Hebrews 6:1–8 . . .
“Spiritual Maturity and Immaturity”
Instead of returning to basic doctrines after rebuking his readers in 5:11–14 (shown in Warren's commentary), the author next tells them to look at a more complicated doctrine. If his readers don't progress and mature in the Christian life, they'll revert to a state from which there's a discouraging hardness of heart that could prevent their repentance. If this happens, the Jewish Christians would suffer; they'd miss out on receiving and enjoying significant rewards when they stand in front of Christ's judgment seat.
Today's passage reveals how the author intended to handle readers' spiritual immaturity. Rather than moving on to mature faith, these early Jewish Christians were stuck in the rut of spiritual immaturity. The dangers of this will be explained herein. However, the author makes it clear that there's no value in re-teaching the basics. Moving forward is the only reasonable option. That is exactly what "Hebrews" offers and promotes.
Move Beyond the Elementary Teachings about Christ (6:1–3)
Verses 1 and 2 contain references to several doctrines, particularly those that would have led to conflict between early Christians and their Jewish neighbors. A recurring theme in "Hebrews" is the need to "hold fast to Christ," rather than fall back into an imperfect understanding of God. The purpose of Old Testament rituals, sacraments, the Law, and so forth, was a key distinction between the teachings of Judaism and the ministry of Christ.
The basic principles that the author asks his readers to "move beyond" consist of six specific matters that we find in these two verses: (v. 1) the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God; and (v. 2) instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. These six transitional truths began from Jewish beliefs and practices, particularly the Levitical system as unfolded in the Old Testament; they developed into a full sharing in Christ. All six truths represent the essential beginnings of Christian faith. They were also concepts that Judaism and Christianity interpreted differently. More than likely, these were areas where persecuted Jewish Christians were being pressured to return to Judaism.
It was necessary for those Jewish Christians to go from knowing these initial truths to experiencing that which draws upon Jesus' priestly ministry. Doing so would successfully enable students and disciples to transition from head knowledge to heart response. Such a fundamental foundation is similar to what Jesus and the apostles preached: namely, "repent and believe." Repentance is a permanent change of mind, resulting in right behavior. And faith is trusting in and turning to God. It's not enough to just turn away from our sin; we must turn to and place our faith in God. Repentance and faith go together!
6 1Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3And God permitting, we will do so (6:1–3).
Note that v. 1 begins with "Therefore" because it builds upon what the author had warned his readers about in 5:11–14. So the solution to their immaturity, complacency, laziness, and so on wasn't merely to provide them with more spiritual milk. He had to encourage, stimulate, and teach them the sound, solid truth of God's Word, which would allow them to mature in their spirituality. The exhortation in these three opening verses lies in the middle of v. 1: "let us be taken forward to maturity." We readers today are to "press on to spiritual maturity." A believer in Christ cannot remain an infant and take in only milk. The author’s solution wasn't to cater to the immaturity of his audience, but to forge ahead with the spiritual meat they needed for growth. He moved beyond elementary instruction to what should come next in their spiritual curriculum (vv. 1–3).
So after introducing the subject of Christ's high priestly ministry in the opening verses of chapter 5, the author refocuses on his hand-wringing exhortation and warning that fills 5:11–6:12. Regarding "the elementary teachings about Christ," this is suggestive of "ABCs" or basic principles. In effect, they're basic building blocks that must be built upon. And, regarding "maturity," the author insists that Christians, then and today, can and should develop a measurable maturity in their knowledge of Jesus. The ancient Greek teleiotes for "maturity" doesn't convey the impression of a complete knowledge; it asserts, however, a requisite maturity in the Christian faith.
Look at all six truths found in vv. 1 and 2 — (1) repentance; (2) faith; (3) baptisms; (4) laying on of hands; (5) resurrection of the dead; (6) eternal judgment. All were part of the orthodox Jewish community. Consequently, the author's Jewish-Christian audience, who devotedly followed existing Jewish beliefs and practices, felt it logical to follow such religious convictions as a foundation on which to build Christian truth. Unfortunately, they needed to appreciate a new and different all-Christian doctrine and practice.
Let's look closely at the phrase "instruction about cleansing rites." The author referenced the Laws of Moses in which various washings were required for spiritual cleanliness (cf. Exodus 30:18–19). If a person had been defiled in a certain way, he or she had to wash and cleanse the body, clothing, utensils, and so on, according to prescribed instructions. Such cleansing rituals symbolized God's required purity in his people that would separate them from defilement.
It's also important to note the context of this passage's "laying on of hands." For us, today, the act of laying on of hands often involves praying. But for those Jews living out the Law of Moses, "laying on of hands" happened when a person who'd brought an animal to be slaughtered as a sin-sacrifice laid his hand on its head and offered it to God.
Items five and six also need a little focus. The phrase "resurrection of the dead" had been taught implicitly and explicitly in the Old Testament, as promised in several Scriptures: Job 19:25–27; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2. And, item six, "eternal judgment," connects to resurrection because resurrection is followed by eternal judgment. The Old Testament talks about that coming judgment: Daniel anticipated its culmination in the coming of the Son of Man; throughout Isaiah and in Genesis 18:25 we see judgment.
The author hoped (v. 3) that by moving beyond the basics and pressing on to deeper ideas, readers would understand more fully. The written phrasing is welcoming: "God permitting, we will do so." Instead of floundering in simplistic immature faith, the author wanted to pull his readers into a more confident faith, not only through his dire warnings (vv. 4–6) but with promising encouragement, as seen in the remainder of this chapter.
These three opening verses are important in our interpreting the next passage. You can see that all six truths were basic issues of their Christian faith. A lack of understanding of them would open them up to false teachers, which is why the imagery of vv. 4–8 was essential to the Jewish Christians. It contrasts one's moving forward with a growing faith, versus indulging in a faith that's immature and unproductive.
Knowledge without Faith Is Dangerous! (vv. 4–6)
The need to press on is key when interpreting the meaning of vv. 4–8. The danger presented in the text is tied to the problem explained in chpt. 5 and addressed here: Spiritual immaturity leads to consequences that believers will do well to avoid. Again the author cites six relevant issues.
4It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace (6:4–6).
First of all, it's a delight to see the author's use of the word "taste" in vv. 4–5. The Old and New Testament exemplify the Word of God as being our food. It's possible that "those" who are referenced in the above passage had, after tasting and partaking of the Word, come very close to full faith but hadn't ever embraced the gospel personally. Seemingly, the kind of person who's described above is one who'd heard the gospel, witnessed and perhaps experienced its power, but hadn't come to faith; after experiencing the gospel up close and personally, he rejected it.
We find throughout chpt. 6 comments about concepts related to "falling away" and "repentance," both of which are extremely easy to misunderstand. To correctly grasp the complete and correct meaning of this text, we must see them in their original context. Many people today approach these verses superficially, presuming a warning about losing one's salvation. But, contextually, that's not likely the author's intention. The spiritually mature meaning of this text is very similar to the example given of Israel's failure at the Promised Land's border (chpts. 3 and 4). When Israel failed to show trusting faith, the nation was subjected to harsh judgment before being able to take their rightful place in Canaan. "Hebrews" warns its readers, then and today, not to make this same mistake but to retain a trusting faith in God.
It appears that the author deliberately attempted to make certain that his readers understood that he was referencing saved people in vv. 4–5. Nevertheless, he followed up by adding a falling-away reference in v. 6 because these Jewish Christians were accustomed to offering an additional blood sacrifice every time they sinned. For Christian's, Christ, the lamb of God, was blood-sacrificed one time only!
The Greek word translated "public disgrace" alludes to the crucifixion. This allusion to the brutal spectacle that took place as a preface to Roman executions to shame the criminal, is used here to shame his followers. The stunning substitution "the Son of God" for "Jesus" in v. 6's phrase "crucifying the Son of God" only intensifies that disgrace. With all the truth and light that God had given to his people with the ministry of the Spirit of God, they'd defiantly opposed God and treated him with contempt. Sadly, they agreed that Christ should have been crucified and that they'd do it again. For those Jews who wanted to continue with their Old Testament pattern of continually sinning then sacrificing, they needed to realize and accept the fact that there was only one means by which one could achieve a one-time, lasting atonement of blood-sacrifice: Christ.
If you apply Christ's sacrifice to the old pattern of repeated blood-sacrifices, rather than accept the New Covenant opportunity to achieve once-for-all sacrifice through Jesus, you'll never receive salvation. To sum up vv. 4–6: If you lost your salvation (of course, God's Word assures you that you can't), you could never be saved again because you'd have forsaken the only sacrifice the Lord God had provided for people to achieve eternal salvation. They must abandon their old mindset of sin, sacrifice, sin again, sacrifice again,… in lieu of the finished work that Christ did on the cross, once for all.
Falling Away Has Serious Consequences (vv. 7–8)
In our closing pair of verses, the point is made that those who've learned the basic truths of the gospel, yet have fallen away, find themselves in a precarious position.
7Land 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. 8But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned (6:7–8).
The well-used biblical image of two kinds of soil recalls the distinction that was highlighted in last week's commentary on "discerning good from evil" (5:14). Scriptures often remind us of the farmer’s skill of distinguishing between different soils in which the planted seed (i.e., God’s Word; Luke 8:4–15) either flourishes or fails. In this context, the "Land that drinks in the rain" (v. 7) alludes to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 11:11), while the cursed "land that produces thorns and thistles" (v. 8) alludes to fallen Eden (Gen. 3:17–18). Clearly, the fiery future of that pile of thorns and thistles culled from contaminated land evokes images of God’s final judgment (cf. Heb. 12:29).
Verses 7–8 reinforce the roll of good works in a believer's life. He or she is blessed by God as he or she serves him. You might see in v. 8 the suggestion of Christ's judgment seat (as depicted in 1 Corinthians 3:11–15), where believers' evaluated works on earth are sometimes penalized by destructive fire. Those who respond in faith receive a blessing from God; they produce a crop, experience his salvation, and go on with him. There's danger, however, for those who've tasted God's Word, experienced his blessings, but then fall away. Such is an apostate who defiantly rejects what has been revealed in Christ and reverts to an old system of laws and practices.
Pastor/teacher/elder Bob Deffinbaugh says this about the contrast and outcome of vv. 7–8: "Our author distinguishes the false believers from the true by using an agricultural illustration in these two verses. Within the church, there were two kinds of soil. Both soils received the benefit of the rains, but while one soil produced a crop, the other produced only thorns and thistles. The good soil receives God’s blessing, while the bad soil is in danger of being cursed, the worthless produce being fit only for the fire."
Like a field that bears just thorns, there's only one way to restore new growth: fire. Contextually, this doesn't apply to hell's consequences; it pertains to the cleansing fire of God's judgment of one's earthly life. In the same way, Israel was tested but not destroyed as it wandered in the desert for forty years. Our author's warnings are serious for us too: Salvation is offered, however, a time may come when we reject the gift of salvation for a final time; then we'll regretfully fall away and forsake such a future opportunity.
Who are those who'd fallen away? They were those who'd come close to the truth of the gospel and benefited from its truth but had chosen to reject the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to maintain the perceived benefits of the Old Covenant, as though it was superior to the New Covenant. These weren't believers who'd fallen away but were those who'd only come close to the truth, then reject it. Our text underscores the importance of confidence in our declaration of faith in the One in whom we've come to trust for eternal salvation. While our doubt undermines our confidence, our faith produces enduring confidence.
Chapter 6 expands on the dangers of a shallow, immature faith. Rather than attempting to re-explain the basics, the author intended to press on. Accordingly, shallow faith brings the risk of these three "D"s: doubt, discouragement, and disobedience. All three permit one's only hope for restoration to come at judgment, much as Israel experienced for forty years in the wilderness. Since our hope is anchored in the proven, unchanging, perfect, absolute nature of God, we should be confident and patient, rather than fearful.
In vv. 1–3 we find the author's answer to the problem posed at the end of chpt. 5: of not listening, not learning, not living on scripturally solid food that's provided to the mature who have to practice telling right from wrong. Because his readers were spiritually immature, they'd likely miss the deeper meanings that "Hebrews" meant to reveal. Here, however, the author resolved not to waste time on elementary teachings but instead pressed on to allow his audience to "catch up" and "mature" the best they could.
As shown in chpt. 6's first eight verses, Christians who wallow in a shallow, immature faith run the risk of "falling away." That's both the author's and God's warning to saved Christians of Jesus' day and us today: Those who allow doubt to produce disobedience don't just risk losing their rewards; they also put themselves in line for harsh, cleansing judgment from God whose fire and judgment on fallen Christians doesn't mean a loss of salvation. Rather, it means experiencing pain and suffering. Such a warning ought to prepare us to press on at fully and continually trusting and obeying our heavenly Father.
- Q. 1 What's wrong with this prolonged spiritual immaturity (vv. 4–6)?
- Q. 2 What's suggested by the agricultural analogy in vv. 7–8?
- Q. 3 When have you been spiritually complacent/lazy? What motivated you to press on?
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— Listen to chapter 6, narrated by Max McLean.