claim on God. The preacher is not addressing the cause or merit of our salvation, but its fruit. The fruit of salvation is the rendering of service to God. God does not forget our work and love in the sense that he counts us as faithful that serve and love him. These Christians, as is clear from the last part of verse 10, not only in the past, but even in the present continue to serve God by ministering to the saints. God does not regard these Christians as apostates, but as servants in his vineyard.

Third, the preacher encourages them to press on to full assurance (6:12). The term "desire" indicates his personal, passionate concern that these believers grow. The word implies an intense yearning. It literally means "to lust." And this desire is for each individual. Each one is expected to show the "same diligence" toward assurance, that is, to show the kind of diligence that they showed in the beginning before they became sluggish (5:11). This is a constant process of growth. As our hope, faith and understanding growth, so does our assurance and certainty about our salvation. Yet, it requires a diligence "until the end." The "end" is probably the inheritance of the blessing of eternal redemption (6:12).

The reason for this diligence is so that these Christians might escape the sluggishness in which they are now embroiled (5:11). Dullness of hearing leads to a dullness of life. If they are only fed milk, they cannot make the progress that only comes through eating meat. Instead of being sluggish or lazy, the preacher encourages them to be imitators of those faithful forefathers who have gone before. "Imitators" translates a Greek verb from which we derive the English verb "mimic" (to act as another). The confidence that comes from the examples of others is unimaginable (cf. Hebrews 11). Since they reached their goal and inherited the promises through faith and patience (endurance), then let us imitate them. The preacher underscores this confidence and assurance by picturing our inheritance in the present tense. As sons of God, we are even now in the process of receiving our inheritance. The reception of that inheritance is so certain that he speaks of it in the present. It is as if we already possess it. That is how certain we ought to be concerning the promises of God.

4. Hebrews 6:13-20.

Growth and assurance have an interestingly reciprocal relationship. The more we grow in Christ, the more assured we are. The more assured we are, the more we grow. It is because of this reciprocal relationship that the preacher now explains the nature of hope as the basis upon which he encourages his readers to be diligent in their growth. Confident in hope, they will be diligent in their service for the Lord.

The nature of hope is illustrated by the example of Abraham. God had sworn to Abraham that he would multiply his seed beyond the number of the stars in the sky and the sands on the seashore. Abraham never saw the fulfillment of that promise, but he did obtain the promise (6:15). In what sense did Abraham receive the fulfillment of the promise? In one sense, he received it in the person of Isaac. He had patiently waited for the birth of this promised son, and it was through him that God would multiply Abraham's seed. In effect, then, when Isaac was born, he had received the promise because the presence of Isaac assured him of the future fulfillment of the promise itself. The future blessings were so sure that it was as if he already possessed them in Isaac.

The certainty of this promise rested upon two immutable factors. First, God had sworn by his own nature. As the preacher acknowledges in 6:17, when people make a promise they guarantee it by swearing their faithfulness by something greater than themselves. But when God wants to show his reliability, he cannot swear by anything greater than himself, and consequently he swears by his own nature. God has "interposed with an oath" his promises (6:17). God has sworn to a thing, and he cannot change that oath.

Second, God has an immutable counsel. The Greek term for "counsel" refers to a legal contract that is incapable of reversal or annulment. As if the word itself were enough to convey the certainty of his promise, the preacher adds the word "immutable" (unchangeable). It is part of God's nature that when he decides to make a promise, or to make a covenant, he cannot reverse himself. God will keep his promises. Since it is impossible for God to lie, the believer can be certain of his hope as if he already possessed the thing for which he hopes.

The knowledge of God's oath and counsel is a strong confirmation of our hope. Hope, in the context of trial and persecution, has become a refuge for these early Christians. They "fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us" (6:18). Hope is our aide and comfort that we seize. The phrase "laying hold of" translates a word that means to take into one's own possession, to seize or, in legal contexts, to arrest. This hope is set before us as the finish line is set before the participants in a race. It is the prize of victory. While we may not now actually possess that for which we hope, we have the certain expectation of receiving it. Hope, therefore, is not wishful thinking. It is an anchor for the soul. This confidence, however, is based upon understanding that Jesus, as our High Priest, has already entered into heaven for us. As surely as Jesus continues his priestly work for us in heaven, so we are certain that one day we will join him there. Our hope, then, presupposes that we understand Christ's work for us. He has preceded us only to insure our ultimate entrance into the presence of God with him.

Theological Substance

All Christians are at different stages of growth and development. There are newborn babes who need milk. There are others who have reached different levels of maturity who need meat. In either case, all believers need to pursue the goal of maturity (6:1), and bear with others who have not yet reached their own level of maturity. It is only within this maturing process that a Christian becomes confident and assured about his hope and salvation. It is not a matter of becoming more saved now than one was before, but it is a growth in one's faith, hope and understanding. One is no more saved today than they were yesterday. Yet, there is a process of maturation which is able to grasp the assurance of faith better today than it did yesterday. It is this assurance and boldness that grounds the faith of believers against the social and theological pressures which often engulf them. This maturing process can only occur, however, in the context of eating meat. Thus, the preacher is about to offer some meat to his audience (7:1-10:19).

The substance of this text is about spiritual growth and maturity. The mature Christian eats solid food, is able to discern between good and evil, and bears fruit in service to the Lord. The immature Christian only drinks milk, is unable to discern between good and evil, and is fruitless in their ministry before the Lord. The mature Christian grows in confidence and assurance, but the immature Christian—especially one with a long history in the Christian community—is weak and uncertain.

The call to move on toward maturity is grounded in the faithfulness of God. It is grounded in God’s own oath, and this oath has been sworn in his Son as our high priest. The word the preacher’s audience needs to hear—the priestly work of Christ—is what will ground their assurance and future growth. Unfortunately, they are not ready to hear it because of their immaturity. Nevertheless, it is this “meat” or “solid food” which will bear the fruit of maturity if they will hear it.

God will move his community forward if that community will hear his Word and trust his grace. The community will bear the fruit of the “things that accompany salvation” as the redeemed community perseveres in faith and lives out that faith.

Excursus on Hebrews 6:4-6

The chart in Guthrie on p. 217 lays out the structure of this text quite well. It visualizes it for us.

Before discussing details, it is important to understand the function of this text. Its function is to warn that regression may be permanent. If we do not progress and mature in our faith, then we will stagnate and ultimately regress. Regression can lead to apostasy and to a condition where it is “impossible” to be renewed. Consequently, the text functions as a warning to idle and immature Christians. If they do not mature and build on the foundation of their faith, then they are in danger of losing everything.

I think Guthrie is correct to see this “impossibility” as linked with the rejection of Christ. It is parallel to what we will see in Hebrews 10:26ff. If we reject Christ, there is no other sacrifice for sin. If we reject Christ, it is “impossible” to find repentance because there is no one else to whom we can turn. Along with Guthrie (p. 220), I take the participle in Hebrews 6:6 as a temporal one, that is, it is impossible to renew an apostate to repentance as long as (or, while) they are rejecting Christ (crucifying the Son of God afresh). A casual sense is the majority view, that is, it is impossible to renew them because they have openly rejected Christ. And one way of understanding this is to say that the social pressure of an abandonment of Christianity made it impossible to win them back. It was a practical impossibility. Both would understand that renewal was possible for one who sought the Lord, but it was impossible for one who had rejected and continues to reject the Lord.

The more thorny issue is whether the descriptors in Hebrews 6:4-5 describe genuine, authentic Christians or whether they describe people who were loosely attached to the Christian walk and later fell away. Some would even say that the whole situation described in Hebrews 6:4-6 is hypothetical. It is a warning about something that could never really happen. My opinion squares with Guthrie’s summary of McKnight’s view on pages 228-29. I find Guthrie’s criticism of it quite shallow and fails to take the language for what it says.

I find Guthrie’s own position problematic because it means that the descriptors in Hebrews 6:4-5 do not describe authentic Christians. Yet, the very language is used to describe authentic Christians elsewhere in Hebrews (e.g., “enlightened” is used in Hebrews 6:4 and 10:32; “partakers” in 3:1 and 6:5).

However, I would suggest that our classes not get bogged down in this discussion. Rather, the point of the preacher is significant without deciding which “theory” lies behind the point. The point is that the Christian community has some within it who may leave it and we are warned against being one of them. The “theory” behind why they left (e.g., a Calvinist would say they left because they never were genuine believers, but others might say they left because they “lost their faith”) is unimportant and incidental to the point of the preacher.

The preacher encourages perseverance in faith, and the alternative is apostasy where there is no salvation. Some in the community have already left, and some others are in danger of leaving. The preacher is not concerned to develop a theory of apostasy, but to encourage the remaining believers to hang on to their confidence. Calvinists and Arminians (those who oppose Calvinism out of an evangelical, Protestant mode) can agree on this: only those who persevere in faith will be saved. Perseverance is the key, and on this Calvinist and Arminians can agree. And this is the point in our text.

Teaching Options

When we teach this section, it will be very easy to get bogged down into a discussion of Hebrews 6:4-6, especially issues ranging from “possibility of apostasy” to “is it impossible for an apostate to come back to Christ.” I prefer to keep the larger point in mind and not enter into a detailed discussion of the range of possible interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6. Otherwise, we will probably lose the point, as we get lost among the trees. It is better to see the whole forest rather than a few limbs on a particular tree.

I prefer to emphasize the contrast between maturity and immaturity and how this relates to assurance, confidence and perseverance. Growth means we are persevering, but immaturity is always in danger of apostasy. Consequently, I would prefer to concentrate on Hebrews 5:11-6:3 and 6:7-12. Hebrews 6:13-20 plays into this discussion as the ground of our hope, which is the faithfulness of God.

My lesson would probably look something like this. (1) Discussion of milk/meat; mature/immature. What does that look like? What is “milk” and “meat”? Can we give content to those ideas? The preacher gave us some of the content of milk in Hebrews 6:2-3. Does that look like milk to us? (2) Discussion of the Warning/Exhortation. Hebrews 6:4-8 is the warning, but Hebrews 6:9-12 is the exhortation. What is the content of both? How do each function? In particular, what specifics does the preacher bring to bear in his encouraging word (e.g., past examples, their past ministry, their present ministry, etc.)? (3) The Ground of Hope/Confidence. This is the faithfulness of God in Hebrews 6:13-20. What does it mean to say that hope is an “anchor”? How does it anchor our perseverance? How does the faithfulness of God (his oaths) make hope an anchor for us? In particular, what is the faithfulness of God to us now (e.g., is God action in his high priestly Son)?

Overall, we need to remember that the function of this text is to warn and encourage. It warns us about the danger of immaturity and apostasy. And yet it encourages us through the certainty of hope and our own experience of faith in ministry and among past leaders. It encourages the immature to hear the word of righteousness about the priesthood of Christ. It encourages the immature to hear the word and take confidence in the faithfulness of God expressed in the priesthood of Christ. The immature must grow or they will lose their way as they fail to persevere.


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